The year 2020 kicked off like a winner for Cheeseburger Baby. The Super Bowl, the Miami International Boat Show and the South Beach Wine and Food Festival were huge for the small Miami Beach business known for its tasty classic-style burgers and accompaniments that have served celebrities, residents, workers and tourists for two decades.
“2020 was going to be my year – it was 20 plus 20 and I was turning 40,” said business owner Stephanie Vitori. “I said this is it – it is going to be my year, and boy has it ever.”
The Covid-19 pandemic changed everything for this restaurant as it did for thousands of Miami area small businesses. Sadly, more than 4,000 Miami-area businesses have permanently or temporarily closed since March, according to Yelp.
Vitori is here to tell you: Still here.
Vitori, who started as a delivery driver, learned the ropes, and then purchased the restaurant in 2004, didn’t waste any time adapting to the new reality. She made business pivots to survive., with restaurant dining closed and events that fuel her food truck sales all canceled.
“My whole life is this business,” Vitori said. “I’m not going to just throw in the towel. I’m going to find a way.”
EMPLOYEE SAFETY COMES FIRST
At the original Miami Beach location at 1505 Washington Ave., the dining room is still closed. Today, there are four tables outside – 16 chairs – and the rest of the business is delivery and takeout. Even though the city now allows indoor dining, Vitori has chosen not to reopen.
“I still haven’t opened up my dining room and I’m not going to until there is a vaccine or this cools down. I’m not going to put my employees at risk. We opened it briefly at the beginning, when occupancy was capped at 25% or 30%, but people didn’t want to listen. I was playing mask police and I didn’t feel comfortable. I opened for 5 days and shut it down.”
Like a lot of restaurant businesses, Vitori has had to rely on takeout and deliveries; it used to be 30-40% of her business but is now it is more than 85%. That brings huge financial challenges because delivery apps charge 25% to 30% on every order. “It’s killing us,” she said. “I understand paying fees, but to charge us 30% during a pandemic, that’s crazy.”
Vitori worked to rally other restaurant owners to help her lobby the City of Miami Beach to cap the amount delivery apps can charge as other cities have done, and that’s an ongoing battle. She has had more success with the takeout and delivery hours, working closely with Commissioner Michael Gongora. Because Miami Beach is a 24-hour city, she eventually was able to convince the city to allow takeouts until midnight and deliveries to 5 am. The commissioner also helped to make available a program that provides some relief on the delivery fees.
COLLABORATION KEY TO SURVIVAL
As part of her survival plan, Vitori has looked for ways to collaborate and partner with other businesses. For instance, she learned that a neighborhood North Beach bar, Bob’s Your Uncle at 928 71st St., was struggling to find some menu items so it could sell alcohol, and she convinced the establishment to allow Cheeseburger Baby to take over their kitchen. That would be one less headache for them, check sizes would increase, customers would love the food, and it provides revenue for Cheeseburger Baby and work for employees. Vitori says the arrangement is going well. “We are both very happy to collaborate and come together in a time like this.”
She also convinced a landlord that was between tenants in northeast Miami to let her food truck stay on his property at 777 NE 79th St., paying rent and utilities, in the meantime. That’s also providing revenue. “It’s a popup that helps with the losses we are incurring,” she said.
Vitori has a second food truck that is undergoing maintenance but once it’s fixed she plans to find a stationary location for that one, too. While her food trucks are not pulling in anywhere near the revenue they did when they could drive from big event to big event, in this new normal they do provide small satellite locations. Vitori is looking for other small businesses or landlords she can collaborate with.
FLORIDA SBDC AT FIU PROVIDES GUIDANCE
Through it all, Vitori, a longtime client of Florida SBDC at FIU, relies on the small business development center’s consultants for guidance and advice. They also helped her apply for and receive a Florida Bridge Loan, an SBA EIDL Loan and a PPP loan. As a result, Vitori has not had to furlough or lay off any of her 16 employees, and she has provided employee bonuses because they make less in tips.
“I call the SBDC my first responders,” Vitori said. “They push you, and that gives you the strength to keep pushing.”
And she keeps pushing, against the odds. “COVID isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We’ve got a get a grip on it and we have to wear masks until then. Opening 100% was not appropriate because again here we are, and we have to fight again,” said Vitori, who hasn’t taken a day off throughout the pandemic.
‘RESILIENCE AND DEEP CONNECTIONS IN THE COMMUNITY’
Though the pandemic is by far the toughest crisis Vitori has had to navigate, it’s not the first. Hurricane Irma damaged essential equipment and Cheeseburger Baby lost power for two weeks. She used a generator from one of the food trucks to power the restaurant and begin the recovery process – which included feeding local officials and volunteers helping with the post-hurricane clean-up. The U.S. Small Business Administration honored the company with the 2019 Phoenix Award for Small Business Disaster Recovery, which was presented in Washington, D.C.
“Stephanie’s resilience and deep connections in the community have made Cheeseburger Baby a key ‘anchor’ business in her Washington Avenue corridor,” said Brian Van Hook, regional director of Florida SBDC at FIU. “I have been proud of her well-deserved national recognition as our communities look to longstanding businesses like them as a model for navigating difficult business recoveries.”
Vitori adds this advice for entrepreneurs: “If you want it, you’ve got to go get it, and you have to be in it 1,000%.”
READ MORE STORIES OF COVID RESILIENCY ON GROWBIZ