The COVID-19 pandemic was tough for many businesses – that is an understatement — yet few industries felt the wallop as much as restaurant owners and their workers. But the restaurant businesses that were successful in navigating the crisis were flexible and adaptable. They were not afraid to pivot and quickly adopt new ways of doing business to survive – and get to the other side.
“Many times small businesses are so focused on their own businesses, they forget to look up and see what others are doing. Look up and look around. You have to do that and that pays dividends,” said Althea Harris, assistant district director for the SBA’s South Florida District Office.
That’s why a recent panel discussion hosted by Florida SBDC at FIU , the small business development center within FIU’s College of Business, and StartUP FIU Food, in a panel discussion, was so instructive. Food entrepreneurs shared their advice and their challenges about what worked for them during the pandemic and as the economy is opening back up as well.
Stephanie Vitori, the owner of Cheeseburger Baby in South Beach and the national winner of the SBA’s Phoenix award, said that in addition to quickly pivoting to delivery/takeout at its restaurant, Cheeseburger Baby made meals for Miami-Dade County Schools children during the pandemic. “We served turkey burgers , green beans and sweet potatos, that’s now what we do but we adjusted we adapted. You find ways to adapt, you don’t give up.”
Partnerships are key. Cheeseburger Baby served food at a bar that had a commercial kitchen and found places around the area to position its food trucks for delivery business. Now Cheeseburger Baby has 3 food trucks and is looking for a location for a second bricks and mortar location. “I’ve always been a go big or go home kind of person.”
Vitori also said she leaned on fellow restaurant owners and others in her community for help and advice – and, yes, to share the pain because “we have to be that strong face for our employees,” The importance of community in times of crisis was echoed by Coco Coig, co-owner of Le Chick in Wynwood, who said this type of collaboration can also lead to new opportunities you haven’t even thought of.
Coig,who is opening new locations in Coconut Grove and Charleston, SC, and also opening a new concept in Wynwood, holds happy hours and industry days for other small businesses in the Wynwood community because those relationships helped everyone get through this. “We’re lucky to be in Wynwood where community is huge,” he said.
Coig also made the point that is his business was on sound financial footing when Covid arrived, allowing the business to better absorb the shock. “If Covid had hit us two years ago, I don’t think we would have made it. We were in a different place.”
Michael McCann, the owner of Vacillate Wine and Beer Bar in Kendall which was named the Best Wine Bar by Miami New Times in 2019, said his wine bar was selling an atmosphere and experience as well as tapas and wine, and during COVID he had to figure out how to sell “an experience to go.” For deliveries, customers want full meals, so McCann had to rethink the whole menu, making larger orders of some of the tapas, but often adding rice or fries to make it a meal. Vacillate also sold pizzas and sliders with fries for the first time. “That is how we survived — we had to meet people where they were.”
Leticia Pollack co-founded Panther Coffee with her husband 11 years ago, and Panther is now in six locations in South Florida. Panther also has two roasteries in South Florida and another in Michigan. Her advice: “Make sure you have your values very well established, then you can be frugal on everything else.” For Panther, that means save expenses where you can – except on the quality of your product and service. She also said because there will be more crises, you have to keep the back of house organized, “Make sure that your numbers are in order, so when you need to go to the SBA for a loan, you are ready.”
All of the small businesses leaned on social media and other forms of low-cost marketing to save expenses and stay close to their community during the crisis, including the use of QR codes. Some embraced TikTok while others even went old-school with a flyer delivered with every to-go order.
Today, the biggest challenge for these restaurant and food business owners is finding employees, a nationwide problem in hospitality.
“You can’t ignore the challenges, such as finding employees,” said Harris. Take advantage of no-cost resources within the community such as SBDC at FIU or StartUP FIU Food, Harris said, and to grow – or survive the next crisis — “have your financials in place, in tact and ready to rock and roll” so you can apply for expansion loans or relief assistance, she said.
Hear more of their tips in a recording of the conversation below. On this YouTube channel, you can also find dozens of helpful webinars produced by SBDC at FIU on all kinds of topics, too:
Photo at top of post is from Vacillate Wine and Ber Bar in Kendall.
READ MORE STORIES OF COVID RESILIENCY IN F&B ON GROWBIZ