Growth Stages Operations Strategy

FIU students band together to help struggling restaurants – and learn a lot about starting and growing a small business

Restaurants already have one of the highest failure rates among industries. Add to that a pandemic crisis that has dealt a huge blow to the eateries just trying their best to keep the lights on.

Three Florida International University seniors — Albertina Manosalva, Analys Rodriguez and Camila Navarro – have  set out to help restaurants find the recipe to survive the pandemic – and form habits and strategies that will help them thrive and grow for years to come.

Albertina and Alalys won the Hult Prize entrepreneurship competition at FIU in December for a social impact concept focused the food industry. While researching that concept, they got to know a number of restaurant owners. They also saw some commonalities: Many of the businesses had low visibility and lacked brand consistency. What’s more, the chef owners have a passion for food, but lacked knowledge about running a business. In the months following the competition, Albertina and Analys, together with Camila, were inspired to start a business to help the local restaurants succeed.

Between the three of them, they are mastering subjects such as business, social entrepreneurship, marketing, data analytics and computer science in the classroom, and they also have participated in StartUP FIU, the university’s startup accelerator program. They couldn’t help but think about how marketing was so crucial for restaurants during the pandemic and how technology could help the restaurants reach more people, yet the businesses of course were solely focused on sheer survival. The team worked hard to come up with a business model that would be affordable for the businesses and, more importantly, bring real, sustainable results to the restaurants quickly.

Launching Lokal Miami

The students built a team and launched their startup, Lokal Miami, in April offering a range of services such as brand development, social media management, influencer marketing, website development and SEO, delivery app management, event strategy and more. Today they work with 12 restaurants in South Florida and Orlando. “This is just the beginning,” said Albertina, who created a clothing business at 17. “Lokal Miami is the first agency focused only on local restaurants and venues in Miami. We know how to target local customers for the hospitality industry with innovative digital and in-person marketing.”

The team develops an individual, holistic strategy for every restaurant business client after studying their culture, consumer behavior and metrics, said Analys, but there are common challenges the team finds in these businesses, including a lack of brand recognition, insufficient customer research and data as well as poor online customer engagement. By focusing their expertise on the restaurant industry, they can make more impact on the restaurants’ bottom lines, while using technology to automate processes and create efficiencies for the restaurants. And for these GenZers, making a social impact is important.

In working with each client, Lokal’s goal is to show measurable results – and they already have. For instance, for one Brickell  coffee shop, I Think She Is (ITSI), the Lokal Miami team was able to increase in-house sales by 113%, and UberEats sales by  6,834% in just five months, the team said.

“We found a recipe, what we call the holy grail of restaurants,” said Camila. “We know already what we need to do so they grow, and we have tested it with every one of our clients – and it has really worked.  Now we want to expand and help more restaurants in Miami.”

The team numbers 9 people now, 8 of them Latinas, and they work with developers overseas. Other clients in the Miami area they work with include  Mr Baguette locations, La Piazzetta, Devia Juice Bar locations, Pokeai locations, and Mani in Pasta. Lokal also serves several clients in Orlando.

A data-driven approach

Currently Lokal is creating a tiered pricing model for restaurants, based on their budgets. Regardless of tier or budget, everything is measured. Lokal Miami produces reports for their clients each month, looking at the metrics behind menu pricing, marketing and social media strategies to track what has worked and what hasn’t. Then they create a report with next steps and new recommendations for the following period.

“We go very in depth into, for example, what are the most ordered items in the menu, what are the most profitable? How can we make sure the most ordered items  are also the most profitable? How can we innovate, for example, the weekly lunch specials?,” Camila said.

“We’re always looking for innovative ways to bring new people into the restaurants,” Albertina added.

Another benefit of their business model: Lokal Miami can facilitate partnerships that are win-wins. For instance, the ITSI coffee shop sells healthy chocolate bars made by Conscious Bar. This helps both businesses, particularly because Conscious Bar is a respected brand with strong marketing that can bring new customers into the coffee shop, Analys said. “We’re creating a community that is supporting each other on their projects.”

The biggest challenges have been managing growth and setting up systems and processes, while also managing a team. “You’re always thinking about how can I do better,  how can I make it better for everyone else?”  said Albertina.

Becoming part of the entrepreneurship wave

Albertina, Analys and Camila didn’t set out to become a statistic during the pandemic, but they have become one — in a good way.

They are counted among the wave of entrepreneurial activity unleashed by the pandemic, breaking the United States  out of a decades-long startup slump. Americans started 4.3 million businesses last year, up 24% from the year before and the highest pace on record. Thanks to many entrepreneurs like these three Latinas from FIU, the pace of new entrepreneurship is likely to be the highest on record this year, experts say, contrasting sharply with the Great Recession when startup activity plunged sharply.

This student trio is making an impact in a suffering industry while creating jobs for the Miami economy.


Photo at top of post: From left, Lokal Miami team of Analys Rodriguez, Albertina Manosalva and Camila Navarro.

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