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Surviving the Pandemic: Bar and Restaurant Leaders Speak Out

This series focused on how bars and restaurants can survive the COVID-19 pandemic and what they should be doing right now. It featured a variety of experts from the industry, as well as allied partners. Thought-leaders, including Amicon, offer tips and advice, in addition to hearing insights from their personal experiences. Here’s what our panel had to say:

Jonathan Weislow
Vice President of Business Development and Project Executive

Amicon

“In order to plan for future success in challenging times, a strong company culture is absolutely vital. The world is full of uncertainties, so it’s important to establish strong corporate relationships and foster an environment that promotes trust, transparency and collaboration. It helps everyone stay committed to the company and stay motivated to work through these challenging times, while also reassuring employees that their employers have their best interest at heart and are looking out for them. Employees are the lifeline of a business, and it’s vital to understand that we’re serving others both internally and externally. With the expectation that the next few months will still operate within the pandemic environment, adaptability is a necessity to thrive while holding onto a clear identity. Customers are going to want to return to a sense of normalcy and celebration within the hospitality industry. In a city focused on nightlife like Miami, it is critical that social distancing guidelines and proper training are highlighted more than ever. Restaurants and nightlife venues can create intimate yet festive spaces through design elements that don’t feel isolated. Businesses are using vegetation, lighting, experiential audio and visual elements and furniture to enhance what a socially distant experience could be. One of the critical components that should be focused on during this time is staff investment – they need to feel valued to execute a business’ mission. Through training and mentorship, it is loyal staff that will carry the success of a business through ever-changing guidelines.”

Burke Moran
CEO

Finally Restaurant Group

“For restaurants to survive this disruptive environment right now, managerial teams should be concentrating on following all local and state policies for the protection of guests, staff and the business itself – including implementing an updated cleaning and sanitization policy across all restaurants. In addition, work with your suppliers to keep supply chains and product substitution open. As owners and managers, it’s our responsibility to keep staff motivated and take this time to focus on training and retaining current employees.

At Finally Restaurant Group, one of our main focuses for our future success is to keep our management teams together and to keep them happy and safe. Having to ramp up new managers when we reopen will be 10 times more difficult to execute flawlessly. We believe the travel and hospitality industries will take a minimum of 12 months to get back to ‘normal.’ Hiring for resorts and the cruise industry will not happen overnight. Airline routes will take time to get back to pre-COVID levels. It’s possible that we will see a one-year boom for the restaurant industry since our operations are relatively simple and easy entertainment for the public. We must concentrate all our efforts for the day that we can 100 percent reopen. I truly believe business will be booming in no time, and it’s what gives us a bright light at the end of the long COVID tunnel.”

Abraham Merchant
President and CEO

Merchants Hospitality
(Group Behind Philippe by Philippe Chow in N.Y.C., Among Many Others)

“Our team here at Philippe Chow has followed all protocols for a safer dining experience to ensure that our beloved guests receive the same quality of food and service amidst the pandemic, including providing a safe environment for our staff. The circumstances have led to our introduction of contactless delivery, as well as adjustments to our seating – both outside and inside. Over the summer, we built an outdoor patio to welcome guests back to the restaurant in the only capacity we were permitted. We were excited that soon after we had the opportunity to invite our guests to join us back in our dining room.

Ahead of indoor dining reopening on September 30th, we worked with Scientific Fire to install the air purification technology – Scientific’s NPBI by GPS – into the restaurant’s HVAC units. The technology has been scientifically proven to combat airborne COVID-19 particles. As a restaurateur with multiple dining establishments throughout New York City, installing Scientific’s NPBI by GPS is one of the many best practices we’ve embraced to ensure safer dining experiences for our guests and safety for our staff. We are proud to be one of the oldest independent hospitality companies in N.Y.C., serving our guests since 1986, and being separated from our community during parts of this year have been some of the hardest we have experienced.”

Mark Moeller
President

The Recipe of Success

“One of the greatest obstacles is rent. If you haven’t discussed options with landlords yet, you need to in a hurry. No one wins with an empty storefront. Next, you need a clear and actionable plan. Survival, even in the best climates, is found in the details. By managing the schedule, developing a lower food cost, staying on brand, offering an amazing menu with attentive, friendly service, you will drive repeat business. But wait, that has always been the case! What’s different now (besides the obvious) is we have less opportunity to impress the guest. It is time to shelve the ego and look at the business from a guest’s perspective, and realize they are now and always have driven the process.

Operators need to look at their business holistically and ask, what’s missing? Look at technology. Is the website mobile friendly? Do you have mobile ordering? An app? Are you touchless in terms of ordering and payment? Eliminate as many touch points as possible without losing the personal connection to your guests. Marketing needs to be proactive and not reactive. Marketing isn’t about driving revenue today, it is about staying relevant six months from now. A well-developed marketing plan is achievable and fluid. Utilize and publicize your use of EPA-approved disinfectants, and sanitizers must be used. Everyone, regardless of position, must properly wear a mask – covering nose to chin. Guests notice when we do something right and when we are doing something wrong, especially the latter. Restaurants struggle to overcome food borne illnesses, COVID infiltrations and closures are more devastating because they truly undermine the confidence guests have in us. COVID closures have been linked to staff not washing hands well/enough, not sanitizing on a regular basis and not running a clean operation. Over the course of the next six months, operators must focus on execution, enhancements and refinement of their plan.”

Tobie Nidetz
Podcast Host
Restaurant Legends and Lies

“From where I sit – after having had conversations with many restauranteurs, restaurant designers and commercial realtors – I’ve come away with the opinion that if you own a restaurant and you’ve been able to keep the lights on, pay most of your bills, got your staff back to work and – this is the toughest part – you’ve had some positive conversations about the future with your landlord and/or banker, then you’re already a great success.

My conversations have been with such a wide scope of restaurants that it’s nearly impossible to capture all the different elements entrepreneurs have tried to successfully achieve all the criteria above. As rule though, most operators divided the path to reopening or even continued achievement into four major subjects that seemed to cover most of the problems facing all restaurants. And they are in no particular order; continued COVID-19 compliance and safety procedures, becoming a more socially responsible business (if you weren’t already, this is a new aspect of survival to be taken seriously), how to create the new operating model to fit the ‘new normal’ and finally, understanding the new technologies available now that you didn’t have time or an inclination to research before the pandemic lockdown changed your world forever.”

Danni Eickenhorst
Partner & Co-Owner

Steve’s Hot Dogs

“This is an incredibly hard time for restaurant owners – because if you weren’t taking a hard look at your general business plan before, you need to be doing that now, while also pivoting your entire model to meet the current needs of the market. At Steve’s Hot Dogs, we were in the process of looking at food costs, general profitability and going through a menu revamp when the pandemic struck. The fact that we were looking for ways to cut costs and remain profitable has served us well, as we’ve battened down the hatches to get through this challenging time. In addition to ensuring they have online ordering and carryout, curbside and delivery options, restaurants need to consider secondary lines of revenue that they can rely on – merchandise, frozen meals, partnerships, store product and more. This all goes back to ensuring you have a strong business model – and any strong business model will rely on multiple streams of revenue.”

Mark Ellman
Chef / Restaurateur

Frida’s Mexican Beach House and Honu Seafood & Pizza
 
“My family owns two popular, successful oceanfront restaurants in Lahaina, Maui, Hawai’i. We depend on tourism, and our tourist industry was shut down from March to October 15th. That’s when we reopened one of our restaurants, Frida’s Mexican Beach House. Our visitor numbers are still flat and we believe they will be so for a while. Fortunately, we have many loyal customers among the local population, and we have been gratified by their response. They fill our socially-distanced tables every day. So, the first piece of advice I have for restaurateurs everywhere is to engage with and nurture the people in your neighborhood. And be a good community citizen. Get involved in what’s going on around you in whatever way you can. We came to another realization during the time we were closed. Everyone needs time off. We had always been open seven days a week and we are now permanently closed on Sundays. When we open our other restaurant, Honu Seafood & Pizza, it will be closed Sundays, as well. Take care of your employees.”

Francesco Sinatra
CEO

Pasta Sisters

“We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to be able to open our doors each day to our amazing customers. It has not been an easy road and we take it day by day, focusing on different ways to sustain our two locations and food truck. There are many other restaurants and businesses that had to close their doors because they couldn’t maintain just a pick-up or delivery model, or keep operations running without dine-in. If this pandemic happened when we first opened our Pico location, it would have caused us to shut our doors. We are doing the most that we can to save through cutting labor costs and creating delicious specials that will attract customers. Developing new strategies and menus to satisfy the new way of living and working is the only opportunity moving forward. It is sad, especially for the new restaurants almost ready to open before the pandemic, as they never had the chance to serve their delicious food in the world we came to know as ‘normal’ before all this. Opportunities are always there if you know where to look. And as much I would love to talk about it, all I can say right now is that Pasta Sisters will surprise many with the next project we are working on.”

Peter Klamka
CEO

Virtual Dining Brands/Cordia Corporation
(The Blind Pig Pub & Restaurant)

“Our company developed a number of different strategies to survive short and long term. We own a restaurant near the Las Vegas Strip. Las Vegas will likely not recover for several years post-vaccine due to lack of a diversified economy and changes in business travel. Covid allowed us to diversify away from Las Vegas. Owners need to be ruthless with landlords and suppliers in the near term. They might push back, but you don’t have much to lose. Our restaurant is called The Blind Pig, and we retained our own COVID-19 experts due to the lack of quality medical personnel in the area. We have been able to offer these services to others. We also accelerated our plans to do celebrity virtuals, and we have developed a licensing model for celebrity virtual restaurants.

Most owners don’t realize that their restaurant can more than just a restaurant. It can be a base to build other revenue streams like virtual restaurants, catering services, farmer’s markets in the unused parking lot and developing local meal kits and meal delivery.”