Evolve —our free virtual series where we meet with service industry operators around the country to identify (and solve) the greatest challenges of Covid-19 – is now in its third month.
Each Evolve session features live and pre-recorded talks, demonstrations, masterclasses and exclusive access to our event sponsors and suppliers, like Titos, White Claw, Barventory and Hoshizaki. If you can’t make the live virtual sessions, you can always watch them later On Demand. It’s our way of supporting the industry throughout the pandemic, and if you haven’t registered, sign up for free to gain access to our online resources and videos.
Our latest Evolve session focuses on Austin, Texas. The quirky capital city is known for its dynamic restaurant and bar scene, but it feels a little different these days. Austin has lost dozens of venues as a result of the pandemic, with more expected to close in the coming months. Thankfully, some concepts have managed to survive by deftly adapting to the city’s ever-changing regulations.
We spoke with three such operators to find out how they’ve managed to navigate the last year. You can watch their full Evolve sessions On Demand here. Be sure to join us for our next live session on January 26th, we’ll be hearing from more Austin operators about marketing in uncertain times.
For Nickel City co-owner Travis Tober, consistency has been the key to keeping his bar running throughout the pandemic. Unlike most venues in the area, Nickel City is open every day of the week, from noon until 2am. “We’re there for the neighborhood, we’re never shutting down,” he explains in his Evolve interview.
Key advice: Small sales add up, and consistency builds a reputation. “Bars and restaurants are a penny game, not a dollar game – watch every penny that comes into the bar…Never turn someone away, don’t let those dollars walk out the door.”
Marketing strategy: Instead of running it himself, Tober has outsourced the Nickel City social media to Consumable Content, a local social media marketing business. “Put aces in places – don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you and have them teach you.”
Get creative: Nickel City started selling branded merchandise, using a “sneakerhead approach”. Their unique hats and shirts drop in super limited quantities, and almost always sell out. They’ve also embraced to-go cocktails, which are legal in Texas, and have hosted a number of Covid-compliant events, like a 9pm New Years Eve toast and a Moe’s Tavern-themed Halloween event.
Final Thoughts: “I really, truly believe the great operators are going to come out stronger than ever, and ready to rock and roll. It’s going to be the Roaring Twenties all over again, just the roaring 2020s.”
A lot of venues are Austin institutions, but only one can claim that it’s an institution and a “moveable landmark”. That honor goes to Cedar Door, home of the “Mexican Martini”. The venue has been physically picked up and moved four times over its 40-year history, and is now the last one-storey in downtown Austin. Co-owner Heather Potts and General Manager Brittany O’Connor talk about their legacy, and how they’re reinventing (yet again) during Covid-19.
Key advice: For Potts, it’s all about focusing on the team. “As an operator, one important thing is to check in with your staff and make sure they’re comfortable and safe. They’re risking their lives right now to operate our business.” Potts also stresses the importance of collaboration and getting the team on board with any new changes, like updated delivery systems.
Marketing strategy: The Cedar Door has always relied on word of mouth to grow their brand, but now they’re embracing social media, and have plans to bring on a marketing team in the future. They use their platforms to share their history, their stories and push events.
Get creative: The Cedar Door has started offering tours to engage directly with their customers, “History of the Mexican Martini” and October ghost tours have been particularly successful. The team has also developed relationships with nearby hotels to capitalize on out-of-town guests.
Final thoughts: “Each day is a whole new challenge, and that’s the best part of the industry. That’s what makes it addicting. You always need to be ready for your next move, it’s chess— not checkers,” says O’Connor.
“Our approach to hospitality has meant being of service to the community,” explains Jessica Sanders, owner of DrinkWell. The 40-seat gastro-cocktail pub underwent a rapid series of changes in the last year, including voluntarily closing their dining room, re-opening at a limited capacity, raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour, starting a delivery service and launching to-go cocktails. Their connection to the community is what kept their doors open.
Key Advice: Stay involved in the community. “It has kept our brand relevant to audiences outside of the bar industry,” explains Sanders. Her other note is to hire people who have the same values as you. In her case, that means people who want to be of service to the city.
Marketing strategy: While Sanders likes social media for the free exposure, she’s adopted a more old-school marketing strategy. “We’re relying on boots on the ground, shaking hands and kissing babies.” That means staying involved in community organizations and directly connecting with those in the neighborhood – even dropping off menus. “All of those things that feel dated and archaic have worked really well for us.”
Get creative: “We were really pushed into a situation where we were forced to throw ideas against the wall and see what stuck,” says Sanders. That includes virtual events, virtual cocktail classes, rotating menus and delivery. “[Delivery] was a decision we sweated over for years, and we materialized it in just a few days.” Bulk cocktails have also been a successful addition for DrinkWell. “When people are coming to us, they’re buying in bulk. They’re stocking their fridge with cocktails – whoever thought that would be a thing?”
Final thoughts: “The 2021 challenge is how do we turn ‘survive’ into ‘thrive’?