“Pivot” has even become one of the defining words of 2020, especially in the restaurant and bar industry. Yet, a closer look at the stories of restaurants and bars that have stayed afloat show that two other factors have been just as – or perhaps even more – important: community and using the business’s existing strengths.
ACME in Carrboro, N.C.
Kevin Callaghan, owner and chef of ACME Food & Beverage Co. in Carrboro, N.C., went into immediate action when it was clear that COVID-19 was going to disrupt life as we knew it. “We hit the ground running as hard as we could to try to figure it out, because we understood that so much of business and money is momentum,” explained Callaghan. “If you let the momentum collapse, restarting engines is really difficult and restaurants that aren't independently wealthy can't just shut down for six months and then reopen.”
Callaghan was certain of two things. First, his greatest asset was the loyal customer base he had developed. Second, “the only way to get through this was to innovate.”
“We've been in business for 20 years and have a huge Internet following, so our business manager quickly created an online platform for ordering systems,” Callaghan said. “And then we started trying to figure out a way to capture people's attention, to make them have fun. So much had been canceled, including people’s vacations.”
So Callaghan sent out an email to ACME’s 12,000 followers and said, “Let us bring your vacation to you. Send us ideas and maybe we can make a culinary vacation.” The first culinary vacation had a dude ranch theme.
“And after that, hundreds of people sent us these beautiful stories about like, you know, ‘my husband and I were scheduled to spend our 60th anniversary in Greece, where my husband had always dreamed of going,’” Callaghan explained, “So we started creating these staycation dinners, so people could take home with them. And those have been really successful.”
Woody’s Bar & Grill in Dewey Beach, Del.
Moving quickly right from the start, doubling-down on their strengths, and staying in touch with a loyal customer base were also the keys to success for Woody’s Bar & Grill in Dewey Beach, Del.
“They said you have to close, but you can do takeout. That was fine with us because we already had been doing a lot of takeout before this year. So we just kind of rolled right into it,” explained Woody’s owner, Jimmy O’Conor, “And it sounds bad, but some of my numbers were better through March this year than they were last year.”
Jimmy O’Conor, owner of Woody’s Bar & Grill in Dewey Beach, Del. (Photo by: Woody's Bar & Grill).
O’Conor also attributes Woody’s staying power to “a community that supports the hell out of me.” Woody’s, open every day of the year, is known as “the place the locals go.”
“When we went to takeout, people were literally just walking in and getting a beer and leaving $100 for the staff,” O’Conor said.
And, just like Callaghan’s ACME, O’Conor infused some fun into the COVID-19’s spring and summer for his customers. He hired a graphic designer to make a t-shirt that combined the restaurant’s famous crab dishes with a little bit of COVID humor. The result, “Quarantine Makes Me Crabby: Woody’s Dewey Beach,” has been a huge hit. They sell out so quickly that O’Conor cannot keep enough in stock.
Woody’s hired a graphic designer to make a t-shirt that combined the restaurant’s famous crab dishes with a little bit of COVID humor. (Photo by: Woody's Bar & Grill)
O’Conor’s sales numbers are up for 2020, although his profit is down. He attributes the lower profit figures to all the added expenses of cleaning and sanitizing. However, O’Conor is taking it in stride, “It’s just the cost of doing business.”
Yonder Southern Cocktails and Brew in Hillsborough, N.C.
Yonder Southern Cocktails and Brew, a membership bar in Hillsborough, N.C., has not been as fortunate. Its business model relied heavily on indoor, night-time customers. Prior to COVID-19, there was no such thing as cocktails to go. And in North Carolina, unlike in other states such as Wyoming, cocktails to go still are not allowed.
“When we opened after the shutdown, we weren’t allowed to serve, so we transitioned to retail,” said Eryk Pruitt, co-owner of Yonder. “We sold six packs of beer, bottles of wine, Buzzballz.”
“The support of our community has been amazing, particularly when we were just selling retail,” said Pruitt. “People would come in here every week, buy six packs and leave a tip, which was never asked for, but they would leave these exorbitant tips to help us make it. The first few times it happened, it caught me in the chest, you know, because there was no federal help, there was no state help. We couldn’t even get unemployment because we own the place. The only help we ever received was from these people coming in here and keeping us in business.”
Pruitt and his co-owner, Lana Pierce, began assessing how to take advantage of one of their biggest strengths – a great downtown location with a lot of people walking around, in the summer sun, just eager to be out of their houses. Pruitt and Pierce decided to combine this strength with a little bit of fun, just like ACME and Woody’s did.
Casa Lemus Restaurant and Inn in Raton, N.M.
Restaurants located away from downtowns, and closer to interstates, do not have foot traffic as an asset and are used to relying on more transient tourist traffic. This is the situation in which Maurice Lemus found himself when COVID hit and tourism traffic dropped. Lemus, who owns Casa Lemus Restaurant and Inn in Raton, N.M., knew he was going to have to focus on his strengths.
Takeout did not work for him. “We were down to maybe a dozen orders per day. That wouldn't pay the electric bill,” said Lemus. “So, we changed menus like three four different times, trying to find something that would be a little more practical for takeout. And then we built a drive-thru. We announced it on Facebook. We printed the menus and we went from business to business. The drive-thru kept us alive because we were able to go from a dozen orders per day to about 60 orders per day.”
Lemus also reached out to the major brand hotels, which had stopped offering their customers hot breakfasts. “I talked with the managers, and they told their guests that they could get a good, hot breakfast here, at Casa Lemus,” Lemus noted.
When the government authorized patio seating, Lemus opened up the patio, added a patio deck on top of the building, and converted the inn’s reception carport into an outdoor dining space.
Lemus is down about 19 percent from last year and he is pretty happy with that. “It's incredible,” Lemus explained, “because our state had a 20 percent minimum wage increase at the beginning of the year, so I did an across-the-board 20 percent increase for everyone. And yet, I’m down only 19 percent. Not bad.”
Michelle Fishburne has been traveling throughout the United States in her RV, collecting stories of how Americans are facing the challenges presented by the pandemic. As of November 2020, she had interviewed more than 100 people in 26 states. Her project, “Who We Are Now,” can be found at: WhoWeAreNow.us. You can follow along on Facebook and Instagram at @whowearenowusa.
Watch for more articles in Bar & Restaurant’s “Pivoting” editorial series. How are you adapting, surviving or innovating? Let us know. Email Aaron Kiel with the Questex Hospitality / Bar & Restaurant editorial team at [email protected].