If the foodservice industry has learned anything in recent years, it’s that resilience and creativity can mean the difference between success and failure. The restaurants and managers who were able to forge a new path, pivot, and try new things are still standing today, despite continued labour shortages, inflation, and supply chain delays.
Restobiz had the opportunity to speak to three Ontario restaurateurs about what it took to survive the pandemic and how operations look today.
The connection a restaurant builds with its customers and community through trust and loyalty became even more crucial through the pandemic. Those relationships meant that customers did whatever they could to help their favourite restaurants keep their doors open, even when that meant a change in concept, limited hours, and in some cases, a much smaller menu.
“I am just so very lucky for the support I received from the community,” said Lori Grundy, owner of Jitterbug Café in Waterdown. Buying the café in 2019, she was still learning the business as the pandemic hit but was grateful for the takeout orders, gift card purchases, and the e-transfers she received from her community. “I even had a wonderful group of firefighters who came regularly throughout the pandemic.”
Marcel Rosehart, owner of Chrissy’s Catering in Tillsonburg, agreed that the community made it possible for his business to make it through the last few years. Before the pandemic, his catering company hosted everything from community events to weddings, but that all changed once the pandemic hit and large gatherings were canceled. “The community really stepped up to support us in any way they could, it was incredible,” Rosehart said.
In his close-knit community, Rosehart ensures that support goes both ways. For example, he saw a way he could give back by resurrecting a seniors’ program featuring a $10 meal. It wasn’t cost-effective but it was a community service to help out a sector in need. “Would I rather put $300 into a newspaper ad or spend money to help out people who really need it? It just made sense to us.”
“Pivot” became the foodservice industry’s theme, with many restaurants having to re-jig their business models several times throughout the last few years to find success.
Adapting to a “new norm” became a constant struggle to stay afloat. For some restaurants, that meant immediately adopting an efficient approach to managing traffic flows and staffing. “We wanted to make sure that every day we were open, we were filling the spots. The upside is that this allowed for our staff to reach a better work-life balance while we risked less loss,” said Eric Boyar, executive chef at IronWorks Kitchen and chef/owner at sixthirtynine in Woodstock.
He added that they also had to learn better inventory management. “Rather than ordering tons of products, like a large wine inventory, we are now ordering less, but more often, so we’re better managing our inventory.”
Grundy, while shrinking her menu to accommodate supply chain delays, also expanded into the ice cream market, finding success with new and innovative items, and adding a summer revenue stream to carry her through the slower winter months.
Rosehart, willing to try anything to stay afloat, adapted an entirely new business model, turning his banquet hall into a full-serve restaurant, including a four-season patio. He also offered delivery, creating boxed meals with special menus for days like Mother’s Day, Christmas, New Year’s, and more.
The pandemic brought out the entrepreneurial spirit of restaurateurs, drawing from their drive and determination for success.
Grundy had to quickly learn to adjust her planning to accommodate for all the changes. “I think the pandemic made us all have to think differently and adapt to change. I am a creature of habit, but I have learned to change and be flexible.”
Rosehart realized that trial and error was essential. “If there’s anything I’ve learned thus far, it’s that nothing is off the table,” confirmed Rosehart. “I would never have thought I would do the things we had to do, but we did, and it worked. Thank goodness that we did.”
He also credits his team with stepping up and taking responsibility when it became too much, trusting them to carry out his vision. “Taking risks was scary, but necessary. And they paid off.”
Balance is what Boyar took away from the last few years, streamlining staffing for the best results. “We work long hours, late nights, up and at ‘em the next day,” he said. “Post-pandemic, our condensed hours still offer a work-life balance to create a better work environment for our staff. This means that sales aren’t as high, but it also means that retention and re-hiring aren’t an issue, so there’s less turnover and a happier team.”
These lessons and survival tools are now being used as management tactics that the foodservice industry relies on, as community connection, creative thinking, and determination continue to be the foundation for restaurants’ success.
RestoBiz thanks foodservice operators Lori Grundy (Jitterbug Café), Marcel Rosehart (Chrissy’s Catering), and Eric Boyar (IronWorks Kitchen and sixthirtynine) for sharing their stories. Feature image courtesy of IronWorks Kitchen.