restaurateurs are indomitable during COVID-19

The indomitable passion of restaurateurs

Restaurant owners are putting everything on the line in 2020 – and winning

By Alex Barrotti

Like so many independent restaurateurs, Jesse Roberts, the co-owner of Fire Hall Kitchen and Tap in Cranbrook, B.C., is passionate about his unique restaurant and the community it serves.

For Roberts and others in the restaurant industry, the past six months have been among the most challenging, with COVID-19 making it difficult for independent restaurants to survive. While Fire Hall has not recovered to its 2019 revenue levels, Roberts has been determined to successfully navigate a path to recovery and he is making it happen.

“The important thing to do right now is to survive. Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t hitting 2019 margins. Just survive and help people where you can,” Roberts says. “We treat staff like family and customers like old friends.”

A hard reset

Roberts admits they are working harder for less and need to constantly update practices and policies in the ever-changing operational climate, but it is keeping them open and their staff employed. “We were closed for one month, operated a take-out and delivery model for one month, and then opened as our current selves – a half-capacity, much-changed, but still the same craft beer gastropub.”

Roberts says he recognized that a complete reset was required. “Our old business plan, while awesome in its day, became outdated and irrelevant overnight. After feeling picked-on for a time, we dug deep and, with excitement, built a new plan for this new world,” Roberts says.

Adapting to new challenges

To adapt to the current business climate, Fire Hall introduced online ordering by deploying an app from TouchBistro that enables customers to enter their own orders in a menu on the restaurant’s website for curbside pickup or delivery – without the high commission fees third party delivery platforms charge.

With the app, they were also able to announce the availability of ordering online through their social media channels so loyal customers were notified they could once again purchase the craft beer and food they loved. Along with phone orders, Roberts says this enabled them to stay open. Fire Hall also adopted mobile debit/credit card terminals so they could accept payments in their parking lot or at customers’ homes.

To reopen their patios and dining room, Fire Hall made a number of low-tech changes for safety and social distancing. They created food and drink stands at customer dining tables so servers and customers never need to pass items directly to each other.

They moved their host and payment stands, and also designated different doors for entrance and exit to better control the flow of restaurant traffic. Staff members were also trained in safe cleaning practices, so no one touches dirty dishes with their bare hands. All bussing and cleaning require PPE, with masks required at all times for all staff. As a further measure to reduce potential contamination among staff, they changed from a jack-of-all-trades manning model to staff having focused responsibilities.

The importance of takeout and delivery

Even though Fire Hall is now serving on two patios and in the dining room at 50% capacity, the takeout/delivery revenue stream is still essential.

“We’ve not been able to compensate for the losses experienced while closed or during takeout/delivery exclusively. But takeout has helped us bridge the gap between 2020’s half capacity and 2019’s full-scale seating. This allows for 70-80% sales, not 50%,” says Roberts. “We have also used government assistance in every way our business is eligible. From our small business perspective, the government has done a great job and had our back in this process.”

Implementing these strategies for reopening has enabled Fire Hall to survive and has put them on the path to recovery. Roberts says, “We are so happy to be open and see our friends, staff, and guests again. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that our lives aren’t complete without them.”

Fire Hall Kitchen and Tap
Fire Hall Kitchen and Tap in Cranbrook, B.C.

Mitigating circumstances

Chris Beard, the owner of 850 Degrees located in Toronto, decided not to close down completely when the pandemic hit.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was terrible. It was nerve-wracking,” Chris says. “Every night I’d go to bed and I’d think to myself, am I doing the right thing? Am I doing the right thing for me, Chris Beard, and more importantly for my family? And for my co-workers, am I doing the right thing?”

By changing their restaurant model from dine-in into a takeout place, and initially cutting back to just two staff and Chris, 850 Degrees has continued to serve their community the pizza and wines they love. They were also recently able to rehire eight of the staff they had to furlough.

“Obviously we are massively down from last year, but we are doing well, and our head is above water. People in the community really appreciated the fact we stayed open, and everyone was willing to try to earn an income,” says Chris. “From day one we were wearing masks even when they are costing $65 a mask. Our staff all have face shields and we have provided a safe environment.”

Online ordering brings relief

As the reopening phases have progressed, Chris has taken a cautious approach, installing safety and social distancing precautions for each step. To make it easier for customers to safely and conveniently place their orders for take-out, he implemented TouchBistro Online Ordering so his customers could order their meals from a menu on 850 degree’s website in addition to the phone orders they were used to placing.

“There is a big, beautiful ‘Online Order for Pickup’ button on our website now and we let our customers know about online ordering through social media,” says Chris. “A lot of restaurants have made the mistake of relying too heavily on the delivery apps that are so expensive for restaurants. They end up cutting 30% into the bottom line. TouchBistro Online Ordering doesn’t charge any commissions.”

Chris explains that online ordering made the operational process easy – the orders just came in and the staff had to tap “accept” and that was it.

“It is a much faster process, easier, and ultimately cheaper. Using online ordering, we don’t have to invest in a second phone line. Two people on the phone taking orders is expensive. It’s expensive in manpower, it’s expensive in telephones, and there’s a possibility of error,” Chris explains. “When taking orders on the phone, you also might mishear someone saying pepperoni, basil, or whatever. Then the customer comes in and they are miffed because the order is wrong, and we have to fix it. With online ordering, order accuracy has improved, speed has improved, and labour costs are reduced. It’s a no-brainer.”

850 Degrees
A covered patio area at Toronto’s 850 Degrees

Patios and promos

While 850 Degrees has never offered curbside pickup, they built wooden frame barriers for people to safely walk up to the counter. For the patios to reopen, they built wooden barriers between the tables and limit the tables available to the number that can be properly socially distanced.

However, even with the patios open, 75% of the restaurant business is still take-out. With cooler and rainy weather coming, fewer people will be eating on the patio but Chris is watching how it goes day by day before deciding whether he will be opening up the inside dining room, even when the reopening phase allows it, as they would have to vastly reduce the amount of space allocated to safely serve takeout customers.

Chris is also offering new promotions, working in collaboration with his suppliers, which has also been an essential element of the success 850 Degrees has had surviving through the pandemic.

“I’ve done more promotion in the last three months than the last six years. But they are also promotions that won’t kill you. They enable us to make some money and enable an average family to have a nice dinner at home,” says Chris. “I’ve linked into the local wineries, which are hurting as well, and take off as much of our cost as possible so we can offer promotions that include a bottle of wine. We’d all like to sell it for more, but we’re in it together and this is one way we can we help each other. This way everyone gets a little bit.”

But Chris Beard is not just teaming up with his suppliers. 850 Degrees has also given away 500 hot meals to his community through the Salvation Army.

Resilience, resilience, resilience

TouchBistro’s data shows that restaurants now have an average of 25% of their orders coming from online and we expect it to grow to 40% during the winter.

Every day we hear more stories of how restaurants are reimagining how to stay in business and continuing to provide the food their communities love. This indomitable passion of restaurateurs is truly awesome.

Alex Barrotti is founder and CEO of TouchBistro, which he launched as a restaurant POS and payment solution in 2011. As of today, TouchBistro has helped improve sales and service at over 25,000 restaurants in 100 countries.