As Christopher Reeve said, “When the unthinkable happens, the lighthouse is hope. Once we choose hope, everything is possible.”
The unthinkable takes one by surprise, shifting their beliefs and the foundation upon which their reality once stood. Such was the case with the world when an inconceivable pandemic struck, and the restaurant industry stood still in shock.
Some gathered their forces, adapting to the rapid changes, pivoting, and then pivoting again. It accelerated the adoption of technologies in ways once unimaginable. Unfortunately, not all survived the upheaval. The National Restaurant Association estimates that over 90,000 eating and drinking establishments closed due to the pandemic. Today, profitability is down, costs are up, and some are still reeling from the loss of staff.
The restaurant industry, however, is made up of a resilient bunch. Who else would enter a business known for low-profit margins and long hours? Despite these challenges, some restaurants aren’t just surviving, but thriving.
In 2023, Fast Casual spoke with restaurant operators who have thrived, despite the current environment. These included fine dining and casual restaurants, as well as food trucks.
Let’s explore a few of the changes they made and how they’re finding hope and prosperity amidst the new normal.
The Restaurants That Made the Cut
The following restaurants made Fast Casual’s cut:
- Caledon Concepts (Rococo Steak and Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant) – St. Petersburg, FL
- Duffeyroll Bakery & Café – Denver, CO
- Fat Boys Pizza – Metairie, LA
- IV Purpose – Brooklyn, NY
- Las Gorditas – Louisville, KY
- Messhall Kitchen – Los Feliz, CA
- Sweet Chick – Brooklyn, NY; Los Angeles, CA
- The Dolly Llama Waffle Master – Los Angeles, CA
- Wild Alchemy Café – Wallingford, CT
- Yabo’s Tacos – Columbus, OH
- Yakumi – Burbank, CA
Changing the Menu
A common theme running throughout these restaurants was the need to change the menu during the pandemic. These changes included trimming down the menu to the most popular items and emphasizing takeout and delivery. Menus transformed into meals that were easy to reheat and enjoy at home. They made sure their loyal customers knew about the changes, which also included alcoholic beverages to-go.
As supply chain and costs rose, Rococo Steak did the opposite. Because prime beef was growing extremely expensive, they decided to also offer high-choice, Black Angus. This addition gave their guests options and, because of its success, is likely to remain on the menu.
Addressing Labor Challenges
Back in 2016, long before the pandemic took hold, restaurants had a staffing problem. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even back then, the restaurant employee turnover rate surpassed 70%. So, for every 10 employees, seven were expected to leave by year’s end.
Some things never change. Today, some restaurants are turning to cross-training so that staff can fulfill multiple roles when needed. This enables those employees who would like more hours to acquire them and helps staff learn about other areas of the restaurant industry.
A common concern among many of the restaurants was creating an environment where employees wanted to work. Some reported employees leaving for higher wages, only to return because the other establishment didn’t treat them as well. Sweet Chick believes they’ve attracted great employees because they have developed a culture that invests in their staff.
Restaurants also reached out to existing employees who brought in friends to apply for open positions. Training became paramount, ensuring service remained top-notch. As IV Purpose shared with Fast Casual, “People feel comfortable walking into the restaurant at any time and knowing they will get good food and service. They become regulars and spread the word about us.”
Supporting the Community
Several restaurants supported their communities during the pandemic. This included donating food to first responders. In turn, their communities continue to reciprocate.
Loyal to Suppliers
As to be expected, many of these restaurants reported supply chain issues that required them to make significant operational changes. One thing many didn’t change, however, was their suppliers, remaining loyal to those they’d developed long-standing relationships with. Fat Boy’s Pizza believes much of their good fortune, and the ability to get supplies stemmed from the long-term relationship with their distributor. These suppliers came to their aid in difficult times.
The owner of Yabo’s Tacos, Scott Boles, encapsulated the essence of a successful restaurant, “Great employees, great locations, great food and drink. Being fiscally careful and keeping our customers happy.” That sounds like the cornerstone of every successful establishment, no matter its model. Congratulations to those that learned from a harrowing experience and thrived.
How has the food industry changed since COVID?
The most notable changes include the continued reliance on takeout and delivery and the adoption of technologies. Some restaurants are still incorporating meal kits and enhancing their online ordering capabilities.
Is 2023 a good year to open a restaurant?
The answer to that question is relative. For example, Fat Boy’s Pizza opened in late 2019, right before COVID-19 struck. Yet, they persevered, changed their model, and today, they have six units.
That said, some entrepreneurs are waiting to see where the economy lands. Others, despite the increasing costs of food and labor, are continuing their expansion plans in 2023.