A Dozen Restaurant Operators Share What They’ve Learned During the Pandemic

Liz Newman | February 9, 2022, 10:10 AM CST

A Dozen Restaurant Operators Share What They’ve Learned During the Pandemic

Owning, operating, or even just working in the restaurant industry has always been a challenge. These days, however, it’s a battlefield. When I interviewed restaurant operators about how they've navigated Covid while running their operations, the consistent undercurrent was one of an emphatic "ugh." Because, well, it’s two years later, and the pandemic keeps lingering.

But here’s what’s cool: These operators found workarounds. Good ones. Think fine dining restaurants slinging weekend breakfast burritos that spark an Instagram sensation, or a chef who sold pasta from her Brooklyn stoop, along the way creating a platform for her new brick-and-mortar. Then there are the operators who revolutionized the way we tip, raising pay for their back of house staffers.

That’s just to name a few. All of these operators have proved they’re survivors. Many, in fact, have come up with ways to thrive. But why should we expect any less? They’re lifers in the restaurant industry. In many ways, they were preparing for the Covid era their entire careers.

Stephanie Swanz, owner of Empamamas and Muchachas, in Tampa:

“Covid has forced us to operate with a pivoting mentality. It seems to be a never-ending cycle. The biggest flex is just that: flexibility. Having the mindset that we are resilient and can handle anything that comes our way is exactly why we are still standing. After Armature Works — the food hall my restaurant as well as more than a dozen others are in — shut down in early 2020, I laid off my entire team (other than management) so they could immediately apply for benefits. Then we set up shop temporarily at a friend and fellow restaurant owner’s space to operate Uber Eats and pick-up. When we moved back into Armature Works, I was approached by my landlord about opening an additional concept. Although doing so in the middle of Covid seemed certifiably crazy, I jumped at it. Three months later, Muchachas was born.

“We have stepped up our game even more when it comes to our staff. We offer incentives to those who choose to get vaccinated, bonuses, employee discounts, and always maintain a fun team culture. Our retention rate is roughly 90 percent, which I am pretty proud of considering all of the hate and slander surrounding employment and staffing in the food and beverage industry. I take care of them, they take care of me. It just works.”

Jason Baran, owner, and Tyler Gugliotta, executive chef, of Baran’s 2239, in Hermosa Beach, California:

“We closed our restaurant in March of last year, and that was heartbreaking. But it was so we could take a week or two to sort out what was going on at the very beginning of COVID. We started throwing around the idea of just making a couple of sandwiches and selling them. We sold out 80 sandwiches in less than an hour, so from there we started launching weekly specials like dinner sandwiches or tacos or burgers for lunch.

“We created a whole new model, because we had never done takeout before. And people were happy to kind of come by every week and see what we were up to. The one thing we’ve kept since reopening is the breakfast burrito — it started to turn into its own little business on the side. It also just created a whole other revenue stream for the restaurant, which really helps out with labor costs. It also helped our social media because the majority of people order through Instagram, that we tracked in an Excel spreadsheet. It's kind of a little prehistoric to do it that way, but it's worked for us and we're not going through a third party. We kept our whole staff, and we're back to our old fine dining ways now — except for the weekend breakfast burritos. I think there would be protests on the streets if we didn't keep those.”

Shaina Papach, co-owner of the Harvey House, in Madison, Wisconsin:

“Have a backup to your backup to your backup to your backup plan. It's imperative to be nimble. We've also learned that investing in a team of people that you trust in every way is always worth it. But now more than ever, teamwork is what makes the dream work (as my 3-year-old son says). You have to be able to count on your team to be creative, change course, and support each other. We realized that we love restaurants more than ever and are so happy to bring our family up in ours. The people who are still here in this industry are a very special bunch, and I am so proud to be a part of it.”

Jamie Lynch, chef / partner at 5th Street Group, in Charlotte, North Carolina:

“The most important thing that we've done was implemented the ‘Tip the Kitchen’ initiative, which is now something we have implemented in all of our restaurants. The goal is to make the pay scale at restaurants more equitable between the front and back of the house, and as a result maintain quality employees, reduce training costs and costs related to turnover, and also combat the hundreds of thousands of people that are no longer in the restaurant business anymore.

“The way it works is that we have included an extra line on the guest’s check for an additional tip that's labeled for the back of the house employees. It's not mandatory. Guests are asked if they have a truly remarkable experience or if their food is outstanding and really touches them in a way that's worthy, could they consider leaving a little bit of something from the back of the house?

“It's a partnership between the guest and the ownership team. My business partners and I will match every dollar up to $500 a day per store, per restaurant, that the guests leave. If a guest leaves $10 on their check, then we will put $10 into the pot. We've raised over a million dollars in the past eight months for our staff. That’s insane.

“And sure, it costs us more money. But that money is much better spent on them than it is on waste or turnover cost or some other line items. If other operators don't consider implementing Tip the Kitchen or something similar, they're going to be left in the dust while everybody comes and works for us.”

Ferrell Alvarez, chef and owner of Rooster & the Till, Nebraska Mini Mart, and Gallito Taqueria, in Tampa:

“What you know today and what you do today to do your best during the pandemic is never the same. And what works now might not work in three months because a new variant is out or people are responding differently to certain requests or vaccines are mandated. The people that do well are the ones that can stay calm, make educated decisions based on facts and not misleading information medically, and also stay creative.

“You're never going to please everybody. That's why we focused on what's best for us, the health and safety of our employees, and our customers. And then the second part of it is, how do you not go out of business, from a revenue perspective, if you can't operate the way you used to? We try to read and stay informed, and then we try to use our creativity to generate revenue in ways that can help us take care of all of our employees, their families, and our families. The revenue stream has been successful on that model because we've adjusted it to work for what we need.

“We value human beings; we know that our success is derived from our customers and our employees. So if you value each other and do the right thing, you're able to stay creative. We really hustle. And if you put that in first position, everything else kind of falls in line and for us in a very humble way. The proof is in the pudding.”

George Andy, co-owner of the Pier House, in Cape May, New Jersey:

“The pandemic took an already challenging operation into what felt like hyperdrive — but we made it work by pivoting on the daily. Staffing was a huge issue, as we were severely understaffed. The state and city’s constantly evolving mandates were another hurdle to jump. It was an exhausting and scary time as a business owner.

“We got creative. We rented a tent, dressed it up with lights, and brought the dining experience al fresco. On Thursday and Friday evenings, we brought in talent to play live music. We created drink specials and used our social media to spread the word of mouth. We dialed back the menu. We stuck to what the customer wanted. Unlike in years past, we implemented a cross-utilization on foods. We become even more conscious on any inputs: What we used for one meal period we now try to use for another as well. To address staffing issues, we had to cross-utilize employees. For example, managers would bus, take orders, and run food. We also accelerated any promotions for intro-level staff to incentivize employees.”

Julia Sullivan, chef and owner of Henrietta Red, in Nashville:

“Have more operating capital on hand than you anticipate needing — because we all know restaurants kind of operate paycheck to paycheck, so to speak. We rely very heavily on cash flow, and so to have some reserves there for when we have waves in the pandemic is crucial. There is more of an understanding that we just really have to take care of ourselves and set better boundaries. You can go all-in to make everything happen and assume there's going to be a reprieve, but there hasn't really been yet.”

Allison Arevalo, founder of Pasta Louise, in Brooklyn:

“I was sitting at home and construction had stopped on our restaurant, and I had this pasta maker. So I started selling pasta from my stoop. I quickly started getting attention for it, people started finding out, it ended up being this big thing — even the New York Times covered the Brooklyn stoop pasta. Which was great, because when we finally did open the doors in July, everyone already knew about us.

“We still have a retail section where we sell our pastas, and have hot pasta dishes on our menu. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been busy since we opened. Of course we’d had to pivot, offer more takeout and we sold pasta kits, and started doing wine to go until we couldn't. We just kept trying to find fun new creative ways to work around the regulations in order to keep our customers coming in, and honestly for us, it’s been great.”

Matt Brewer, co-owner of Che Fico and Che Fico Alimentari, in San Francisco:

“We've thrown everything at the wall. It began with serving community meals, and then continued as we built an outdoor dining space — that was super helpful. But the pivot we're most excited about is, we ended up creating a retail brand that we've seen good growth with. This was always the plan, and it’s become a silver lining during this time. It kind of got pushed into the forefront earlier than we wanted to. Now we're looking to really understand the co-packing market. How do we build this into a much more scalable product? And although there are supply chain issues, ultimately it's an avenue that we really do want to see and expand within the future.

“In addition to doing that, we dramatically sought to create equity within our hourly staff. We asked all of our people in the beginning, we asked our guests: Do you guys like tipping? A lot of them said, ‘Yes, we do. We appreciate that ability.’ While it certainly has some problematic aspects, we found in its current form, at least within our restaurant, that was where a lot of the staff wanted to be. We then spread it out where now I don't think anybody is making less than $30 an hour.

“So how do we continue? The singular focus has been a restaurant relief fund, still trying to get that refilled. But thinking long term, how do we take all these fragmented small industries across the country and give them a voice? It's critical right now that the restaurant community stay as positive as we can and take this opportunity to make long-term fixes in our industry that will make us more resilient in the face of what will undoubtedly be a challenging future.”

Kevin O'Donnell, chef and owner of Giusto, in Newport, Rhode Island:

“One of the most valuable lessons we've learned as a restaurant the past two years is how to make a decision. We all make dozens of decisions every single day of our lives, and even in the best of times we are forced to make tough decisions on a daily basis in restaurants. Covid has magnified everything that's wrong in the restaurant world and we've had (mostly) the pleasure of making some really positive changes with the decisions that we've made. That's not to say that we haven't really screwed some things up along the way, but our hearts and our intentions have always been in the right place.

“It's an important skill to be able to look at potential solutions to a problem and pick them apart by thinking every possible what-if scenario through. How we create and execute internal policies, respond to government regulations, fix the lack of benefits for restaurant workers, handle and teach crisis management, how we treat people, and how we prioritize our values are all examples of important decisions we've learned how to make together as a team through communication and realizing from the past 24 months that ANYTHING is possible. So, be prepared.”

Michael Schwartz, chef, restaurateur, and founder of the Genuine Hospitality Group, in Miami:

"I learned more than ever that leadership, company culture, and teamwork are the core of what makes the Genuine Hospitality Group successful. We saw the pandemic as a way to go back to the drawing board and work on development. We believe in growth within our organization and we worked on teaching new skills to our colleagues. There wasn't much downtime here in Miami during the pandemic but we did see an opportunity to refresh and expand Michael's Genuine Food & Drink over the past summer. During that time, we spent time in my kitchen and got creative with our dishes and crafted new ones for relaunch."

Mike Morales, culinary director and partner, Sunda New Asian, in Chicago and Nashville:

“Simplify. The first thing we did was decrease the number of items on the menu. Once we revised the menu to consist of the menu items we needed to keep, the ones that defined our brand the best, we then reviewed how we could cross-utilize our ingredients. Making those edits allowed us to save money on our labor costs, which in turn helped the overall health of our restaurant.”

Billy Dec, CEO and founder, Sunda New Asian

“It reminded me that at the end of day we are here to serve. We donated thousands of meals to our fellow brothers and sisters in the hospitality industry and beyond through a project we call #SundaService. We were humbled, grounded, and energized remembering our roots, and the roots of our industry. That sense of service, pride, purpose and care reminded us to not get distracted by all the extras, the stresses. And to stay focused on what matters first — bringing comfort to people.”

[Photo by Maxim Tolchinskiy on Unsplash]

About The Author

Liz Newman - Author

Liz Newman

Staff Writer


Liz Newman is a staff writer at Back of House. Liz spent more than a decade covering the restaurant and hospitality industry for publications including Thrillist, Travel + Leisure, and Food + Wine.

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