Helping restaurants rebound | Business


A prestigious group of business executives has been tapped for a webinar series designed to help share lessons learned as the restaurant industry continues to rebound from the COVID-19 slump.

The Women’s Business Center of The NIIC this month is hosting a Restaurant Revitalization Speaker Series that the organization says will focus on five key areas: “Mayhem, Miracles, Marketing, Menu, and Management.”

The first presentation July 12 features Thor Wood, co-founder and CEO of SnapShyft, a staffing service technology startup based in Indianapolis. The company’s platform has been featured in Business Insider, Modern Restaurant Management and Hospitality Tech Magazine, The NIIC said in a news release.

The monthlong series also features regional business leaders, including Mary Corinne “MC” Lowenstein, director of marketing at Hop River Brewing Co., and Brandon Gump, chef and general manager at Tri-Lakes Restaurant in Columbia City. Gump also owns Rowdy Rooster Artisan Meats, a new charcuterie producer in Fort Wayne expecting to open in late summer. Gump has been in the restaurant industry more than 15 years, including as a consultant.

The restaurant industry was among those most affected by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in early weeks with most states under stay-at-home orders to enable social distancing and prevent COVID-19 spread. Some food businesses closed, while others quickly shifted from in-house dining options to carry out and delivery – even if those were not a significant part of their past operating models.

“There was so much unknown and we would have had no idea the amount of pivots we were all able to do in such a short time,” Lowenstein said during a telephone interview last week.

Hop River Brewing went “through all the phases,” she said, from shutting down, to delivery and stepped up promotion of carryout food and beer.

Trying to anticipate how customers might respond to various stages of the pandemic – particularly the exposure risks – and their comfort level with food-service businesses was a challenge. So was staffing, though protecting those who were working and being sensitive were also priorities, Lowenstein said. A chef, for example, was brought in to make family meals to go for staff and a GoFundme account generated more than $10,000 to help employees who faced financial difficulty. The latter is just one of the “indirect indicators to show that our community was really supportive,” Lowenstein said.

Overall, restaurant and food service industry sales fell by $240billion in 2020 from what had been an expected level of $899 billion, according to a news release from The NIIC, formerly known as the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center. The figures were part of a 2021 State of Restaurant Industry Report that the National Restaurant Association published in January.

That report also said that as of Dec. 1 last year, more than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments were closed for business temporarily, or worse, permanently. And the eating and drinking place sector finished 2020 nearly 2.5 million jobs below its precoronavirus level.

Sarah Lance, Women’s Business Center EmPWR program manager at The NIIC, said the data hit home.

“We’ve experienced this in our community, in our state. With so many in the food service industry facing such devastating challenges this past year, we thought there had to be something we could do to support them,” she said.

The Women’s Business Center EmPWR Program is funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership and serves clients in 83 Indiana counties. The program brings together experts and resources to help business leaders. 

“In speaking with some Indiana restaurant owners,” Lance said in a statement, “there emerged a need for connection with peers, to listen and learn from each other. This speaker series provides the platform to bring them together to connect on the challenges they all faced and the opportunities ahead for restaurants and foodservice, from food trucks to bakeries.”

Lowenstein, a founder of the Northern Indiana Brewers Association and Beer Trail Passport, will speak July 19 on “Miracles: Pivot and make it work.”

“Since the beginning of COVID-19,” Lowenstein said in a prepared statement, “we have had this great opportunity to try different things in our individual establishments. Now we have the opportunity to look ahead and keep those things that worked pre-COVID and expand on things that enhanced our mission during COVID.”

Hop River Brewing emphasized its patio where it created additional seating for a dining option increasingly during stages of the pandemic. Hop River is using a hybrid model, where customers can enjoy varied service levels depending on whether seated inside the tap room or on the patio, Lowenstein said during the interview.

She looks forward to continued customer support – and empathy – since many food businesses still have staffing challenges. The reasons, she said, are varied – from the early morning to late hours, working weekends and some holidays, to the death toll of more than 600,000 from COVID-19. Lowenstein said someone pointed out to her that those losses created some natural workforce shifts leaving “employment holes.”

“If there’s anything I can say to the people of Fort Wayne,” Lowenstein said, “it’s to give our staffs grace.”

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