Restaurant Tips for Success During and after the Pandemic
It’s no surprise that COVID-19 is driving big changes in the restaurant industry. Forced into unforeseen challenges ranging from closed dining spaces to contactless delivery, hospitality businesses are finding it difficult to navigate the restrictions. But despite this curve ball, some restaurants are seeing unexpected growth.
Texas-based restaurant group Tiny Boxwoods Productions is one of those success stories. Their secret? Taking it back to the basics, and staying focused on what makes them unique in the restaurant scene. Defining their “one thing” gave them the focus they needed to make their fully-immersive (yet socially distanced) approach work through an omni-channel customer experience. With three campus-style properties in Houston and Austin, TX (and plans to grow), each location features a full restaurant with outdoor dining and curbside pick-up, a lifestyle-centric retail shop, and their most pandemic-friendly concept: a walk-up bakery and cafe called Milk & Cookies.
Today, despite the pandemic, you’ll find a line of masked, sweet-toothed customers outside their sliding barn doors.
We sat down with Baron Doke, chef and co-owner of the Tinys restaurant group, to pick his brain on what it takes to stay relevant during one of the biggest shifts in hospitality history. In a season when we could all use a little hope, Baron and his team are celebrating the sweet side of life.
Here’s what he had to say…
INTERVIEW WITH BARON DOKE | HEAD CHEF AND CO-OWNER, TINY BOXWOODS PRODUCTIONS
CRP: Tell us, Baron, how has business been since the pandemic hit?
BARON DOKE: You know, we’ve actually been doing really well under the circumstances. We’ve just really hit a good stride. Milk & Cookies is having its best year to date. Luckily it was already set up for the take out concept. Despite everything, we’ve got two more locations opening here (in Houston) in the next three months and we’re working on two more in Austin next year. Eight is our goal for Milk & Cookies in the next two or so years, and we’ve got a really good growth plan, so just trying to solidify the restaurants at this point. The restaurants were hitting their stride (pre-pandemic), and honestly, it was a hard blow when they were closed down. We’re known for our outdoor dining that transports you out of Houston, so we’ve really been rocking the patio dining to stay busy.
We’ve had to stay on our feet to keep moving… I mean, it’s crazy how many hoops we’ve had to jump through and how many pivots we had to make this past year. Every day is different, and there are so many moving parts. We’ve never worked as hard as we’ve worked, and I’m happy that we’re still here. There are so many businesses that have not made it – so many bars and restaurants were just rocking until this hit, which is heartbreaking. So I am very thankful for our success.
Before the pandemic hit, you had already been dabbling in delivery and curbside pickup. Did that work in your favor?
Yes, we had a little bit of that going, but we had to be quick on our feet to switch over to 100% to-go service, and be prepared for all the family-style meal orders and all the things we did to the restaurants to make it work. I think people were and are staying loyal to their regular spots, their “happy places” during all of this so we were glad to offer something to our loyal base that worked for them. We are also very invested in our neighborhoods and have made it easier than ever for them to walk on up.
When you say you had to be quick on your feet, what do you mean?
We had to make a lot of adjustments to our daily operations very quickly. Every morning we woke up, things were different than they were the night before and we had to be prepared to not let that stop us from operating at the high standard we always have. We were managing staffing changes, product availability, shortages and menu changes all while keeping our staff and guests as safe as possible. I used it as an opportunity to really dive deep in to everything that we do company wide — making sure it all still feels like Tinys.
I had a lot of meetings with my teams behind the scenes and set the tone: “We’ve never been more serious about what we’re doing. From our manners to our packaging – if we’re going to be here, we’re going to be fighting to stay alive like so many restaurants are. So, let’s fight. Let’s do it right.”
You have to remind yourself that people are more selective than ever when they do go out. I really do think people are staying loyal to their happy places during the pandemic. Now when they do go out, they want places that they trust. They’re not going to the flavor-of-the-month joint; they’re revisiting staples. In some cases, it’s the first time they’ve been out of the house in a month and they’re taking a chance on us so I just told everyone, “We have to shine at the highest level.” And that’s really what we’ve been doing.
With the front of house closed, many restaurants have had to rely on third-party delivery services. Have you had experience with that sort of model, and if so, how has it worked for you?
Yes, that is something new we have had to invest in. We added online ordering to our website. There was a bit of sticker shock in the beginning over how much it actually costs a business to use a third-party delivery service, but it has definitely helped. We do a lot of takeout orders now – things that we’ve never done before, and the sales have been good, so it’s been an interesting learning experience. I’ve had a hard time with it because it is so hard to package up the experience of dining at Tinys and any restauranteur will tell you not all dishes carry well , but people have really liked it. For me, it’s been a compromise. I had to just get over it and accept that this is what people want and this is how we are doing business now.
Have you found it difficult to maintain your brand through these third-party platforms? I’m thinking of this question in terms of other people who might be considering using them or have used it and found that it’s really damaged their customer experience.
Yes and no. For brands that rely on an in-person experience (like us), it is really hard to package that up and sell it through Favor/Door Dash/Uber Eats (or whatever platform you may be using). We had to bring on someone when we launched our frozen dough shipping and online ordering who is a marketing expert on this sort of thing. She built the platform and is very familiar with e-commerce and has been in charge of that entire process. She tracks all of the data (and there is a lot of it out there personal to your business) and translates it for us. That has really helped us craft our online presence to maintain our brand when it is sometimes not in our control. It’s hard, though. You know me pretty well so you know how I feel about Tinys, and how hands-on I am. All of our moves have been successful but necessary to stay relevant during COVID, it is just hard for me to let go.
At the end of the day, Tinys is such an in-person experience, and I’ve always really protected that. But the future is definitely going to be different. People want to pull up in their car and get their order. They want to order online and know what to expect. The restaurant experience is changing. I’ve just had to get used to that. But I do think that we’ve handled it well.
Have you found that your packaging has helped you maintain the brand experience without having that in-person experience you’re so proud of?
Absolutely. Even though it’s been a hard time, our little cookie dough box that we developed with you guys has been a huge hit during all of this. People have flocked – both kids and parents come up here, and they just love it. So yeah, I think people experiencing our brand at home with our products has increased. Especially with our cookies and any of our packaged stuff. There is a certain warm and fuzzy feeling associated with it. But again, the cookie dough box has definitely been just awesome. We’ve never sold more of those.
What sort of marketing have you been investing in to promote your restaurants? What’s worked best for you?
I would say our biggest marketing efforts would have been our new website and building our internal marketing team. We’ve invested in an e-commerce specialist that helped to build our online sales.
It also helps to have one product you’re really known for. For us, it’s the Tinys cookie. I mean, it’s always been our number one marketing tool. Whenever anyone hears about our cookie, they come to this place, so we’ve invested a ton in it. We’ve actually been worried that we can’t keep up with the demand on cookie orders, especially with the paper shortages (for packaging). We’ve really worked internally to build a world around the Milk & Cookies brand. We’ve yet to hire a marketing firm or a publicist or any of that stuff. Instead, we’ve stayed committed to keeping it all in-house and build the nest that we’ve been working on for so long, and it’s really working.
Any parting words of recommendation for other restaurant owners?
We’ve been lucky, but to all the people who are hurting, I’d say you gotta hold on tight to what matters and know when to let go of things. We’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions for the bigger picture of staying alive. Even when COVID goes away, the way the restaurant industry works will be changed forever.
I would encourage simple concepts. I think that people are going to keep going back to small, small, small – like what we’ve always tried to celebrate at Tinys. You know, these tiny little gems. When it’s too big, it’s too much to manage. Too many people, too many moving parts and just not what people want right now.
So you’d say: keep overhead low, stay small, be flexible yet focused…
Oh my gosh, yes. Overhead low. I mean, again, it’s just all about small concept. You’ve got to have a small concept to understand how you master it. And as much as it’s not my forte, you need a good online presence for to-go and delivery to make it easy on the audience. If you’ve got a good product and you can make it easy for people to get it then you might be OK, but it’s important to make it as easy as possible – both for you and your customers.
At the end of day we’ve relied mostly on our roots and our core customer base. We try to take care of the neighborhoods that we’re in and make everything feel normal. We’ve also been trying to showcase everything that’s made us successful through the years. I know it sounds kind of cheesy but just looking back at your roots and asking yourself, “why are we here, and how did we maintain success this far?” is important.
Creative Retail Packaging is fully invested seeing our customers succeed. We believe packaging can play a big role in your own success story, because we’ve seen it happen.
If you would like to discuss ways to enhance your brand experience through packaging, give us a call.