Cohn Restaurant Group Shares on Readjusting After New Shutdowns

Coasterra in San Diego, California.

Bar & Restaurant: We are really excited today to join by Maurice DiMarino, who is the Beverage and Wine manager for the Cohn Restaurant Group, based in California. First off, how's life dealing with COVID as you mentally and physically survive through all this?

Maurice DiMarino: I'm doing fine. I think everybody's in the same boat. So when we're all the same, I feel like we're all in the same thing so it's not like one person's succeeding and the other one's not so I can't say that I'm worse off than anybody else.

Bar & Restaurant: Well, glad to hear that. You're joining us from southern California and the whole state has been affected. It looks like the numbers are trailing off currently when looking at the latest stats. We're excited to see that, but we know there is still a long fight out of this. While another full lockdown may not be coming, restrictions have jumped back up. It has been focused on bars and restaurants with indoor dining. How have you all adjusted to Gavin Newsom's change in the operations and how are you focusing on outdoor dining to maintain the business that you can?

Maurice DiMarino: Well, we closed some of the restaurants that don't have any patio space, or don't have ability to expand outside. Luckily, we do have quite a few restaurants that have patios. Being mostly in San Diego, it's been nice to be able to have the ability to have outdoor dining. For example, one of our prime operations is a place called Costera, where it's 23,000 square feet and most of that is patio space. In addition, it has this floating event center that never gets used, unless weddings are being used on it. We have our steakhouse next door, Island Prime, and since that's only indoor dining, we moved it outside and now that is available for outdoor dining to have steak on the water.

The venue itself is pretty amazing. It's a makeshift, pop up restaurant. It's the best thing I've seen in San Diego, as far as overlooking the view of the Bay, and the food coming out of the wood fire grill, cooked right in front of you. Where we have the ability to make those changes, we're able to do it. And in other places, we just got to focus on what's available there.

Bar and Restaurant:

How many locations does the Cohn Restaurant Group operate? You all have a wide breadth of different styles of concepts from beer concepts to fine dining. How do are sales noticeably different, based on the concept and location?

Maurice DiMarino:

Overall, we have 26 restaurants with nine still closed and two being limited to take-out only. Sales are going to be different based on the concepts, but mainly because of space. No matter what, even if we have our patios gone, we're still looking at 50% of what we would normally do. So we're definitely completely down over last year, of course, and we expect that to be the case. If you can't have outdoor dining and you're focused on takeout, you're not going to get much out of it. Take out is just enough to keep some employees on and be able to use the Paycheck Protection Program money that we have. Otherwise it just goes to waste and we can't hire our employees back. That's the only reason we're using those. As far as concepts are concerned, I just think it's not too much the concept, but mostly the location, as far as what it can handle for dining options.

Bar and Restaurant:

Many reports seem to indicate that fast casual is doing much better than fine dining, in comparison. Have you started to pivot any of your menus based on reports like this? Does this lead to either paired down beverage options and scaling down food menus?

Maurice DiMarino:

Well, I mean, contrary to that actually, our fast casual is probably doing worse than our more formal dining. Our formal dining is where we're seeing the most increase right now. We have a location that sits above a Lexus dealership that is a fine dining restaurant. It has this beautiful view there, and they have access to a lot of patio space that overlooks the mountains in Northern Escondido.


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We just felt people coming out and it wasn't really about cost of food, or any of that. I don't think people are really that concerned about that, I think they're just looking for the experience to be outside and be somewhere that they haven't been to for the last three months. Our other restaurants or steakhouses, we're looking at $75 a person there and those are busy and selling out every night. We're turning away reservations for those. These are high-scale Mexican restaurant that are doing fantastic and grossing $30,000 a night.

I don't think that people are looking to now spend less money. I think we as a company, we're looking to spend less money, and that's where we make our changes to our menus. We still have a lot of restaurants that are closed that have inventories that are sitting around, and we need to move through those inventories. That's been the main focus on redeveloping menus- trimming down and keeping the things that sell. And then at the same time, using the product that we already have, rather than going out and trying to reorder more. There's no reason to spend more money, when we didn't make money for three months.

Bar & Restaurant

You all have invested in launching cocktail kits too. Really cool looking kits from Frosé, Aperol Spritz, and meals. It looks like you are also doing margarita pouches so it appears you all are investing money in new packaging and marketing. How has this been working and have you seen an uptick in sales?

Maurice DiMarino:

Right now we just try to figure out what are those little extra things we can do to make a little extra income. But to me, the cocktail kits are not about making extra income. To me, it's about staying connected with our guests, give them an experience that they normally would not be able to get, outside of the restaurant. That's the main focus on those kits. They've been popular, really popular where we've had them. They're nice boxes that we fill with swag that are donated from our vendors. So when you're buying, say, your meal kit, you're getting the copper mugs, you're getting the bitters, you're getting the fruit, the mints. You're getting the whole package there. And you're getting a full bottle of vodka.


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We didn't go the route of doing the 50 MLs and repackaging because the moment we get to repackage it, then it has to be sold with food. We wanted to be able to sell these straight out the door. So what we've done, is given guests a deal. You know? Some packages might have two bottles, with booze in them at $59 or $49.95. But the goal though, is really just to get people talking and sharing with social media, and that sort of digital engagement. That's all really what it's about. It's keeping our guests engaged.

Bar & Restaurant:

They definitely look like they're social media worthy, and I can see them generating a ton of buzz online! Speaking of switching to digital, what have you all done in terms of investing in cashless transactions, or digital menus, or any other ways for people to touch less stuff. What are the technology updates you may have made or invested heavier into?

Maurice DiMarino:

Well, I don't know if we've invested heavily into things. We have been working with some projects. We have been doing the pay and go systems. We've been working with other initiatives as trials in a few restaurants to see how that goes and work through any glitches as there always are. Overall, I think they're fine as we still have the availability to use regular credit cards at the same time. Since a lot of guests don't really understand how [e-payments] works, I would say we're probably about around 25-30% of guests that would know how to use it properly.

I think the whole touchless and sanitizing thing has evolved over the last few months, where when we first closed down, it was a major focus. And now as more and more information on COVID comes out that it's more of an airborne disease, and people are more likely to catch it from talking to each other, or from close contact, rather than from surfaces and stuff, I think that a lot of people aren't so concerned about that anymore. This doesn’t change our main focus of sanitation. We're constantly sanitizing. We invested in those blue towels, where they live in your sanitizer and you just wipe the bars down, and keep it sanitized the entire time. There are things that we're doing all the time, but as far as for payment systems, we're just playing with it right now, we haven't really gone full board all the way through with it yet.

Bar & Restaurant:

That makes sense. You're a sommelier, you're a cicerone, you have advanced training in tequila, and you also teach at San Diego State. You mentioned being focused on your customers, but how are you dealing with the employee side of keeping them engaged? A few months ago at your height, I believe you had somewhere around 2,000 employees, and a lot of them might still be laid off. Are you all focusing on additional training when they're coming back or do you have programs in place to keep the ones at home engaged as well?

Maurice DiMarino:

Yeah, while we were closed, that was my main focus, is really redoing our training program. So now, we have multiple concepts. And although we all live under one roof, every concept is different. Each has a different GM, a different manager, and as managers come and go, things get passed on, while other items don't get passed on. Trying to create continuity, was very difficult. If we were a one concept restaurant group, it'd be very easy, because everybody does the same thing. But since some restaurants are all beer restaurants, don't sell any wine, other restaurants are all about wine, other restaurants are about just cocktails. It's very, very difficult to get a training program that's worthy for the whole company, that's going to make sense for everybody. So what I really do, is focus on creating a training program of what I want my employees to know as they walk into the building and know what they should know when they walk on the floor. And that training program would now be given out to all our GMs and all our managers.

Now when somebody gets hired on, it's emailed to them. Along with that, they have to take a test when they come back on, and before they get on the floor, that test is ready to go. What I also did to keep them engaged, was during the close down, is I did a lot of training on virtual training. We did a history of vodka, we did bourbon, we did tequila, and one of our wine trainings is coming up in the next two weeks. All these trainings I'm doing on Zoom and I saw a really good turnout for these. More so than if I had done it live, where I have people come to a certain location and we all meet at the location, we do a live tasting.

What I did this time, is I made little tasting kits for them. As they came by to pick up their food for the employee food pantry, they picked up their tasting kit as well. Then we met at 1:00 on a given day on Zoom and we did entire hour and a half class on the history of bourbon, and what we serve in the restaurants. We had our reps come in and talk for five minutes about their bourbon. They got a little bit of plug and we also learned about the history of bourbon because of that.

Now that we do have those packets out for them, we also offer the Gallo Wine Academy, which to me is perfect, because they can do their wine training, they can do spirits training on there, they can do it in their own time. We also offer the BarSmarts program.

Bar & Restaurant:

As our last wrap up question, we always try to end on a positive note. I think we all needed to hear good news as much as possible, compared to the media. Any cool or positive stories that you want to share with fellow operators?

Maurice DiMarino:

I think there's been just the positivity of our guests coming back, and just being happy that we're open. I mean, that's really great. Sometimes it's frightening, because they just want to hug us and they want to say hello and everything. And it's like, "Okay, great. I'd love to do that, but we just can't." I think that's been the main thing- the feedback from our guests and everybody that's coming through. One of the things that I had done with our guests too, is hosting Zoom classes where we do live trainings with them.


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We're doing our Vodka Fest, for example, next week. Vodka Fest is an event that we do normally do live with around 300 guests. They come in, they try different vodkas, they get all these different prizes, get swag, play games, and all this kind of stuff. We had to cancel it right when this COVID started. We moved it online, and once it had gone online, I started getting these emails from our guests, going, "Oh my God. Thank you so much for keeping this going. We had so much fun last year. And it's so creative. You're coming up with new ideas to do this." To me it's just nice that they're reaching out to us and letting us know that they appreciate that we're continuing to do these things that we normally would have done when we were open.

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