Evolve Report: DowntownDC Dine Out, Investing in Tech Solutions, Hiring Your ‘A’ Team

Restaurants and COVID-19
Many restaurants and bars have made it through the pandemic so far with the help of the government, but some may not be able to get through the winter season without additional support.(The Light Writer 33 / Bigstock.com)

Evolve, a free multi-month, educational and networking virtual event series from Questex’s Bar & Restaurant group – running through April 2021 – aims to spread innovative ideas to the industry to help them strategize financially and mentally during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

DowntownDC Dine Out Region
The Nov. 17, 2020 iteration of Evolve kicked off with a focus on Washington D.C. “D.C. is blessed because they have a culture and nightlife division solely focused on D.C. restaurants and businesses in the hospitality space,” said Jeremiah Batucan, conference director at Bar & Restaurant, who gave a shout out to everyone struggling due to the coronavirus.

Shawn Townsend, the director of the mayor's office of nightlife and culture in Washington, D.C., interviewed a few folks in Northwest D.C., the downtown center and Dine Out experience region. First up was Pepe Moncayo of Crane, who discussed his outdoor dining experience. “Last weekend, Saturday being the strongest day for us, our streatery produced 10 percent of our revenue, which is amazing.”

Crane’s capacity is 200 seats. They can open it at 50 percent capacity, but it's not happening. Moncayo went from 100 employees to zero. They returned in May with four. They have 20 to 25 employees on a busy night, like Saturdays.

Next up, Townsend
interviewed Emily Mooney with the DowntownDC Business Improvement District (BID). In late July, Mooney said Barry Goodman, CEO of Cuba Libre, approached BID with the idea to create a larger outdoor dining experience downtown. “Outdoor dining has really been a lifeline in order to survive and try to match revenue that they were making previously pre COVID,” she told Townsend.  

It really evolved into what you find now, which is everything is tented, according to Mooney. About two weeks ago, they added heaters. BID had some funds in reserves for Dine Out. They partnered with Bacardi and PepsiCo, who provided financial sponsorships for DowntownDC Dine Out.

DowntownDC relies heavily on its daytime employment base. And right now, because so many people are working from home still, Mooney estimates 10 percent maximum employees are back in the office.

Townsend also interviewed Barry Gutin,
principal and co-founder at GuestCounts Hospitality. Gutin closed his restaurant down in March and reopened in late June with sidewalk dining and indoor dining. But that really wasn't enough. The city enabled them to use their parking lane on what is normally a busy street.

Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged in September $4 million to support businesses to help defray the costs of winterizing their spaces outdoors, according to Townsend. For the next couple of months on Eighth Street, Gutin said they are hoping to keep the tents going through the cold weather, using sidewalls and heat. They are going to put gas fire pits out and windbreaks so that the wind doesn't blow away the heat. It is going to feel like you're around a campfire or at a ski lodge, he said.

“We could not have gotten to this point without government support, and we cannot get through the winter without it,” Gutin noted. He hopes that the use of the parking lane will become perpetual like New York City, where they made those accommodations permanent.

Investing in Technology Solutions
Sean Finter, founder of BarMetrix, interviewed Anna Valero, owner of Hook Hall. Valero already had a reservation platform set up (they do cabana rentals) but it was not sufficient. They moved from a solution for tour operators to Resy, which is a more full-scale app. “A lot of these technologies are focused on consumer experience. On the front end for the user, it’s super intuitive. On the back end, its not a be-all end-all solution for the operator.”

Valero said the systems are being built as they are flying, and these new users have arrived because of COVID. Booking tickets for events – those parts of the system are behind. Valero said you must commit to one system despite it being imperfect.

Valero recommended that owners sit down and write what they need. “Think through every permutation of something that you’re going to need within your building. Write those scenarios out.”

Finter suggested that all operators do a tech audit 60, even 120 days out. Bring the POS contact back in to “reconfigure the system to be faster, better, and smoother,” he said.

Hiring Your A Team
Batucan introduced Donald Burns,
The Restaurant Coach and author of Your Restaurant Sucks! Burns provided strategies on how to recruit and “How to Hire Your ‘A Team’ in the Next 90 Days.” He said due to COVID-19, a lot of people are transitioning out of the industry.

Bad news: less restaurants. “There is a war with talent. Be careful with the words you say and how you say it. There are patterns to success and patterns to failure,” said Burns.  

He continued with his high-level energy presentation. “A level talent does not work to work for C-level culture. If you don’t create a better culture, you are screwed,” he said.  

Based on Burns’ industry experience, restaurants nationwide are: struggling (20 percent), surviving (60 percent), thriving (15 percent) and driving (4.5 percent).  

More tips from Burns: Stop the blame and shame game. Take 100 percent accountability for where your restaurant is now. Recruit like your life depends on it… because it really does. Most restaurants get destroyed from the inside due to toxic culture.

Fan and Community Engagement
National Brand Ambassador for Hendrick's Gin, Vance Henderson, discussed social media and great content.

Henderson built his content calendar and continued to reach his audience despite not being able to travel or visit like he normally would be able to.

Unusual times call for unusual actions, explained Henderson. He shared his goals for engagement; one is to provide and support simple turnkey opportunities that can be activated with limited to no-dollar bills.

He advised restaurant and bar owners to try the following:

  • Virtual happy hours via Instagram or Facebook
  • Virtual takeovers for a bigger platform
  • Virtual classes, drinking experiences or seminars
  • Podcasts
  • Thematic posts
  • Approachable cocktail demos for viewers to make at home

To-Go Model
The final session was with Chef
Brian Duffy, who’s based in Philly and has closed indoor dining through Jan. 4. Duffy pushed his to-go model and had to get his staff on board. He had to decide on what food traveled well. His advice? Owners should get in touch with their delivery services and POS. Update their menu daily and check your reviews on Yelp, etc. Duffy reviewed some menus and offered tips on packing the food for delivery.

To get more insights from industry experts through the Evolve series, 
register now for upcoming virtual events (registration is free). You can also watch past Evolve events on-demand, including the Nov. 17th iteration that’s highlighted in this report. Visit events.barandrestaurantexpo.com.

For sponsorship opportunities, contact Jamie Schroeder at [email protected] or Veronica Gonnello at [email protected].

Stay connected with Evolve on Facebook and Instagram @nightclubbar and follow #evolve.

Questex’s Bar & Restaurant group will also bring the industry together at VIBE Conference, June 7-9, 2021, at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif. and at the Nightclub & Bar Show, June 28-30, 2021, at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nev.