Evolve Report: ‘Innovation Exhaustion,’ Buzzworthy Beverages To-Go and Adjusting with the Times

Bar COVID-19
(Fesenko / Bigstock.com)

Questex's Bar & Restaurant Group – owners of the Nightclub & Bar Show and VIBE Conference – is presenting a must-attend virtual event series called Evolve, a free multi-month educational and networking program.

Evolve, which kicked off Nov. 10, 2020 and runs through April 2021, aims to spread innovative ideas to as many in the industry as possible, to help them strategize financially and mentally during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Washington, D.C. was chosen as the first virtual destination for the digital event series in November. Just like thousands across the country, restaurants in D.C. are fighting to keep their doors open and their staff employed, while Congress debates over the next round of support.

Industry Roundtable
For the Nov. 10 debut of Evolve, restaurant and bar owners from around D.C. were asked to discuss how they have been navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic. Featured in this roundtable – moderated by Jeremiah Batucan, director of conference and industry relations at Questex Bar & Restaurant – were Amy Brandwein, executive chef and owner of Centrolina and Piccolina, Jeff Miskiri owner and operator of Po Boy Jim's and Creole on 14th, and Bill Thomas, owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon and Imperial.

"We want to talk to what owners and operators are doing right here in the district,” said Batucan during the opening of Evolve. “They've been a central point of a lot of change; there have been a lot of social justice movements going on in the district, been a lot of movement from the Mayor's office and helping businesses here. We want to hear these stories."

Each panelist shared their struggles, what they're grateful for and how they pivoted and remained resilient – from to-go orders, delivery and menu changes. They also discussed how they had to cut costs while preserving quality, and the need for a sustainable, long-term business model for the future.

While Brandwein prides her team on their communication and creativity during the pandemic, she said it’s still taken a toll on her and her staff. "There's this exhaustion that I don't think people talk about; it's like innovation exhaustion," said Brandwein.

Miskiri, a chef, owner and operator of Po Boy Jim and Felicity Lounge DC, was able to open a restaurant, Creole on 14th, during the Pandemic. “For me, it’s been the social recognition I’ve received being a black-owned business owner,” he explained. “Unfortunately, due to social injustices and incidents that's been occurring throughout our country during the pandemic recently, there’s been a lot of protests going on throughout the country and the love and support I’ve received from people of all races – and they don’t even know me personally but they know it’s a black-owned business and showing the support has been wonderful.”

Thomas challenged other restaurant owners beyond the panel to ask themselves the question, "What is an acceptable loss?" He urged others to put the focus on people, their staff and keeping them employed. "It's more important to keep the lights on and people employed than it is for our personal wellbeing, our personal happiness, our personal wealth – all that's gone out the window," said Thomas.

But the panel agreed that the longer the pandemic persists, the more support the industry will need. "We're not competing with our neighborhood restaurants anymore. We're tired of seeing them close down," explained Miskiri.

Creating Buzzworthy Beverage To-Go Programs
During Evolve’s Nov. 10 session, Batucan also spoke with Rohit Malhotra, beverage director of Capo Speakeasy, on how they transformed their space into a national headline-grabbing establishment with a buzz-worthy beverage to-go program. They also experienced an Instagram following increase of about 250 percent.

With no room to social distance indoors, Capo Speakeasy took advantage of a to-go beverage program, where they introduced quarantine-themed cocktails featuring the “Fauci Pouchy,” “Piña Kamala” and “Mike Pencicillin” ahead of the vice-presidential debates.

"It was definitely an adjustment,” said Malhotra, speaking about pivoting during the pandemic. “I think a lot of bartenders thrive off that human interaction; it's what makes us bartenders. But essentially, we became prep cooks. I think there was a lot of fun trying to figure out how to scale these things up. We were trying to learn new things and improvise to the times."

Malhotra urged bars to be fluid and ready to get creative while keeping cocktail menus fresh and relevant to the audience.

Executing World Class Cocktails and Pop-Ups
Batucan also spoke with Laura Newman, bar manager and owner of Queen's Park in Birmingham, Ala. and 2018 winner of the U.S. Bartender of the Year award. Newman's location gives her a unique perspective compared to major cities, since to-go cocktails were prohibited in Alabama since mid-September. However, Queen's Park was able to regenerate their previous drink menu of more than 60 cocktails, featuring a new frozen drink every week.

"Since then, we have only been allowed to do on-premise sales,” said Newman. “Fortunately, we were able to expand our outdoor seating area just in time.”

Although Alabama has recently allowed 100 percent indoor capacity [as long as there’s a plexiglass barrier between each socially-distanced table], Newman said her staff voted to keep capacity below 100 percent for the time being and regularly supports them voting as a team on decisions.

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. 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.