The impact of the pandemic on the restaurant industry has been severe. Many states have unfortunately experienced a roller coaster with restrictions and shutdowns changing constantly, and restaurants have been continuously forced to change the way that they’ve always done business. They sought survival through curbside and delivery orders instead of dine-in services, and some businesses like Old Thousand, a neighborhood Chinese inspired restaurant located in Austin, TX, fully embraced the pivot to delivery and to-go and capitalized on this new era of dining. Fortunately, serving Chinese food they already had the structure in place to dive headfirst into to-go. Prior to the pandemic, Old Thousand typically received about 15%-20% of their weekly sales through to-go orders, once restrictions hit, they were able to transition their structure to pivot almost immediately into 100% to-go.
Andrew Sutton, RASI Client Advisor, is joined with Brett Bettin, GM of Old Thousand, to discuss how they have adapted their restaurant to curbside and delivery, and how the concept has changed since Coronavirus started nearly a year ago.
HOW RESTAURANTS ARE PIVOTING FROM INDOOR DINING VS. TO-GO & CURBSIDE
In the past two months, like most restaurants across the nation, Old Thousand has opened its original location’s dining room at a hugely restricted capacity.
Brett and his team are able to seat at about 25%.
Yes, it absolutely seems dismal, however, Brett has taken the positives out of each experience that COVID has placed upon his restaurant; and the positive here?
Diners are eager to get out and enjoy dining experiences again, even if it’s limited – they want to fill seats, they want to support locally in whatever means they can, and THAT makes the future look so bright.
As restaurants have continued to find ways to accommodate guests safely indoors, they’ve also pivoted their business models to find growth in other ways.
Old Thousand had plans in motion for a second location prior to the pandemic, signing into a lease around the new year in 2020. Brett expected to have time to build out the restaurant to open in early spring, and as we all know, that’s when our world took a sharp turn.
When the pandemic hit and everything shut down, investors pulled out and Old Thousand was forced to sit on the space. For some that would sink a ship, but not for Brett.
Being a proactive operator he wouldn’t be shaken. Brett and his team began to prove that operating, even at limited capacity, and shifting to heavily rely on takeout services, they were still a viable, functional restaurant and they were able to keep their staff and pay their bills.
As investors saw this shift, they returned and were willing to help get the second location up and running as a to-go only restaurant.
HOW RESTAURANTS CAN ADVERTISE FOR NEWLY OPENED LOCATIONS DURING THE PANDEMIC
One of the first actions Old Thousand took for their second location was to put up signage showing that they had arrived in the neighborhood.
Not only did they start to spark interest with signage in general, but they got creative with it. Instead of popping up any old “coming soon” notation, they instead took a larger, more, in-you-face route; and it worked.
The second location’s sign is unique reading, “Dope Chinese,” in neon lights atop the building, which Brett believes led to a copious amount of initial curiosity. Patrons would drive by wondering what the sign was for, and with the additional help of a press release announcing that Old Thousand was opening a second location in a new area, excitement about the restaurant started to stir amongst the locals.
They have been very warmly welcomed to the neighborhood. Old Thousand also ran a soft-opening with three days of influencers and media. They had friends and family join, and as with any soft-opening, they utilized that time to verify that they had the systems in place necessary to run their operation as intended.
Mixing traditional advertising methods with the creativity and spunk to stand out amongst a crowd helped them officially open their doors on October 4th and this Dope Chinese hot-spot has been a revenue-generating machine ever since.
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THE FUTURE OF RESTAURANTS: IS THE PANDEMIC GOING TO CHANGE THE WAY THAT PEOPLE WILL DINE OUT? WILL MORE RESTAURANTS OPEN UP CONCEPTS FOR TO-GO ONLY?
Brett thinks that dining has absolutely changed. He thinks that the prime dining period around 2005, 2006, with Chef-driven restaurants and dining experience or restaurants where you’re sitting down in beautiful spaces and paying lots of money may be over as dining habits have been forced to shift.
Throughout the past year, people have been dining in their homes and getting used to take-out rhythms and planning food that they can bring home, and he believes that those habits as established, are going to be harder to shift back to what it was before.
That being said, Brett still believes that people are hungry to get out and experience eat-in dining rooms again, but it may be a lot more casual, and both restaurants and patrons will continue to adjust to the new realities of what life is after this pandemic is.
As far as the restaurant industry being in trouble for the long haul? Not a chance. As long as the industry remains as creative and flexible as it has proven that it can be, then it will have a grand future of serving really interesting food that people want to try.
People need food, they love food, and there are a lot of things that restaurants provide people that are a necessity that the pandemic can’t ever change.