For businesses of all stripes, 2020 has been a long string of terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days. The hospitality industry has been hit especially hard; accounts of plummeting sales, draconian restrictions, and oblivious customers are everywhere. Still, it is possible to turn a profit during (say it all together now) these unprecedented times. Highland wine and cheese bar the Truffle Table has been able to increase both profits and staff wages so far this year. Owners Karin and Rob Lawler answered our questions about how they’ve managed to thrive during a year that’s knocked everyone for a loop.
DiningOut: Which months have been most profitable for you in 2020?
June and July have been the most profitable. March was the only month with a loss this year and July was the most profitable month of 2020. We are still overly cautious with spending, knowing full well that winter is coming. We have always run our business with as little debt as possible and feel so grateful to have good credit and relationships with our bank, our landlord, and our vendors. That said, sales are down about 40%, but we’re able to adjust expenses to offset those losses.
DO: Did you offer takeout or delivery prior to March 17? Did you offer them for all or part of the shutdown?
We didn’t really do any takeout before COVID. The fancy cheese boards that were our specialty aren’t very impressive in a carryout box. Also, our margins were so thin, it didn’t make sense to use a third-party delivery service. Once the shutdown hit, we saw the importance carryout was going to have and adjusted everything to start doing it. We offered delivery for a few weeks around the neighborhood. Then, we added a side business for lunch (Fancy Hot Dogs) in April.
DO: When did you reopen for dine-in service? Are you still doing to-go and delivery?
Our first day for dine-in was June 2 or so. We reopened with three picnic tables on our side lawn on Umatilla Street, which we’ve now increased to five. We are still offering carryout, but certainly not as many orders as during shutdown; it’s now concentrated on the weekends. We are not offering delivery for Truffle Table, but Fancy Hot Dogs uses DoorDash for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
DO: Have you had to lay off any staff?
We laid off all eight of our staff at the shutdown and were able to bring back four of them when we reopened in June. Fortunately, the majority of our staff only worked for us one or two days a week because of other jobs or circumstances. They all received unemployment, weekly check-ins and any assistance we could offer. The four staff that came back were the ones who worked more hours and we were able to get them back at however many hours they wanted.
DO: How have their jobs changed?
Because we decreased our staff pretty dramatically, we’ve changed our service style to be much less formal with a bigger focus on cocktails and quicker service. We’ve adjusted the menu so we only need one person in the kitchen instead of two. Our tolerance for bullshit is largely gone! For instance, if a customer doesn’t have their mask on, is rude for any reason, or doesn’t want to be pleasant, we don’t tolerate it. There’s been more than one time where we have asked people to leave and that never happened before COVID. We’re all working too hard under too much stress to tolerate anything negative or disruptive.
DO: Outside of shifting to takeout and delivery, what changes have you made that have been successful?
This year has been non-stop change. We’ve tried to think about the business very critically in terms of keeping the business solvent. We started working all day, every day; added Fancy Hot Dogs; pushed our cocktail program; and added our monthly prix fixe wine dinners. We’ve painted, repaired, reorganized, cleaned, and planted as much as we could to make things better, but also to give us projects. When we have something to look forward to by way of a task, there’s hope for the next day to feel productive.
The restaurants that will continue to thrive will be able to pivot as things change again, because they will change again. Lose the ego and really ask yourself why you are in the business. Money? Fame? Fancy food? Making people happy?
DO: What do you feel has been the biggest driver of your profitability so far this year?
A major shift away from having a lot of expensive inventory, rethinking the menu and wine list critically, and adding Fancy Hot Dogs for lunch. We’ve also restructured our staff’s compensation so everyone is paid $13 per hour and everyone splits the tips equally, front and back. Seeing how much money everyone was making on unemployment really drove that change. Also, just having a front and back with different pay structures is ridiculous and outdated, especially for our space and small staff. And with us [Karin and Rob] working so much, it’s helped tremendously with labor costs. These days, when you look at a profit and loss report, you only have control over expenses, which is what we have been focused on reducing.
DO: Do you think the city’s expansion of patio seating has made a significant difference for your financials?
Absolutely! We have almost as many seats as before COVID. Also, having take-out cocktails and alcohol service has been a huge help because that’s where the best margins are made. However, we are acutely aware that winter is coming. We don’t have the money for fancy tents and heaters, so we reorganized our dining room to accommodate nine tables, which, for us, is something we can work with going into cooler weather.
DO: What advice would you give to other bars and restaurants looking to thrive right now?
I think it really falls on upper management and owners to disregard what you have been doing and to figure out what you can be doing moving forward. The restaurants that will continue to thrive will be able to pivot as things change again, because they will change again. Lose the ego and really ask yourself why you are in the business. Money? Fame? Fancy food? Making people happy? Change isn’t always bad and everyone wants restaurants to be “normal” again. Right now, it’s about making friends with neighbors, supporting your community, and being as cautious as possible with spending, which means making tough decisions around staffing.
DO: Conversely, what do you want to hear about and learn from other restaurants?
What are other restaurants doing other than waiting for a return to an old normal? What do other restaurant people think the next major shift will be? Where do you think we’ll be in six months, one year, two years? We ask these questions regularly of each other, our neighboring businesses, and friends. We don’t go out to eat much right now, but when we do, we always learn something new about how to serve our guests better. I think the Colorado Restaurant Association has been doing a great job of communicating changes and resources for the industry. It seems like just talking to other industry people, we’re all a bit raw and honest about the struggle right now, which is good. We need to stay honest and true with each other and be as supportive as possible.
What’s worked for your business? Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to firstname.lastname@example.org.