Outward Growth: Restaurant Leaders on Growth in an Era of Uncertainty
A roundtable discussion.
Edited by Amanda M. Faison and Amy Antonation
Giles Flanagin, co-founder of Blue Pan Pizza, Orlando Benavidez, owner of Bits & Pieces con Cerveza food truck and a retail spice and tortilla business of the same name, and Cecelia Jones, who recently transitioned from general manager of Uncle to GM of Sunday Vinyl, represent three very different viewpoints within the restaurant industry. A couple months ago, we brought them together to discuss growth of both the professional and personal variety (not surprisingly, the two are often intertwined). We asked the trio to consider what business looked like pre-pandemic and what it looks like now. The point wasn’t to dwell on COVID’s long-term effects, but instead to examine how the setback has launched plans anew and what now sits on the horizon. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
DiningOut: Where were you two years ago, and where are you now?
Giles Flanagin: Two years ago we were, for lack of a better term, on cruise control, flying high. Business was good; staffing was normal. There are always challenges, but two years ago those challenges were minimal. Right now we’re trying to manage. It’s an incredibly challenging business environment. As we all know and understand, restaurants are a difficult business to begin with. It’s very difficult to make really good food the exact same way every day of the year and make everyone happy every time. It’s harder than ever to make a profit. It’s harder to provide service seven days a week. I think people can relate [that] if we close, the bills don’t stop.
“I’ve learned that you’ve got to create more structure during times of trauma.”
—Cecelia Jones, Sunday Vinyl
Orlando Benavidez: I’ve been a lot more fortunate than most Denver restaurants and restaurants across the country. I own a food truck and have my retail and wholesale business. Prior to COVID, I’d already been working on my dry spices and tortillas so I figured, well, this is the opportunity to do it. I launched [retail and wholesale] in October 2020 and the food truck came back last year, and business has been great. As of right now, the retail and wholesale is keeping the business alive. It’s what I’m expanding into. That’s the future. The food truck was just the way of me getting here.
Cecelia Jones: Like most people, I thought the pandemic was going to last a week or two. I was so surprised by how busy we were [at Uncle]. While some of our neighbors were doing $200 a night, we were doing $12,000 a night in just takeout. I was in this fight-or-flight mode and I was holding my staff accountable to the space, to the work, to their mental health—all the while ignoring my own. I’ve learned that you’ve got to create more structure during times of trauma. More, not less. More boundaries, not less. You’ve got to create a great box of standards even inside of that structure. Not just structure for work, but when you get symptoms, when you need a mental health day. I’m helping [my staff] help themselves.
DO: How do you define growth?
GF: There’s the monetary aspect, of course. Growing the revenue of the business, growing the income of the business to make a living. But most important is loving what you do. It’s really hard to execute any business really well if you don’t totally love it.
We have incredibly high employee retention. The managers at each of our restaurants are going on six years. They started at the counter and their careers are growing. Retention is critical to sustaining a great business. Not every employee grows professionally with us because we don’t have the right opportunities available. I always tell them: If you leave, I just hope it’s for an opportunity we can’t provide you. One aspect of failure for me is if someone leaves because they don’t like it or it’s a poor work environment or whatever negative thing. A lot of people have grown at Blue Pan and moved on to higher positions. That is such a big level of success for us.
OB: With the food truck, I don’t have much staff to worry about. It’s just me and one other person, so I was able to focus on growing in a different direction. Retail and wholesale was always the plan, but COVID rushed it. Now I’m 18 months ahead of the timeline I set for myself. Everyone was ordering everything online—that’s how I grew. Now I’m able to take that in a bigger direction.
“I get a lot of questions: ‘How do you let go of cooking the food?’ I say, if you don’t want to grow, just hold on to it.”
—Orlando Benavidez, Bits & Pieces con Cerveza
This year I have a bunch of stuff taking off. I’m about to launch my sauces and I’m in stores around Denver with my products. One of my moves last year with doing pop-ups, wine dinners, and charity events was about marketing and networking and getting into locations and opening other markets for myself. I took a position with the Hispanic Restaurant Association on the chef’s council board and now there’s a big sales team as part of that. If it all works out to plan, [wholesale and retail] will consume so much of my time I won’t be able to run the food truck.
CJ: On a personal level, it’s my growth as a leader…there’s a level of patience in me. When I moved to Sunday Vinyl, my staff was experiencing growing pains. It had only been open for six months and the staff had been moved around into different positions. I was just supporting them as they moved into their roles. My growth is to keep the bodies in the room and infuse them with what they need. On a business level, what I learned from Tommy [Lee, owner of Uncle,] is loyalty. When it was time to reopen at Uncle, Tommy had a staff every time we had to reopen. We didn’t have to rehire. He used every dollar of PPP to keep them employed and engaged. They were working about 15 hours a week but they all made $70,000 to $100,000 last year. That’s not an exaggeration. That piece to me was the biggest growth of business. We didn’t have to scramble and search for staff because they were there and they were ready.
DO: How do you grow inside your business?
OB: I’ve been in the industry for 25 years. My model has always been to teach others what I know. If I can’t teach you, then I can’t grow. It’s all about elevating those who work with you. If you don’t have experience, we’ll start you at the register, but we’ll transition you to garnish the food and eventually push you to the back where you’re cooking the food. I get a lot of questions: “How do you let go of cooking the food?” I say, if you don’t want to grow, just hold on to it. Me, I want to grow; I want more; I want to make it better. You can’t let your ego get in the way of business or growth. It’s the losing battle that you’ll never win.
GF: The ego is the killer, especially in our business where people think they’re really good. Humility is at the core of Blue Pan’s business principles and business statement. I was interviewed yesterday for another outlet and he said, “It’s my understanding that you have the best pizza in Denver.” You will never hear us say we have the best pizza in Denver. Every day we wake up and we want to figure out how to make everything better, whether that’s the food, the appetizer, the service. That’s a big part of our company: Not getting complacent and always having the mindset of trying to get a little better every day.
“I’m back to very exclusive [environments]. I’m still working that through as a person of color in that space.”
CJ: Tommy’s vision around service and restaurants is egalitarian; it’s at a price point and accessibility that I hadn’t ever experienced. Going back to fine dining, I’m back to very exclusive [environments]. I’m still working that through as a person of color in that space. A lot has come up in my 110 days with this company—especially in the directors’ team, which is very into seeing their space be more inclusive. They intend to create programming that speaks to all people. They really are trying. That seems like righteous work right now inside the industry. I feel value where I am.
DO: What are you looking forward to?
CJ: I created such a beautiful balance working with Tommy. My AGM and I were on a four-10 schedule. Getting back to that balance is important to me. I’m doing 50 hours again, but I can find my way back.
“Staffing is really tough. Is it making us hesitant to expand? A little, but we haven’t hit the brakes.”
—Giles Flanagin, Blue Pan Pizza
GF: We are currently building a food truck. Some have said, “You’re doing what?
Isn’t that a step back?” Actually, it’s a huge step forward for us. We’re really stoked to bring our product to different places outside of Denver in particular: Golden, Wheat Ridge, Jefferson County, and eventually south into the suburbs. We can target new markets that have shown interest. We can also bring our product to birthday parties and breweries and give ourselves a different hospitality model. We’re hoping to find another building to do another one or two locations over the next couple of years. But staffing is really tough. Is it making us hesitant to expand? A little, but we haven’t hit the brakes.
DO: Talk to us about why the food truck is the way to go right now, and why it’s a huge step forward.
GF: The cost and the risk. This is a hedge given the challenges, especially with staffing and accessibility to good real estate. The start-up cost [of any brick and mortar] is a huge component, but to bring our product beyond our four walls will be refreshing for staff and for me professionally. It’s a huge challenge. I don’t know why anyone thinks this stuff is easy. I like being challenged. I want to grow my career. I want to be a better partner, owner, and team member.
OB: The food truck market is never going to die. It’s grown by 70 percent since I opened my truck in 2018. For brick and mortar, the costs are ridiculous and you have to staff it. Plus, Giles, you don’t have to pay commissary rent because you have brick and mortars. Another way of operating the food truck is giving it as an incentive to your staff: If you want to get out of the building and get on the truck… It’s worked for a few of the trucks I know.
DO: Who do you feel is growing well (not too fast, not too slow, keeping their staff, keeping the integrity)?
OB: The person who has done it best, and he let go of everything to go for what he wanted to do, is Justin Brunson. He told all of us, “I had to, the restaurants were killing me. I wasn’t healthy or happy.” He was still putting out a great product. He got rid of all his restaurants and said, “All I want to do is meat.” I feel like he’s the one who has done it right, and done a really good job at it. I look up to him to go where I want to go.
GF: I think of our landlord City Street Investors, which was formerly the Larimer Group. They’re a big real-estate group, but they own a lot of restaurants or have a majority ownership stake in them. I pay a lot of attention to how they grow. Another one of the fascinating growth stories is Illegal Pete’s. We met with Pete [Turner, founder,] a few years ago when we were trying to figure out how we were going to grow. He was very transparent about how he’s growing and how he’s financing things.
DO: How do you plan ahead with all the unknowns?
GF: At the end of the day, a lot of what we do is manage risk. There’s financial, business, liability, and staffing. Risk management is a huge part of our business. That makes it hard to plan ahead, given how fluid things seem to be. We’re more conversative in our projections than we’ve ever been, from a cost standpoint. But we haven’t changed our business model. We haven’t gone from table service to fast casual because we believe table service is at the core of Blue Pan, the core of the guest experience, the core of our careers. We’re just trying to plan for lower profit margins, more capital investment, higher financial risk, and then educate ourselves on challenges so when we do decide to grow the business, the probability of success is high.
“We’re more conversative in our projections than we’ve ever been, from a cost standpoint.”
—Giles Flanagin, Blue Pan Pizza
OB: I started planning this year last August. I already figured out bottles for my sauces. I was cutting out that third party [vendor] for my chiles. I have all my costs lined up and ready to go. The only thing that will change is product cost. Without the truck, my product cost drops 65 percent, because I don’t need as much food and I don’t need any proteins. I eliminated a ton of costs and I get to put that capital into the [retail] expansion as opposed to holding onto it for the truck. There’s no money backing me. It’s just me and I have to make it work. What I’m trying to get to: I will be my sole investor if all goes to plan.
CJ: Because I did the previous shutdowns and managed [COVID] cases and rotating staff and all of that, all I can really do is plan out five days. I can also be flexible and not let it ruin my day. That’s a big deal, staying ready to do whatever is necessary. Also to have hard boundaries for our own time, and see the day with the most positive attitude. I think this is only going to get weirder.
DO: What keeps you in the industry?
CJ: It’s in me now. I know what we need to do to take care of people. I know what I need to be conscious of. I’ve got to work the workaholic out of this [restaurant] group, which the last group worked out of me. I’m not afraid of that. My perspective on restaurants is just different. I didn’t start here. [ED: Jones was a professional dancer prior to her hospitality career.] It’s different to be me because of my feminine views and my color. I don’t see things like others.
GF: Having the opportunity to serve Detroit-style pizza—a food I literally grew up eating every Friday night with my family—in Denver is a true privilege and I never, ever take it for granted. There is literally no better feeling than when our guests leave Blue Pan happy. Watching people having fun, creating memories, and enjoying our food and hospitality keeps me motivated and focused to work hard, day in and day out.
OB: The thing that solidified it for me was when I went back to New Mexico for the holidays. My mom found a few pieces of paper from when I was in elementary school when I sold candy and toothpicks dipped in cinnamon extract. I had my own food costs and I brought in a friend to help—I basically brought in an employee and didn’t realize it. I needed to make extra money because I wanted those Air Jordans. When I saw those papers I thought, that’s the drive in me, this is in me. I’ve really come full circle.
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