Lessons Learned One Year Into the Pandemic from Local Chefs and Restaurateurs

Kathy Tran
CocoAndré Chocolatier co-owner Cindy Pedraza Puente had to do quite a bit of bobbing and weaving the past year and says being innovative was key.
Running a restaurant or any food industry business isn't for the easily fatigued. The competitive nature requires an exhausting amount of diligence. Social media can be a cruel monster. Business can turn on a dime. It can also be a beautiful way to connect with people, share a passion, be your own boss in a space you created. Plus, you get to wear an apron and Crocs instead of khakis.

So with one year of pandemic life in the books, we reached out to a few producers of fine foods and beverages to find out what they've learned the past year.

"What didn’t I learn?!”
- Meaders Ozarow, Empire Baking Co.

“Do more with less. Adapt to less staff at a higher rate to run operation and keep as much money in the bank as you can for operating capital."
- Jay Valley, Saint Rocco’s New York Italian

“We’ve only had few people be dicks about it [the mask mandate] but those that are dicks, are huge dicks.”
- Katherine Clapner, Dude, Sweet Chocolate

"I've learned that guest ‘value perception’ is key, making sure that our staff knows how important it is to take care of the guests who do decide to spend their money in uncertain times and make sure they feel that their time and money were well spent and appreciated."
- Ryan Olmos, chef and operator of AvoEatery

"The pandemic reinforced that, like any business, the foodservice industry needs to be flexible and adaptable to a changing marketplace. We had to make changes to our business model daily in the first few months of the pandemic, and it was heartwarming to see our patrons embrace those changes and come out to support us."
- William Weisiger, head pitmaster Ten50 BBQ

"At TJ's Seafood, we learned that no matter what was stressing our operation, the guests were equally stressed. Our job is always to feed them and give them a 'food' hug.” If someone was short or in a bad mood, instead of fighting with them we remembered that our product could be the peace of mind or comfort they clearly needed.
Anyone can offer hospitality when everything goes right. How do you maintain it when everything is going wrong?"
- Jon Alexis, TJ’s Seafood Market

click to enlarge Palmer Fortune of Palmer's Hot Chicken opened his new spot during the pandemic. - KATHY TRAN
Palmer Fortune of Palmer's Hot Chicken opened his new spot during the pandemic.
Kathy Tran
“1. Having an open-air patio is a necessity.
2. We really need to focus on personal hygiene more moving into the future.
3. Adapting to takeout business and placing a premium on making the takeout experience as less intrusive on the patron as possible.
4. We don’t want to have to go through this again!
5. Most important, having a great staff that can help execute and change course on a dime when creativity is needed!”
- Palmer Fortune, Palmer’s Hot Chicken

“The restaurant industry was most certainly hit hard by the pandemic and over the year, I have learned to get creative and to get creative FAST. Policies were changing daily, and we had to learn to adapt and change our entire operational model in order to meet the needs and safety of each guest. I have placed new protocols and offerings at every single one of my restaurants, and I have had to adjust my long-term business strategy. I don’t think any business could have been prepared for such a change so quickly, but we kept our heads up high and chose to do all we could to make it happen and to stay open and will continue to do so.”
- Dallas Hale, president and CEO of Shell Shack, Sushi Marquee and Ebb & Flow

“We learned, once again, just what a great, resilient, positive, caring and unselfish group of people work in this industry. Proud to be associated with all of them."
- Bill Bayne, chief seafood officer, Fish City Grill and Half Shells

"Everyone has it in them to be resilient and to be a problem solver. The hustle comes out during crises. Never underestimate what you and your team are capable of. And people always need chocolate.”
- Kate Weiser, Kate Weiser Chocolate

"If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, [it] is to be humble and grateful. We were able to adjust and adapt to a circumstance that no one was prepared for. Our teams came together like never before to push through and come out the other side as a family. Some businesses didn't make it, and my heart goes out to them. We are all competitive in this business, but never wish for anyone else to fail. We have been humbled by the pandemic, and we are beyond grateful that we are still here and given the chance to serve our guests."
- Brad Hawkins, VP, Crafted Bar Concepts

“I think the lesson for us is that we adapted and we have grown stronger emotionally, and while this year brought us to our knees a few times, we didn’t break out into tears. Maybe I did, but my mom is a rock and I think the fact that we opened this business in 2009 during a recession with no savings, funding or investors has kept us motivated. Since we came from nothing ... we weren’t going let this year be the end of us.

“So we got innovative with our products and pushed ourselves to get out of bed each day even though mentally we were exhausted because our team was reduced to only four family members working until late October.

“For us, we focused on what we had that could easily be handed to our customers after the initial two weeks of closing. We quickly focused on our drinks, and thank God we did and thanks to my chef genius mother, Andrea. It’s what helped us survive, and we stepped out of the box of our normal chocolate servings and focused on our drinks, paletas, ice cream, ice cream conchas kits, etc.”
- Cindy Pedraza Puente, co-founder, CocoAndré Chocolatier

“Over the last year at Community Beer Company, we've learned just how far we can push the limits of our brewery, challenging ourselves to get more creative with our beer, and discovering new, nontraditional avenues to share them with our fans. We've seen how resilient our team can be, working overtime to get our brews out to stores, bars and restaurants. Most of all, we've become more grateful for our fellow Dallasites and how much they LOVE drinking locally made, delicious, high-quality craft beer!
- Kevin Carr, Community Beer Co.

“I feel like there was so much we learned, definitely a year of so many firsts, for everyone else as well, of course. One of the biggest lessons, for me, was that people can be really supportive and forgiving if you're open and honest about your mistakes. Early in the days of establishing the bread business around the neighborhood, we had a lot of mistakes to make; pastries that were left in a bad spot, eaten by ants, [they do porch pickups] missing orders, etc. But these were our neighbors! And they were so nice and helpful and happy to eat our test bakes and give us feedback. We wouldn't be here without them."
- Tyler Rooney, chef and owner, Oak Cliff Bread

“With all the changes that went on last year, some giving us little time, we had to learn to adapt really quick.”
- Rene Ramirez, pitmaster, 225 BBQ

“At Asian Mint, we learned to stay in a state of innovation and show gratitude always! As soon as we had to go on lockdown, we kept our servers employed by quickly transitioning some of them into delivery drivers so our customers could get some socially distant love from our servers without having to leave their homes! Our servers were also able to drop off free meals for our first responders to thank them for their service during this time. We also created ChefMint cooking prep kits so families can enjoy cooking restaurant-quality meals as a fun activity to break up the monotony of being at home. Due to the popularity of the ChefMint kit, I created the Nikky Feeding Souls sauce line featuring pad Thai sauce, hot sauce, gluten-free stir-fry sauce and more as I continue my quest to expand the easy Thai cooking experience to people around the nation who were on lockdown with us in Dallas. These innovative ideas kept our team, our Mint fanatics happy and our businesses satisfied as we worked to keep everyone around us safe and healthy during the pandemic.”
- Nikky Phinyawatana, Asian Mint