How One Atlanta Restaurant Pivoted its Business Strategy to Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic

Welcome to another episode of The Playbook with Mark Collier, an original ASBN series that highlights Atlanta’s emerging entrepreneurs, seasoned business owners, and resource experts. Mark Collier is an experienced business consultant in Georgia, and a faculty member with the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center.

The restaurant industry was one of the most visibly impacted sectors of the 2020 pandemic year, as the restaurant industry was mostly brought to an abrupt standstill. The National Restaurant Association estimated that aggregate revenue decreased by a staggering $240 billion dollars for the year ending 2020. Restaurants had to quickly recalibrate and pivot in order to survive. In this segment, Collier sits down with Michael Tabb, owner of Big Chow Grill who will share his story and strategies for navigating through the unprecedented events of 2020.

Transcription:

Mark Collier:
Welcome into The Playbook, Michael.

Michael Tabb:
Thank you, Mark. Glad to be here.

Mark Collier:
All right. Listen, man. 2020 was a year unlike no other, and much like me, I’m sure you’re glad it’s over.

Michael Tabb:
Absolutely. It was a tough one.

Mark Collier:
All right. Tell me about the Big Chow grill concept, where you’re located, and what market you serve.

Michael Tabb:
Sure. Big Chow grill is a offshoot of the original restaurant that we started and owned, Chow Baby.

Mark Collier:
Okay.

Michael Tabb:
We started Chow Baby back in 2001, and then we expanded it in 2008, rebranded the biggest Chow Baby as Big Chow.

Mark Collier:
Big Chow, okay.

Michael Tabb:
And then ultimately, we sold Chow Baby and we kept the one at Cobb Galleria, Big Chow grill. A lot of people don’t realize that Big Chow grill and Chow Baby were the same concept, same entity.

Mark Collier:
All right.

Michael Tabb:
Big Chow grill is a create-your-own, Mongolian stir fry.

Mark Collier:
Okay.

Michael Tabb:
Basically, it’s all you can eat when you come in there, and you can pick from any number of meats. We have everything from tilapia, salmon, shrimp, chicken, beef, sauces.

Mark Collier:
I’m getting hungry right now.

Michael Tabb:
You should be. You should be. So, you can pick any number of meats. You can pick any number of vegetables from bok choy, cilantro, all the way to tomatoes, green beans. And then, we have a number of traditional custom sauces, teriyaki, hoisin. But, then we have Thai, cilantro, Big Chow barbecue, Asian barbecue. So, we have a lot of creative custom sauces as well. The key to it is, you can make it any way you want. You can make it a soup, a salad, a wrap, or just a traditional stir fry. Brown rice, white rice, put it in tortilla, put over a bed of lettuce, put it in a coconut or a ramen base. It’s very, very customizable and it’s all you can eat.

Mark Collier:
All right. It’s much like one of the big burger chains. I can have it my way.

Michael Tabb:
You definitely can have it your way, and if you mess it up it’s your fault.

Mark Collier:
All right. So Mike, I’m going to take you back to the beginning of last year. Things were humming along. The restaurants were full of people. Revenue was rolling in, and then bam, March hits. Then you instantly were shut down. Kind of share with me some of your initial thoughts and the kind of things that went through your mind at that time.

Michael Tabb:
Sure. When it first hit, it was challenging because the restaurant almost became secondary.

Mark Collier:
Yeah.Yeah.

Michael Tabb:
People were concerned about their families, their health.

Mark Collier:
Right.

Michael Tabb:
No one really had a clue really what was going on.

Mark Collier:
Yep.

Michael Tabb:
As the owners, we kind of scrambled to try to figure out how we were going to pay recurring bills and how we were going to meet debt service, things like that. But, it really was everything from worrying about people and their families and their health, to how are we going to maintain this business to keep it going? We’ve really had to kind of get together, and quite frankly, the staff really chipped in to try to help us think it through and come up with some creative ways to try to manage the situation.

Mark Collier:
That’s fantastic. If you have buy-in from your employees, that tells me that they’re bought into the concept both as you as owners of the restaurant, and also the restaurant concept in general. So, that is phenomenal.

Michael Tabb:
Yes, that is true.

Mark Collier:
Share with me, what was some of the strategies you put in place to mitigate the effects of your restaurant closed to in-person dining?

Michael Tabb:
The country was fortunate that the government really moved swiftly to put out some financing to help all businesses. Everyone recognized restaurants, movie theaters, large assembly type of venues were going to struggle the most, and so we were able to get some PPP funding.

Mark Collier:
Fantastic.

Michael Tabb:
Which was able to help us tremendously. Our landlord, which is Cobb Galleria Convention Center, worked with us and was very, very understanding. Their business, as well, was affected.

Mark Collier:
Sure, absolutely.

Michael Tabb:
We got a little bit of money to kind of float us, and then we really worked on trying to make sure we followed the rules, because there were rules that went along with the funding on you had to pay people. You had to pay them, really kind of normally.

Mark Collier:
Yep.

Michael Tabb:
And so, what we did is, rather than just have people get paid and no one’s in the restaurant, we shifted to doing things like some deferred maintenance. We really cleaned. We painted. We had people who were servers, who picked up a paintbrush and touched up tables and re-lacquered tables, and things like that.

Mark Collier:
All right.

Michael Tabb:
We really got creative in just trying to keep people gainfully employed.

Mark Collier:
Sure.

Michael Tabb:
And we paid them. We used our PP funds to pay them. And, like I said, we got a break from a lot of vendors who either kind of floated us, or they obviously weren’t selling us anything, so we weren’t paying them and they just stayed with us as vendors.

Michael Tabb:
We also really ramped up our delivery business.

Mark Collier:
Yeah, absolutely. Bet it was big.

Michael Tabb:
Yeah. At that time we only had Uber Eats, and we instantly signed up for everybody.

Mark Collier:
Okay.

Michael Tabb:
We went to Grubhub, DoorDash, our website itself has its own system where you can order directly through website. So, we really ramped up on that side of the business.

Mark Collier:
Okay.

Michael Tabb:
I would love to say that it just took off great, but our concept was a little difficult for delivery in the fact that there’s so many choices you have to make.

Mark Collier:
Right, right, right. Did you scale back on the offerings?

Michael Tabb:
No.

Mark Collier:
You left it full service.

Michael Tabb:
Everything’s the exact same.

Mark Collier:
Okay.

Michael Tabb:
So, you go in there and pick the exact same thing. But, it’s a little daunting sometimes for people to sit on a screen and pick through all those choices.

Mark Collier:
Sure.

Michael Tabb:
And then the other part of it is, just we weren’t known as a delivery concept.

Mark Collier:
Correct.

Michael Tabb:
So, it just takes you months just to get people to even think of coming to you for delivery.

Mark Collier:
Right.

Michael Tabb:
Different than a pizza, or Mexican, or something.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely. Did you have to ramp up your digital marketing in that respect, to educate the consumers that, hey, we’re here. You can have a customized meal instead of one that’s off the rack at other restaurants.

Michael Tabb:
One of the interesting things is, at the time that you’d want to ramp something up, you also ramped down in your business.

Mark Collier:
True. Yeah. Yeah.

Michael Tabb:
You got less money, so it’s not a lot of money to do a lot of ramping.

Mark Collier:
Okay.

Michael Tabb:
But, we did the best we could with what was free, what was existing.

Mark Collier:
Right.

Michael Tabb:
And what we did is, we tailored our messaging to let people know about the delivery, and also the cleanliness and the sanitation of our process.

Mark Collier:
Yes, absolutely. That makes sense. Well, the restaurant business is a tough business in normal times. And as a restaurant, a friend of mine who owns a restaurant once told me, that when you’re in the restaurant business you’re forced to depend on undependable people, which makes it tough. What he meant by that is, many days you have staffing levels planned and people may just not show up for work. How do you meet labor challenges like that in the restaurant business?

Michael Tabb:
Sure. I would say we’re probably blessed to not have that problem too greatly. Our staff is really dependable. Our manager, Liz Allen, she’s been with us for years.

Mark Collier:
Okay.

Michael Tabb:
Like I said, they do everything that we ask of them. We shut down some of the services, and they picked them up in house.

Mark Collier:
Okay.

Michael Tabb:
But, I understand the point and I think that it really depends a lot on the type of concept you have.

Mark Collier:
Sure.

Michael Tabb:
And the age and experience of some of your staff.

Mark Collier:
Okay.

Michael Tabb:
One of the big challenges that has happened, and is happening today, there’s a huge shortage of getting good servers and good workers.

Mark Collier:
Correct.

Michael Tabb:
And one of the big challenges is, the way the government has rolled out the unemployment and the work credits and the unemployment compensation, it almost incentivizes people to stay on unemployment versus come back into the restaurant. And I think they’ve heard it from the industry several times, but they’re not responding to it. It’s, as a server, it is very difficult for you to, in many concepts, match the amount of money the government is giving away for people to stay unemployed.

Mark Collier:
Yeah.

Michael Tabb:
That is, quite frankly, the biggest challenge that we see is that people at the lowest levels of employment, aren’t motivated to come back in, because they can make more money just staying home.

Mark Collier:
So, for prospective entrepreneurs who are looking to get into the restaurant business, what would be some of the best advice you would share with them?

Michael Tabb:
That’s probably the thing that everyone should take heed to the most. The restaurant business is extremely tough.

Mark Collier:
It’s competitive, for one.

Michael Tabb:
It’s competitive. It’s changing tremendously. It used to be real labor, it’s still labor intensive. But it’s labor intensive, but now there’s all type of technology, everything from SEO placement into your website hits. There’s all types of challenges that even historically people haven’t had to face.

Michael Tabb:
I would say this, if you’re getting in the restaurant business, be careful to understand, one, that you’re getting in because of emotion and a love of cooking.

Mark Collier:
Yup.

Michael Tabb:
Or, if you’re getting in to make money and as a business.

Mark Collier:
Yeah.

Michael Tabb:
Because they sometimes don’t go hand in hand.

Mark Collier:
Sure.

Michael Tabb:
There’s some great restaurants where people are just very passionate about the craft, passionate about the service. It exemplifies itself in what they deliver. Probably exemplifies itself in a little bit higher price point.

Mark Collier:
Yep.

Michael Tabb:
And then, there are other things where people are just really trying to make money through volume, and they’re not necessarily. I would tell people if you’re going to get in the business as an owner, as an entrepreneur, take the time to learn and operate in the business. So, go get a job maybe for two, three years.

Mark Collier:
Makes sense.

Michael Tabb:
And if you can, try to link yourself to an established brand, someone that you can really get some support, some marketing fundamentals from. And then you venture into something a little bit more entrepreneurial and aggressive. But initially, you probably want to focus on something a little bit more stable, a little bit more educational, especially now where things are just changing so much.

Mark Collier:
Looking ahead, 2021 and beyond, what are some of the changes you see on the horizon for the restaurant industry in general, and for Big Chow grill in particular?

Michael Tabb:
Sure. I think that one of the things that you’ll see is, everybody’s really looking at different types of dining environments.

Mark Collier:
Yep.

Michael Tabb:
So, a lot more concern about outdoor seating.

Mark Collier:
Yes, absolutely.

Michael Tabb:
Some outdoor seating. The days of the tight, cozy, intimate cafe with 10 tables?

Mark Collier:
Yeah.

Michael Tabb:
It’s struggling.

Mark Collier:
Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Michael Tabb:
It’s going to struggle.

Mark Collier:
Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Michael Tabb:
I think that you’re going to see a lot more focus in on delivery. I think you’re going to see some restaurants, right now you read about it, the ghost kitchens. But, a lot of places that are just production facilities meant to cater to delivery.

Mark Collier:
Yep.

Michael Tabb:
But, I think that the strong established brands are going to continue to thrive. People are still going to go out and get great steak.

Mark Collier:
Correct.

Michael Tabb:
They’re still going to want to go to Chick-fil-A. Those types of businesses are going to keep adapting and modifying themselves for the new environment and new customer demands. And they’re going to continue to be successful.

Mark Collier:
Michael Tabb, owner of Big Chow grill. I want to thank you for taking the time to come in today, and sharing your experience and your foresight on the restaurant industry. And hopefully, you’ll come back and join me in the future for another discussion.

Michael Tabb:
Mark, I want to thank you for everything that UGA SBDC does for small businesses like ours, and really helping get the word out in segments like this. Those business development resources are very, very valuable, and as you know, I’ve taken advantage of them.

Mark Collier:
I appreciate it.

Michael Tabb:
I thank you.

Mark Collier:
I appreciate that, Michael. Thanks again for coming in.

Michael Tabb:
Take care.


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