(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a three-part series on the Proof Incubator in Chattanooga. In the first part of the series, we interviewed the program founders Mia Littlejohn and Michael Robinson on who they are and how Proof works. Parts 2 and 3 will post later in March.)
By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA
Running a business is hard work, but many founders in East Tennessee can often find the help they need through programming from the various entrepreneur centers. But, leaders behind those organizations agreed: while their expertise was helpful in a general business context, they simply didn’t know how to help restaurant owners with more specific issues.
Enter Proof Incubator, a virtual classroom and brick and mortar restaurant all rolled into one. Based in Chattanooga, Mia Littlejohn and Michael Robinson first opened the restaurant portion of Proof in March. After a soft opening that month, news of the coronavirus and the oncoming pandemic made Littlejohn and Robinson decide it was not safe to host their planned grand opening on March 13. Littlejohn now jokingly refers to the day as their “grand closing.”
From the start, they knew they wanted to offer classes to help their fellow entrepreneurs in the restaurant world, but the onset of the pandemic last year changed those plans slightly. Littlejohn and Robinson then jumpstarted the “Restaurant Recovery” program instead of focusing on the brick and mortar location.
“We had already been talking about the general industry needs for education and resources to help improve operations, and opportunities for funding, but obviously with COVID, there was so much that was coming out all at once,” Littlejohn said. She added they wanted the class to have “scaffolding for growth,” and “an opportunity to look under the hood a little bit and figure out where they can increase value for their customers and for themselves.”
The Restaurant Recovery course is four weeks long and each cohort can have up to 20 participants. The courses are virtual, and the cohorts meet twice a week with the full group. Each participating restaurant will also have one-on-one sessions. The lessons focus on specific subjects such as marketing, employee retention, and human resources issues. While some of the class topics are geared toward the current COVID-19 crisis, the lessons restaurants learn can apply to running a business at any time.
Proof has held four cohorts in Chattanooga so far, and Robinson expects there will be more. The demand for the program depends on how many restaurants are in an area. However, one benefit of virtual classes is they can be held anywhere. At the end of 2020, the program began its expansion to Cookeville, Knoxville, and Kingsport. You’ll learn more about the expansion in part two of this series.
The course focused more on navigating issues specific to coronavirus, ensuring that businesses could still emerge from the pandemic successfully. The situation will only become more dire as the winter goes on, Robinson said. Many restaurants use the busy sport and summer seasons to reserve cash flow for the slower winter months. Because they didn’t have that busy season, restaurants don’t have those same reserves, Robinson said.
Between Littlejohn and Robinson, there are several decades of experience in restaurant management, operations, and growth. Both founders also worked with the CO.LAB in Chattanooga before starting Proof. They have run a “Consumer Goods Accelerator” course for the last three years.
Eventually, in May, Littlejohn and Robinson were able to open the patio space at Proof, and later the indoor dining came online in June. Their desire to help up-and-coming restaurateurs doesn’t stop at their virtual courses. The commissary kitchen has chef tenants who can work on their concepts with fewer barriers than a traditional restaurant. Proof provides wait staff, equipment, and space, so the chefs can focus more on menus, branding, and business.
“We already knew that the industry is so hard,” Robinson said, “on a good day, or a good year, in spite of the pandemic it’s still a really difficult industry. There’s not a lot of resources out there.”