(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article of a three-part series on the Proof Incubator in Chattanooga. In the third part of the series, we interviewed restaurant owners in East Tennessee about how the Proof program helped their business.)
By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA
By now, several restaurants in East Tennessee have completed the “Restaurant Recovery” course from Proof Incubator. We caught-up with a few participants to ask them what they thought of the program and if it helped their business.
Although COVID-19 and the resulting pandemic spurred the recovery course, many of the restaurant owners were able to get more information from the Proof team about the everyday needs of running a business. Owners also agreed that the relationship they built with their one-on-one mentor from the course was an important component to the program.
“They really took the time to look at the businesses they were helping and make sure that the people they paired with them were the right people to help them,” said Josh Robinette, Chief Operations Officer of The Casual Pint. “There wasn’t a single class that didn’t have something relevant for even an established business to take away from.”
Participating restaurants in Proof’s course have four weeks of classes on running a business as well as working to handle a crisis. Read more about the Proof Incubator in Part 1 of this teknovation.biz series. Part 2 of the series focused on Proof’s expansion from Chattanooga to Cookeville, Kingsport, and Knoxville.
For Toi Brown, Operations Manager at SkyView at Broadway Social in Maryville, nothing was more valuable in the program than working with her Proof mentor.
Proof was also an opportunity for Brown to learn more about the restaurant industry in general. Broadway Social, a local bar and the company’s new event venue SkyView at Broadway Social, has three partners, including Brown’s stepfather, Byron Williamson. After Brown finished a master’s degree in dance, Williamson recommended she join the company to make money. Since the three owners all have full-time jobs, Brown could step-in and take the Proof course. Before getting started, “I knew nothing,” she said.
Broadway Social had also just received its start before the pandemic. It opened in the fall of 2019 and received a liquor license in January 2020. Like all other businesses in the country, Broadway Social was closed by mid-March. Once they were able to reopen over the summer, Brown began focusing her efforts on the SkyView event venue, which had not been launched yet.
Brown said Proof not only helped her get a better grasp on the restaurant industry but has changed the way Broadway Social runs its business. Her mentor helped her build a bar program and helped Brown distinguish Broadway Social and SkyView as two distinct entities run by the same company. She’s now working to get a better liquor license for Broadway Social and working toward an event planning certificate for SkyView.
The program also helped restaurant owners to create crisis management plans, helping guide staff in what to do in case someone caught COVID, for example. Robinette, who has a background in emergency management in public health, said that when you’re in the weeds running a business day-to-day, it can be easy to forget about things like that.
A few of the participants in the Proof program saw COVID as an opportunity for their business to help the community around them. As a franchise business, The Casual Pint has locations all over the country. Robinette was able to pass his newfound Proof knowledge along to those owners. He also said that many locations used their supply chains to buy items that people needed, such as sanitizer, to sell in their stores. “We did as best as we could to stay part of the community,” he said.
For Jeremy Garcia, a Sales Representative of TriMark which sells restaurant equipment, joining the Proof class was about learning how to better help his clients weather the pandemic. The course also helped him to stay connected with what’s happening in the industry. Food is a community, Garcia said, “whether you’re selling the pancake or the griddle you put it on.”
Many restaurants such as Casual Pint also adjusted their menus to takeout items that could be baked at home to help meet people’s needs. Adam Rosenbalm of Good Batch Mama said their at-home meal service took off during COVID. Rosenbalm runs the catering and meals company with his mother Elizabeth, and sister Anna Catherine Blevins.
Their frozen meal side of the business has always been about serving families, Rosenbalm said. But during COVID, it became about meeting people in their time of need.
“It’s geared toward people who are fighting to maintain that space around the dinner table where they can connect with each other and understanding that a lot of really great conversations happen over great food,” he said, “but sometimes getting the great food to the table is a burden to those people who are running from one thing to another.”
Frozen meal sales doubled during the pandemic, Rosenbalm said, while catering sales dropped to zero. The difference meant that Good Batch Mama was still able to meet its bottom-line.
Rosenbalm said that having access to mentors at Proof often saved him months of work. Oftentimes he could talk out business problems with the Proof team who pointed him toward new solutions or helped him along with what he was already working on. “It lets me jump from step two to step 10 on certain processes.”
Because the restaurant industry can be so busy, the resources from the various Proof classes continue to be available to participants. Garcia said the ability to go back and re-look at the information has been “super powerful.”
Rosenbalm said that very little of the class only applied to COVID. Training modules, recipe building, marketing, and more are all tools that Proof participants now have at their disposal. For some, such as Brown at Broadway Social, these tools can help lead to more jobs for the community. Through Proof, Brown restructured the way drinks are served at Broadway social, and “with that, we have more jobs for people,” she said.
Although the course may be over, many of the restaurants have opted to keep in touch with the team at Proof, building an invaluable relationship.
“I’m really grateful not just for the one-off interaction with them, but for the relationship we’ve maintained since then,” Rosenbalm said.