(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a three-part series on the Proof Incubator in Chattanooga. In the second part of the series, we interviewed entrepreneurial centers in East Tennessee about their participation in the Proof program. Part 3 will post in April.)
By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA
Restaurants are part of what make a community special. So when the pandemic hit, leadership behind the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC), The Biz Foundry, and Sync.Space all knew something needed to be done to support those businesses.
Each of the entrepreneurial centers of East Tennessee has wanted a restaurant support program for some time, but there wasn’t one available. Meanwhile, in Chattanooga, the Founders behind Proof Incubator knew right away that they wanted the “Restaurant Recovery” course to expand to the rest of East Tennessee. When those plans came to fruition late last year, Jeff Brown, President of Cookeville’s The Biz Foundry, shared the news with Knoxville and Kingsport right away.
“Everything about it just fell into place beautifully,” he said.
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 this teknovation.biz article.
The timing of the program’s expansion was also crucial to participating restaurants. Jim Biggs, Executive Director of the KEC, said that owners of restaurants in Knoxville’s first Proof cohort — which happened earlier this year — reported around a 50 percent decline in sales during the pandemic.
“Really, that’s the driver behind this whole thing, the restaurant industry and the hospitality industry across the board have just been crushed,” he said.
Heath Guinn, Co-Founder and President at Sync.Space, was the first to begin recruiting for the program in Northeast Tennessee, with the first cohort starting around the Thanksgiving holiday. At the start of the pandemic, Guinn said Sync.Space began working on an accelerator program to help businesses get back on their feet. Most of the applications he received were from restaurant owners. Having some of that data on hand already, he knew the Kingsport community needed the Proof recovery course.
After having started in Chattanooga, the Co-founders of Proof refined their four-week program to make sure restaurants were getting the best results.
“If we’re going to ask them to commit that time, we have to deliver and really add a lot of value,” said Co-Founder Michael Robinson. “(Restaurant owners are) wearing more hats than ever before, especially now.”
The Kingsport expansion was followed by the program opening in Cookeville, and finally, the Knoxville area. Robinson and Co-Founder Mia Littlejohn hope to expand to all of Tennessee and potentially other states in the region like Georgia and South Carolina.
Part of what makes the program great, Brown said, is that restaurant lessons apply in any city. Owners receive the mentorship they need from food industry experts, while still getting information on “local flavor” from the entrepreneur centers.
Guinn agreed, adding that it’s important for entrepreneur center leadership to be there for all types of businesses. “It adds some of that foundation as a community leader being involved,” he said.
For the first cohorts of the “Restaurant Recovery,” each entrepreneurial organization had to secure funding in order to keep it no- to low-cost for participating restaurants. Brown said The Biz Foundry received funding from the Tennessee Small Business Development Centers’ Recovery Act. Sync.Space was able to use some of the funds it received as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to go toward the program, and the KEC received a grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The size of each market will likely impact how many cohorts Proof can run of the “Restaurant Recovery Course” in the future, said Robinson. As a university town, Knoxville’s restaurant community is an “economic engine,” he added. The entrepreneurial centers are also already looking at other offerings from Proof, such as the “Consumer Goods Accelerator.”
In the future, sharing programs like the recovery course or consumer accelerator allows the entrepreneurial centers to pool resources as well, Brown said. “It allows us to reach more people with a better variety of programs without each one of us having to kill ourselves because our bandwidth has been a little stretched.”
While each of the three entrepreneurial centers was pleased with the course and received great feedback from participating restaurants, the future of the program will largely depend on the state of the virus that demanded its need in the first place. Funding is also a factor as Biggs, Brown, and Guinn all agreed they wanted to keep cost barriers for the restaurants to a minimum.
During the pandemic, Biggs said he’s observed many restaurant owners and workers try to keep pace with safety regulations and customer needs. While he knows it can be a struggle, it’s also allowed these businesses to “do what they do best.”
“Some of them have been incredibly innovative and resilient,” he said, adding that programs like these help remove barriers for restaurants so they can keep thriving.