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The restaurant industry is ever-evolving, but nothing could have prepared restaurant owners for 2020. As we move into a second wave of COVID-19, restaurant owners need to be more prepared than ever.  

While the industry as a whole has lost 40-90% of total sales compared to last year, we found ten restaurants that managed to avoid overall losses and actually grow their sales this year. We spoke to the owners and operators of those restaurants to learn more about their secrets for finding success amidst a pandemic.

10 Restaurants That Managed to Grow Sales in 2020 Despite an Industry-wide Slump

House of Oliver | Roseville, CA | +136% 

Matthew Oliver, Owner

You could make the argument that a “wine lounge” is a difficult business model in the COVID era. Unless you’re House of Oliver, where owner Matthew Oliver wakes up every day thinking, “How do I get my restaurant on TV today?” 

With events, local partnerships, and promotions, he’s kept House of Oliver in the news and top of mind for hungry local customers. When his daughters pointed out a new social media trend of people eating meals on Instagram live, the restaurateur started eating new menu items live on camera and the videos went viral, delivering him a mountain of new online ordering customers. “I would just be eating a sandwich, talking to people, like we’re all stuck at home,” recounts Oliver. “People are like, ‘Oh my God, look at that sandwich. I’m so hungry!’ And then they’d order it.”

He also navigated COVID, and his local market, with genius precision. When restaurants could do take-out, but the local Starbucks was still closed, House of Oliver started offering to-go breakfast and coffee, quickly expanding to lunch. “We’re still growing it. But the moment I opened up for breakfast, my lunches started doing better,” says Oliver. “And I wasn’t open for lunches before either, but need was driving it.” Looking for new opportunities like this helped Oliver increase his year-over-year sales by 136% despite the pandemic.

His advice? “Stay innovative, get creative, stay relevant, and grind. Come up with another idea. Make a reason to be on the news, not only is it free advertising, but it creates value to your local community.” How do they get on the news? Partnerships with local businesses and other restaurants: special sushi roll delivery (sold out), pizza night with a local pizzeria (sold out), paint kits for at home “paint and sip.” These partnerships are particularly useful because they introduce House of Oliver to a new audience from another business (as well as TV viewers), and without any food or advertising costs as he collects a delivery fee and guest data. His latest gambit: free yard signs for houses accepting trick-or-treaters. The local news ate it up.

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder in my life than when the pandemic hit,” says Oliver. But the key to successfully marketing your restaurant? “Make it personal, and make it more real. We’re real people in your community. That mattered, and that was the selling point.”

 

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The Retriever | Chestertown, MD | +97% 

Neyah White, Owner

In 2018 Neyah White opened his business as “kind of a dive bar while we got our plan together,” as he describes it. They closed up for a remodel a few months in and opened up a small bottle shop and tasting room in the space next door to generate revenue during the remodel. Nine months later, The Retriever had a grand reopening of its brand new bar and kitchen space, which was running and serving the community for about four and a half months until COVID hit.

With the space from the bottle shop available to them and the support of their community, The Retriever only lost one day of business after lockdown rules went into effect and pivoted to a strategy that helped them increase this year’s sales by 98% over their 2019 sales. White and his team pivoted back to selling alcohol from the bottle shop while offering a rotating menu of to-go food items through the bar. They came up with a new menu every week, ranging from Italian family-style meals to Thai pork and Southern fried chicken, keeping guests informed about the weekly menu and other updates via their social media accounts. “That yielded huge engagement on our social media, because that’s how we announced everything. To explain what we’re doing and getting people fired up,” he explains. “I’d say the key word is engagement. We’re in a very small town and I’m blown away by the support we’re getting from this community.”

To help formulate his menu and social media plan for the upcoming weeks, White looks at the Daily Digest from Upserve to find out who his top customers are and what they’re ordering. “I can just look at the top guests from the day before and it’s really reassuring. It gives me a little focus for my PR.”

The Night Owl Saratoga | Saratoga Springs, NY | +150%

Alex Strauss, Partner

Alex Strauss and his business partner purchased a bar in late 2019 and renovated it as a nightclub, complete with dancing and events. Everything was going according to plan until the pandemic hit and they had to close from March to May, reopening in June. “We hit our numbers and we were doing what we hoped to do, and we were really happy with it. We went in getting ready for summer – we have a huge courtyard – and then COVID hit and we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Strauss says.

While many businesses have made the bulk of their COVID revenue from to-go orders, The Night Owl expanded their outdoor patio and added some food items to their menu, which allowed them to thrive with in-house sales averaging 150% more than their 2019 sales. While this works for summer, Strauss’ plan for the cold New York winter is to keep adapting by maintaining socially distanced seating indoors, beefing up their menu offerings to attract more customers, and looking to adjust their operating hours if needed.

Strauss credits much of their 2020 success to his staff’s dedication and adaptability. Virtually overnight The Night Owl staff pivoted from a team of bartenders to taking on serving, hosting, floor management, and other roles needed to implement COVID guidelines. “I could not be more proud of my staff; I have to give all the credit to them. They immediately took this challenge head-on,” he says. 

 

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Casa Mia Latin Cuisine | Lewisville, TX | +50%

Osmin Sariles, Co-owner

Osmin Sariles grew up in the restaurant industry under his parents, who owned three restaurants in the Dallas/Fort Worth area for over 25 years. He opened Casa Mia, which specializes in Salvadoran, Mexican, and other types of Latin cuisines, in 2018 and credits his lifetime of experience to his success both before and during the pandemic, helping him to think creatively and adapt quickly. 

One way Sariles gets creative is by bringing his in-house hospitality into the online experience through guest reviews. While reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, and third-party online ordering apps are the bane of many restaurant owners’ existence, Sariles sees them as an opportunity to reach out to unhappy guests and convert them into repeat customers. “When we get a bad review, I reach out to the customer automatically. I want to know what happened,” he says. By doing this, Sariles has earned Casa Mia an average 4.9-star rating across all major review and online ordering platforms. He also individually thanks every guest who posts a positive review. “I like to talk to each guest and make them feel welcome. Our customer service has been one thing that has really kept our business going, along with the quality of the food.”

In addition to great food and outstanding customer service, Sariles relies on information from the Upserve Live app to manage his restaurant, no matter where he is. “I always go in and look at the app to see how many tables we have, how many guests we have. Are we short-staffed? Should I go in and help out? That’s very, very beneficial,” he says. “I’m notorious for using that app. If I’m not at the restaurant, I’m looking at it.”

Jones Wood Foundry | New York, NY | +3%

Jason Hicks, Chef & Partner

Jones Wood Foundry is a food driven pub, established by chef Jason Hicks and his team in the spirit of a British public house. From the start of the pandemic, Hicks and his team implemented a strategy of staying true to their roots while scaling down to accommodate staffing, seating capacity, and demand. 

After having to lay off the entire staff and close for about two and a half weeks, Hicks began to formulate a plan by looking at his Product Mix (Pmix) in Upserve. Using that information, Hicks was able to confirm that his British-style pies were his best selling item. To maximize his sales and meet demand without his full team, he began selling full size pies in lieu of the typical single-serve sizes. With this strategy in place, Hicks was able to bring back a few staff members when outdoor dining resumed. Rather than reopening with his typical menu, Hicks opted to offer a condensed version. “I reduced the menu by about 40% so that we could maintain the quality of the food.” Streamlining operations and hyper-focusing the menu allowed Hicks to increase his revenue by 3% over 2019 sales despite the limited seating capacity for dine-in guests.

Eventually they were doing so well, Hicks was able to bring back even more of his staff, but then realized they had a new issue on their hands. The restaurant would be dead for the first two hours of service, a time when they normally would be busy, then become slammed by noon, causing guests to have to wait for a table or go elsewhere. Using the Upserve Live app and Daily Digest email, Hicks could confirm that this was a consistent problem, even if he was not there to see it himself, and take action. “We started going out on social media and mail blasts reminding people that we’re here, we’re open from 10, and maybe you might want to come earlier to save being disappointed,” he says.

As the colder winter weather approaches and outdoor dining is no longer an option, Hicks is looking to expand his to-go offerings to other areas of the city in the form of pop-up restaurants offering just a few of his most popular items. “I know that the pies are just selling like crazy, I know the fish and chips are selling like crazy, and the Scotch eggs are selling like crazy. Those three items are perfect for delivering.”

Baracoa Cuban Restaurant | Palmdale, CA | +3%

Antony Castro, Owner

Baracoa is a family-owned Cuban restaurant established in 2013 named after their grandmother’s hometown of Baracoa, Cuba. After closing their restaurant for two months at the start of the pandemic and taking that time to renovate and remodel, Owner Antony Castro and his team regrouped. They came up with a game plan to make online ordering as simple as possible so they could run the restaurant on to-go orders alone. Despite taking a two month break in sales, Baracoa was able to increase their year-over-year revenue by 3%. Castro highlights the importance of having a simple, integrated online ordering system as crucial to surviving during this time. “If you don’t have easy ordering through your website and you’re not promoting that, you’re going to be suffering pretty bad,” he says

Like many others, Castro ramped up his social media strategy by posting at least once a day and running weekly ads on Instagram. This may sound expensive, but Castro says he’s found success on running ads for just five to seven dollars a day by hyper-targeting his location to reach people within three miles of the restaurant and knowing his key demographics.

The Baracoa team is another great example of how to utilize online reviews as a way to provide in-house hospitality in the online realm. He enlists two of his servers to work extra hours each week responding to online reviews, both good and bad. “I’ve seen it so many times where they’ll give you a two-star review and they see that you care and that you actually implement changes, and they’ll change it to a five-star within two weeks,” Castro explains. “Make sure your online reputation is good and that you stay connected to those customers. When you mess up, own up to it. That’s what I tell my team.”

Eavesdrop Brewery | Manassas, VA | +188%

Sam Madden, General Manager

Eavesdrop Brewery is a craft microbrewery with a tasting room that seats about 80 people and ample outdoor space. General Manager Sam Madden credits their ability to keep the business up and running to their marketing efforts and outdoor activities.

During the first round of shut downs, Eavesdrop survived on to-go sales of cans alone. During that time there were only two employees working Front of House – Madden and the taproom manager. “We were waking up super early, getting here and canning everything,” he says. In addition to their social media manager ramping up posts to three times a day, they also made sure that the 60-70,000 cars that drive by the brewery daily knew that they were open. “We improved our signage in the front and made the brewery’s logo a lot bigger so people would notice it.”

Once they were able to open at 50% capacity, the Eavesdrop team utilized their large outdoor space with socially distanced events like trivia and rooftop yoga. However, once they reopened, they were selling out of beer faster than they could make it. Since reopening, they have decided to stop all to-go orders and only focus on in-house guests. “It definitely sucks when people are asking. It kind of tears my heart out when I have to say no, but it is what it is,” says Madden. “We have to keep everything on-site or we would just run out of beer completely.” This has created somewhat of a “good problem” for the Eavesdrop team; as they get ready to winterize their outdoor space and adjust for the colder weather, they are also shopping around for a new brewhouse to keep up with the demand.

 

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The Farm Cart | Nicholson, GA | +120%

Iwalani Farfour, Co-owner

The Farm Cart is a community breakfast and lunch spot that specializes in “farm-fresh biscuits,” sandwiches, and other locally-sourced bites. They recently opened their brick-and-mortar shop but were operating as a food truck for five years prior. Co-owner Iwalani Farfour contributes their 2020 success to their experience with high-volume to-go orders from the food truck, as well as their supportive, close-knit community. 

When the pandemic started, the team focused on keeping their already small menu extra tight, only serving what was popular and optimal for to-go. “I think a lot of our pivot had to do with just not having extraneous expenses on menu items that were not necessary. And that’s always a big part of just running a restaurant in general, but for this situation, we cut out all kinds of things that just didn’t package well,” she says.

Farfour says The Farm Cart is in no rush to open up indoor dining for the safety of their guests. Since they’re in Georgia, they can offer outdoor seating year-round and have plans to expand their takeout services. One piece of advice she has for other businesses struggling through the pandemic is to tighten up your menu and experiment with your online ordering to see what might boost sales: “We noticed switching around the way that things are organized on the online menu and putting our beverages first doubled our beverage sales.” 

 

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Go Fish Sushi | Denver, CO | +1%

Antonio Gudino, Director

Go Fish Sushi has been a staple of the Baker Neighborhood in Denver since 2007, with an additional location in Broomfield, CO that opened in 2015. Getting to know their regulars on a personal level over the years – knowing them by name, watching their kids grow up – made their guests want to support them during these hard times. “A lot of restaurants had this global mentality where they wanted to market the entire city, which is great. But if you build up your individual neighborhoods, you are going to have a sustainable business no matter what happens,” Director Antonio Gudino says.

For Antonio and his team, perfecting their online ordering was key to serving their loyal customers during the pandemic. By observing the changes in their neighborhood and listening to feedback from their guests, the Go Fish team is constantly changing, updating, and improving their operations and offerings to keep up. “When we started using online ordering we saw that between these hours we’re going to pick up, so we are able to staff better and get things out quicker.”

Going into winter, the Go Fish team’s plan is to keep adjusting to the seasons as well as changing restrictions and regulations. When shutdowns first began in March, they experimented with different menus and delivery options for online ordering, as well as menu changes. Antonio says they learned a lot from that experience that they plan to work off of when winter hits and they are no longer able to offer outdoor seating. 

 

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Brickyard Hollow Brewing | Yarmouth & Freeport, ME | +5%

Brendon Medeiros, Operations Manager

Though just under two years old, Brickyard Hollow Brewing has already secured its spot in the local community by serving great beer and food and giving back to local charities and organizations. When the pandemic hit and they had to pivot their business model, that spirit of giving not only remained, it became a part of their plan for survival.

At the start of the pandemic, many businesses were pushing gift card sales as a means of bringing in some cash to stay afloat while they had to slow operations or shut down completely. As many restaurateurs know, only 80% of gift cards are redeemed on average, so 20% of gift card sales are pure profit. While pushing gift card sales has dwindled for many restaurants that are now open in some capacity, Brickyard Hollow has found a way to utilize them to bring in new customers and give back to the community. They sell their gift cards to charity organizations at a discount, then the organization re-sells them at a profit to raise funds. “We’re not really having community nights anymore, so we’re selling gift cards to these organizations at 20% off to help bring cash in, help their organization, and it’s free marketing too.”

In addition to finding an alternative to their charitable giving, Medeiros is opting for an old-school marketing technique: direct mail. While this may not be ideal for all types of businesses, it’s a tactic that is working well to spread the word about this relatively new business and bring in new customers. Medeiros recommends working with a company like Mail Shark to help with the heavy lifting. “They’re killer. They’ll do all the design work for you,” he says. 

Looking ahead to the cold Maine winter, Medeiros has invested in a large outdoor tent and heating system to keep in-house guests coming back throughout the winter months. “It was a big capital investment,” he says, “but the way I look at it is that you really can’t afford not to have it. 

The state of the restaurant industry is ever-evolving, but nothing could have prepared restaurant owners and operators for 2020. Download our State of the Restaurant Industry Report for 2020 menu, sales, and holiday trends, plus stories from restaurant owners who managed to grow sales despite the pandemic.

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Written by   |  
Stephanie is a Providence, RI native and eight-year food industry veteran. As Upserve's Content Marketing Coordinator she creates materials that help restaurateurs, managers, and service professionals succeed. When she's not writing, Stephanie is most likely traveling, cooking, or trying new restaurants.
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