When Jaime Ortiz was opening his newest restaurant, Toro Cantina in Albany, NY, he already had a lot of past experience to draw from. Having opened 12 restaurants prior, Ortiz, who currently also owns a high-end steakhouse with a banquet hall and a stand within a food hall, went all-in on menu development and staff training for his 11,000 square foot restaurant. “We were doing friends and family dinners, mock trials, servers serving each other and role-playing, R&D in the kitchen. We were spending a lot of money on training. Probably the most intense training program I’ve ever been a part of,” says Ortiz.
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After completing the intensive training program with his staff, Ortiz planned to host a grand opening party for Toro Cantina, for which he received over 400 RSVPs. However, because word about the COVID-19 virus making its way to the United States had just made the news, only about 200 people showed up for the Saturday evening party. “We had that Sunday to recoup from the party and talk. We were all saying, ‘Wow, they’re going to shut us down. What’s going to happen?’ And then I said, ‘Let’s just go ahead. We can’t control what we can’t control.’”
Toro Cantina was eventually able to open for service the next day – for about six hours until the official announcement was made that indoor dining would be halted in New York state. Following the mantra he delivered to his staff the day before, Ortiz focused on the things he could control rather than what he could not. “I didn’t even think about it twice,” he says. “We were like, ‘Okay, we got it. We got to do take out now.’ We went right into all the salaried people doing takeout. They went from thinking about how they were going to manage this large crew to actually working stations and putting things in to-go containers and labeling a million sauces. We all turned into takeout workers, the whole management team.”
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The pre-opening buzz that Ortiz and his team had created around their would-be grand opening week, plus the news of their six-hour first day kept the name Toro Cantina top of mind for local customers, and eventually the restaurant became busy enough that Ortiz brought back six of his furloughed workers to help the management team with orders. “It was on the tip of everybody’s tongue. ‘Worst luck ever.’ ‘Who does that happen to?’ That kind of stuff. It’s turned out to be a blessing once we got opened back up because we were on the mind of everybody. You couldn’t pay for that kind of publicity.”
Three months later, when the state allowed restaurants to reopen in-house dining at limited capacity, Ortiz immediately started calling his staff. Of the approximately one hundred people who had gone through the extensive training program, he says less than half returned. The indoor size of Toro Cantina, plus their 1,500 square foot patio meant that they could still do a large number of seatings while maintaining social distancing requirements. On top of that, the buzz around their grand opening story had still not died down. In short, Toro Cantina was in high demand and Ortiz needed servers to feed all those hungry customers.
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“So we get busy and now we’re trying to train people on the fly. Our whole training structure, everything was haphazard now. We never really caught our breath to be able to get a moment to get organized. So everything was back to doing things the wrong way, despite all of that training,” he says. In addition to having to train new servers on the job, the team also struggled with all the new and constantly changing protocols around COVID, creating stressful situations for the entire staff. When the in-house diners and to-go orders became too overwhelming, Ortiz made cuts to the number of reservations and to-go orders the restaurant was taking in order to improve the quality and accuracy of the food that was going out, and to take some strain off of his staff.
While the initial bump in publicity due to their opening day bad luck helped keep Toro Cantina top-of-mind for new customers, the team still worked incredibly hard to keep that momentum going throughout the past year. The restaurant has survived and thrived through this pandemic in similar ways to most other restaurants: through creative thinking, strong marketing, streamlining their menu, and constant adaptations. “We’ve never seen more efficiency in numbers. We’re still doing great volume, but we’ve never seen food costs this great. I think we learned to be way more efficient. I’m actually really happy about it. We’re probably more profitable percentage-wise this year. We didn’t rest on our laurels at all. We struggled through every bit of it, but it worked out. But it wasn’t easy and I don’t want to do it again!”
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