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Utah Business

Restaurants are innovating their way out of the pandemic (here’s what we can learn from them)

H ere’s a question you’ll never hear from a Utah restaurant in the middle of winter: “Would you like to be seated indoors or on the patio?”

Until now. 

Nestled in the heart of Midway, Utah, Cafe Galleria has been serving homemade Italian food and baked goods for years. When owners Andy and Emily Jenkins purchased the restaurant in December 2019, they had visions of expanding the dining experience including the patio, a popular, picturesque spot for a casual lunch on a cozy summer evening. 

Then came a virus with a monumentally global impact. As the Andy and Emily worried about their economic future, Andy’s brother, JJ, faced similarly uncertain challenges with his job at Insight Exhibits, a highly successful exhibit design firm. 

“When [the virus] hit in February, we were crazy busy and having the best year ever,” says JJ. “Then, it went to nothing.” No trade shows or corporate events. “Everything was virtual.” But how do you keep a staff of 35 skilled builders and designers on the job? You pivot toward new business opportunities. And for both Andy and JJ, the solution was all in the family. 

For months, Andy had been searching for ways to extend the outdoor dining experience. When he mentioned this to his brother, JJ approached his boss, Nate King, owner of  Insight Exhibits, with an idea that could keep his builders working and solve Andy’s dining dilemma. 

The result? The Alpenglobe. 

Constructed with a unique igloo design combining wood beams and Plexiglass, each igloo provides dining guests a delicious meal within a comfortably warm and wonderfully scenic outdoor winter view of Midway’s Main Street. “The polycarbonate and acrylic were a challenge to get, but we ended up with a pretty fun product,” JJ says.

And people love it. When the globes first launched in October 2020, the waitlist for online reserved seating in Cafe Galleria’s trend-setting pod of Alpenglobes filled up within 45 minutes for November and Devember, and reservations for 2021 are coming in fast.

Although wildly successful, one could say this never would have happened without the economic pressures of COVID-19. This experience serves up a few lessons on how businesses can move through an economic downturn with success. 

Study the new customer

How can your brand transition to connect to a new customer? For Andy, offering a safe, socially-distant dining environment welcomes guests who still enjoy eating out. And by taking a unique approach to those safety precautions, the Andy, Emily, and JJ created a memorable experience. 

“Together, the three entrepreneurs have not only solved their pandemic problems with the Alpenglobe, a dome-shaped outdoor shelter—they also have created an outdoor eating experience that could transcend the coronavirus and the era of socially distant dining, as diners are having a ball eating inside these bubbles,” writes Kathy Stephenson, for The Salt Lake Tribune while covering the opening of the Alpenglobe. 

During the pandemic, we have found our customers pivoting in various ways at Simplus. Some of our smaller customers no longer have the interest or ability to invest in digital transformations with Salesforce, others are seeing their industries adopt digital transformations widely. The key to our success has been to adapt—not only to who our customers are but also to their changing needs. Because of this, we are continuing to experience record sales growth. Our best sales month since Simplus was founded was in December 2020. 

The pandemic forced Utah restaurants to innovate, and that ended up being good for several industries.

Re-evaluate your resources

For example, the skillset of the Insight Exhibits staff isn’t limited to building table tops or display walls. With minimal training, their abilities can expand to create a variety of materials and resources that appeal to a new customer. 

By identifying your assets, your company can also contribute to a collaborative partnership. By working together, companies can present a new product or service that satisfies an emerging need. For example, when the United Way wanted to expand its Ride United program that provides reliable transportation for people needing a ride to their jobs or doctor’s appointments, they partnered with DoorDash to add food and supplies delivery to their services. 

“In the first eight weeks of the program and across 46 states, Dashers have already delivered more than 650,000 meals from senior centers, schools, food banks, food pantries, and restaurants to seniors, medically fragile students, health care workers, and food insecure families,” writes Shama Hyder

Insight Exhibits is still in the business of designing and fabricating interior resources for company trade shows and events. But this new endeavor opens up opportunities to expand their catalog and tap into an entirely new customer base that can include not only food and catering but could include small groups events like wine tastings, yoga studios, or health spas.

At Simplus, the key to having an adaptable marketing program has been to hire team members who are flexible and cross-functional. We have core team members who are assigned to both an industry and channels. We also have a mix of employees and contractors so we can flex up and down as our needs and budgets change. In the past, events have been a core focus for us. This year, we have relied more on digital channels to drive leads. When a team is structured to be adaptable, you can pivot quickly and survive in a crisis.

Reinforce loyalty to your staff

Focusing on what you can contribute to a collaborative partnership is mutually beneficial to a company’s success, as it sends an important message to your staff about their value.

Your employees are your greatest asset, and when they feel appreciated, it reflects in their work performance. Research shows that happy workers can increase their productivity by up to 20 percent more than unhappy workers. 

JJ sees the impact of that loyalty every day. “Our staff is busy at work again, sanders and saws are going. You can see a difference in our workers,” says JJ. “They are building something great again. The company as a whole has had a lot of rejuvenation.”

We experienced the benefits of this at Simplus, as well. During the summer, we were required to reduce our budget and decide whether to let a full-time team member go or have contractors reduce their hours. Our contractors unanimously decided to reduce their hours to preserve the team and ensure our entire department survived intact. This meaningful gesture served to strengthen the team’s relationships and camaraderie, putting us in a position for even more trust and collaboration. 

With Cafe Galleria keeping the pizza oven hot and spirits flowing thanks to the AlpenGlobe, the success of JJ, his brother Andy, and wife Emily it’s a welcome success story amid too many pandemic small business tragedies. And as we head toward a hopeful new year, here’s to the tenacity of today’s small businesses as they develop new ways to achieve business growth. 

The Alpenglobe dining experience in Midway, Utah

Amy Osmond Cook is the CMO at Simplus, an Infosys company, and the founder of Osmond Marketing. She currently serves as an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University and is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Daily Herald. She received her Ph.D. in Organizational Rhetoric from the University of Utah and master's degree in English from BYU. She and her husband Jeff have five children.