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Entrepreneurial Leadership, Good Eats: How Independent Restaurant Operators Are Showing Their Strength

Despite lockdown restrictions and changes in consumer behavior, independent restaurants are surviving and thriving with original, refreshing and creative approaches.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

This article was co-authored by by Wendy Keller and Mark K. Laux.

Wendy Keller
Flamme in Naperville alit at night.

Independent restaurant operators have always been more entrepreneurial and a bigger source of innovation in the restaurant industry than the large chain restaurants can be. But the pandemic has been devastating for local restaurants across the country, with more than 110,000 locations closing their doors either temporarily or permanently, according to the National Restaurant Association. National Restaurant Association data also shows that restaurant and foodservice industry sales fell by $240 billion in 2020 from an expected level of $899 billion.

Some thought that future of the independent restaurant was all but over, but a closer look reveals that instead, restaurateurs became even more innovative. Many have found incredibly creative ways to keep diners visiting their restaurants, keeping them safe and, most of all, keeping cash flowing. This article features some examples of the creativity that has kept local restaurants alive.

Related: This Restaurant Just Launched 8 New Brands. Sales Boomed.

The rise of restaurant pods

Image credit: Jason Walk/Skylab Aerial Solutions

Full-service restaurant operators started scratching their way back to full capacity by offering outdoor enclosed seating for their patrons, especially in colder climates. When this idea first became popular, the shelters were simple plastic bubbles that were more like northern fishing shanties than an extension of the restaurants they were representing. Given time and innovation, some "pod dining" has become more like luxury suites that can be reserved for an exciting dining experience.

One example can be seen in Naperville, IL at Fiammé. "We'd had a hard stretch," says Preston Gaspar, general manager. "Then we got this idea." Fiammé struggled to track down, source and eventually purchase prefab greenhouses and rented two rows of storage pods. A contractor installed everything, including doors and windows in the pods in lieu of the cold metal roll-up doors, which are now hidden with cleverly draped fabric.

They gave each storage pod a cozy feeling by hanging wall treatments and stringing twinkle lights and adding seasonal décor. Each pod comes with a space heater for those cold Chicago winters.

"The pods were an instant hit," Gaspar beams. Bookings started flowing in again.They also added new items to the menu to meet the increased demand for take out/carry out. Gaspar says that Fiamme's carryout business was about "12% of revenues pre-pandemic, but now it's about 54%," adding that now, "65-70% of our takeout is through third parties like GrubHub, DoorDash and Uber Eats."

Image credit: Matthew Crow/Xalt Media LLC

Another example is Fox River Brewing. With three locations in the Fox Cities of Wisconsin, when the pandemic hit, these high-volume independent restaurants saw their sales plummet. Part of their response was to introduce so-called River Domes. According to business owner Jay Supple, the domes have been such a hit, he says, "We'll have them every year moving forward from October through April."

The River Domes can hold up to eight people comfortably and include heating, adjustable lighting and entertainment systems. Supple says the River Domes have brought the business more than just a new way to entertain more guests, noting, "The social media interest with guests posting their experiences on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have been tremendous."

The beach next door

Image credit: Wendy Keller

Independent restaurants in California have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. The state has closed down indoor seating off and on and only opened up to 50% capacity recently. Restaurants like Baja Cantina in Venice had to look for ways to increase their outdoor seating as much as possible to compensate. If their restaurant was actually on the beach, this wouldn't have been nearly as difficult as it was for a restaurant three blocks inland. According to Ramar Green, general manager, their solution was to build their own beach in their parking lot.

They brought in a huge tent, pouring a few inches of sand over their asphalt, installed some palm front umbrellas and hauled tables, chairs, couches and a portable bar out onto this new venue. Baja Cantina has recovered almost all of their previous capacity and helped them reach an income level closer to the previous year. According to Ramar, "The beach [atmosphere] has been great. Customers really love it. It's different and has caused a lot of buzz."

While the restaurant is not as profitable as previous years — bar sales are currently making up less than 20% of their overall income instead of 40% pre-Covid — without this innovative thinking, it would be doing much worse than it is now.

Some assembly required

Image credit: Marlo Ambas

As the pandemic took hold, many restaurant operators turned their attention to replacing meals that would normally be cooked at home. Carryout and delivery make up a large portion of the restaurant business today, but many meals that consumers love simply do not travel well when prepared in advance. The solution for some innovative restaurants has been to offer take-and-bake products or meal kits that consumers can prepare themselves with restaurant quality ingredients at home.

One unique example is Manila Resto, a modern Asian Kitchen in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. According to the owner, Marlo Ambas, delivery made up about 10% of his business prior to the pandemic. "Now it's more like 60%," he says.

One of the more creative ways Marlo's business has gathered excitement is by offering sushi kits that come with everything a consumer needs. The kits need to be ordered a day in advance, and timing is critical, as they are packaging raw seafood that can spoil easily. Each order comes with a rolling mat, chopsticks, soy sauce, ginger, wasabi, cooked sushi rice, five nori sheets, two packaged sushi roll ingredients and two packaged maki roll ingredients. Ambas has even made a narrated, step-by-step video that shows guests how to make the perfect sushi roll.

Image credit: Kelly Laux/

Another example is Napoli's Italian Restaurant in Enid, Oklahoma. Owner Tony Zakuti has introduced a take-and-bake lasagna for four that's packaged with a salad, garlic rolls and some extra sauce. The new product has helped Zakuti, who assures "it's as good at home as it is in my restaurant," keep his business on track.

Related: Real Talk About How Restaurants Can Survive

Help your local restaurant entrepreneur

Even with all of this innovation, local restaurants still need our help. The best way you can support yours is by patronizing them. If you feel comfortable, visit a local restaurant every week in person. If not, get carryout or delivery, especially from a local entrepreneur. The quick-service chains are doing better than ever during this pandemic, but many of the restaurants that make your local community fun, diverse and entertaining will only survive if you continue to dine with them.

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