How Independent Restaurant Operators Are Showing Their Strength

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

April 21, 2021 6 min read

The opinions expressed by the entrepreneur’s contributors are their own.

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

Independent restaurant operators have always been more entrepreneurial and a greater source of innovation in the restaurant industry than the large chain restaurants. The pandemic has been devastating to local restaurants across the country, according to the National Restaurant Association. More than 110,000 locations have closed their doors temporarily or permanently. Data from the National Restaurant Association also shows that restaurant and foodservice industry revenue declined by $ 240 billion in 2020 from an expected level of $ 899 billion.

Some thought the future of the independent restaurant was as good as over, but a closer look reveals that restaurateurs have become even more innovative instead. Many have found incredibly creative ways to get diners to visit their restaurants, keep them safe and most importantly, keep money flowing. This article provides some examples of the creativity that has kept local restaurants alive.

Related: This restaurant just launched 8 new brands. Sales were booming.

The rise of the restaurant capsules

Photo credit: Jason Walk / Skylab Aerial Solutions

Full-service restaurant operators have returned to full capacity by providing their guests with outdoor seating, especially in colder climates. When this idea first became popular, the shelters were simple plastic bubbles that looked more like northern fishing huts than an extension of the restaurants they represented. With time and innovation, some “Pod Dining” have become more of a luxury suite that can be reserved for an exciting dining experience.

An example can be seen in Naperville, IL at Fiammé. “We had a tough track,” says Preston Gaspar, general manager. “Then we have this idea.” Fiammé tried to track down, procure and eventually buy prefabricated greenhouses and rented two rows of storage containers. A contractor installed everything, including doors and windows, in the pods in place of the cold metal roller doors that are now hidden with cleverly draped fabric.

They added a cozy feel to any storage container by hanging wall treatments, stringing twinkling lights, and adding seasonal decor. Each pod is equipped with space heating for the cold Chicago winters.

“The pods were an instant hit,” beamed Gaspar. The bookings flowed back in. They also added new items to the menu to meet the increased take-away / carry-out demand. According to Gaspar, Fiamme’s carryout business was “12% of pre-pandemic sales but 54% now”. 65-70% of our sales come from third parties like GrubHub, DoorDash and Uber Eats.

Photo credit: Matthew Crow / Xalt Media LLC

Another example is Fox River Brewing. With three locations in the Fox Cities of Wisconsin when the pandemic broke out, sales for these high-volume independent restaurants were plummeting. Part of their response has been to introduce what are known as river domes. According to business owner Jay Supple, the domes were a huge hit. He says, “We’ll have them from October to April every year.”

The River Domes can comfortably accommodate up to eight people and have heating, adjustable lighting, and entertainment systems. According to Supple, the River Domes brought more to the business than just a new way to entertain more diners. “The interest of the guests in social media, to publish their experiences on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, was enormous.”

The beach next door

Photo credit: Wendy Keller

Independent restaurants in California have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. The state has kept closing indoor seating, only recently opening up to 50% capacity. Restaurants like Baja Cantina in Venice had to look for ways to increase their outdoor seating as much as possible to compensate for this. If their restaurant were actually on the beach, it wouldn’t have been nearly as difficult as it would have been for a restaurant three blocks inland. According to Ramar Green, General Manager, their solution was to build a private beach in the parking lot.

They brought in a huge tent, poured a few inches of sand over their asphalt, installed some umbrellas, and dragged tables, chairs, couches, and a portable bar onto this new venue. Baja Cantina has regained almost all of their previous capacities and helped them achieve income levels closer to last year. According to Ramar, “The beach [atmosphere] was great. Customers really love it. It’s different and got a lot of attention. “

While the restaurant isn’t as profitable as it was in previous years – cash sales currently account for less than 20% of their total income than 40% before Covid – it would be a lot worse without this innovative thinking than it is now.

Assembly required

Photo credit: Marlo Ambas

When the pandemic hit, many restaurant operators focused on replacing meals that are normally cooked at home. Execution and delivery are a huge part of the restaurant business these days, but many meals that consumers love just don’t travel well when prepared in advance. The solution for some innovative restaurants has been to offer take-and-bake products, or meal sets, that consumers can prepare at home using restaurant-quality ingredients.

A unique example is Manila Resto, a modern Asian kitchen in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. According to owner Marlo Ambas, pre-pandemic delivery accounted for about 10% of its business. “Now it’s closer to 60%,” he says.

One of the more creative ways Marlo’s business has caused a stir is by offering sushi kits that contain everything a consumer needs. The kits must be ordered a day in advance and timing is critical as they package raw seafood that can easily spoil. Each order contains a roll mat, chopsticks, soy sauce, ginger, wasabi, cooked sushi rice, five nori sheets, two packaged sushi roll ingredients and two packaged maki roll ingredients. Ambas even made a step-by-step video showing guests how to make the perfect sushi roll.

Photo credit: Kelly Laux /

Another example is Napoli’s Italian restaurant in Enid, Oklahoma. Owner Tony Zakuti has introduced a take away lasagna for four that comes packaged with a salad, garlic bun, and a little extra sauce. The new product has helped Zakuti, who assures that “it’s as good at home as it is in my restaurant,” keep his business on track.

Related: Real Conversation About How Restaurants Can Survive

Help your local restaurant entrepreneur

Despite all of these innovations, local restaurants still need our help. The best way you can support yours is to patronize them. When you’re comfortable, visit a local restaurant in person each week. If not, get a takeaway or delivery, especially from a local contractor. The quick chains are doing better than ever during this pandemic, but many of the restaurants that make your local community fun, varied, and entertaining will only survive if you continue to dine with them.