By Tim Hunt
Lessons learned during the lockdownUploaded: Apr 1, 2021
Four local business owners shared with the Northern California Mentoring Group Tuesday the lessons they learned while coping with the pandemic.
They were Matt Richert of Richert Lumber ACE Hardware, Sidetrack owner Todd Utikal, Joe Rodrigues of Valley Catering and Darcy Decoite, owner of One Resource Consulting.
Richert, the second generation of the family to run the company, was in Chicago at a trade show when the shutdown hit. He had been executing a carefully developed business plan that immediately got put on the shelf. He developed a plan that was measurable, could not be contested and that he would deliver from a place of authority and be held accountable to.
He banned from his language words like “I think, I want,” that could create doubt. About an hour after he arrived back in the store, he sent half the staff home. He reduced hours of one quarter of his staff by 40% and another quarter by 20%. He made them layoffs instead of furloughs so they could qualify for unemployment. He helped employees fill out unemployment forms and continued medical care as well as the 401K match. He also said that nobody was going to miss a car payment or a rent payment—the money came from the Richert Family.
Richert also laid out what would happen in terms of severance and health care if the layoffs became permanent so employees understood. After four weeks of the shutdown, business picked up and has continued to increase—it’s up 50% this month. So he brought people back and everyone returned despite the reality that they could make more money staying home on the enhanced unemployment benefits.
“We went through two crises—No. 1 is how do you cut fast and hard enough so you don’t lose money and No. 2 is how do you convince somebody to come back and put their life on the line for their work when you’re going to pay them less that unemployment,” he said.
He also noted that it was all about people—his employees and the customers. They decided not to raise any prices despite the demand, preferring to play it for the long term.
For Utikal, his business was booming and then went to nothing in one day. He spoke first because he had a crew coming to Sidetrack to help move tables and decide what 50% capacity would look like today. The 10-month shutdown of indoor dining required the change to takeout and outdoor dining on the two patios.
“I kept saying to my girls, to my guests and to my family friends who were worried about us that we will come out stronger and just because I hate something doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” Like many Livermore Valley restauranteurs he said he was frustrated by the times when Contra Costa was open for dining while Alameda was still closed. The constantly shifting rules also were a great challenge.
Like Richert, he focused on keeping his employees, helped along by the federal payroll program. He also said he took $15,000 cash out of the bank to help employees who were short on rent or a car payment. Like Richert, he told employees that we will figure it out once we get through it.
Sales, not surprisingly, dropped 38%. He’s optimistic now because the vibe in the restaurant from people excited to be dining out again. Utikal said one couple, who had a baby during the shutdown, came to Sidetrack for their first time out in a year—the same for an older couple.
A positive was restaurants banned together into a Tri-Valley Restaurant Group and freely shared ideas with “competitors.” Another was the Main Street closures Friday through Sunday that will return in May.
Joe Rodriques, who has operated Valley Catering for 30 years, saw a full calendar of weddings and other events cancelled overnight. He pivoted into a grocery business (a move several restaurants made) and then finally made the decision October 8 to close the business. He then connected with another experienced chef, Austrian Christian Fischer who had run the culinary program for Nestle S.A., Yale University and Compass.
The two found they have a common love of sharing what they’ve learned with other chefs to help them move to the next level. They’ve founded the membership mentoring program, Culinary Executive Mastermind, that is scaling internationally. They have 411 members from 16 countries who pay a monthly fee to participate. That’s in just six months.
Rodrigues said that they share a passion for the customer. Fischer observed that most chefs are good cooks but terrible businessmen.
Decoite provides human resources consulting for small businesses. She had been steadily adding clients and that dried up immediately. She spent hours upon hours on the phone with government agencies as she strove to help her clients. She had worried that she may lose clients as they looked to slash expenses, but fortunately that did not happen.
As the months have gone on, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel, her business has started to grow again.