If I were to ask you which businesses have struggled the most during the pandemic, my guess would be that somewhere right after healthcare, you would say restaurants.
With lockdowns, lack of supplies, the great resignation, and simply put, many food service workers leaving the field due to long hours, disgruntled customers, and low wages; the past year and a half have been very tough on restaurants.
When we started planning our first Growth Guide and decided our first issue would be focused on growth mindset, the restaurant industry came to mind. They have had to evolve and sometimes, even completely reset their mindsets and practices.
The first business that I thought of was Rustica Pizza Vino in Orillia, Ontario. Earlier that week, they had uploaded a staff appreciation post on social media. I was blown away by the fact that many of the staff members had been there since the beginning, just over 5 years ago now. This is a big achievement for any new business, let alone a restaurant in the midst of a pandemic.
The pandemic brought so many challenges to the restaurant industry. It would be so easy to give up, throw your hands in the air, and say that you can’t do it anymore. Jenna French, the owner and operator of Rustica Pizza Vino, has never been one to evade challenges. Instead, she shifted her process, supported her team, and used innovation to remain successful during a turbulent time. Jenna truly demonstrated a growth mindset in the face of difficulties. It also should be mentioned: Jenna was 8 months pregnant with her second child when the first lockdown started.
It’s no secret that the pandemic hit restaurants extremely hard. Overall, how was the whole experience for you?
During the struggles and the quick turnaround on restrictions, it feels like you're drowning. You're trying to protect the people in the process, mainly the staff. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were fully closed down for nine weeks. During that part, it was a bit scary. After that, I never really wondered if the restaurant was gonna make it through, it was just who we were gonna make it through with. I've had staff show me such loyalty, I really wanted to make sure they were okay over everything.
You can't run a business as a charity. You can support a lot of charities by running your business properly, but you have to make sure that the business survives or no one has a job. The core staff members were who I was the most worried about. Every time there was a change, whether it was reopening, or closing, or both within two weeks, or twice within four weeks, it was just very overwhelming. You’re just trying to tread water, and trying to carry people with you while you're treading water. The whole thing was very emotional.
A growth mindset can easily be described as the belief that things will change and improve over time with practice and learning from obstacles. Obviously, the pandemic brought a lot of challenges. As an owner, how do you think you applied a growth mindset to keep you and your team stable?
Just like in your personal life, you need something to look forward to. I think it's important to just keep the focus on what you can focus on, which, for us, it's either new menu items or we ran a pizza box decorating contest. Little things, anything, you can kind of have control over. So when we're sitting in take-out February, cases are still very high, there's no point in being like “okay, what are we going to do in June?” because we have no idea at that point. That's what I love about the restaurant industry, every single day is different.
When we fail, or when we get criticism, I think it only really makes us better. You're just like, “okay, that was a bad idea”. I don't think we've had any huge failures that have cost us business. In the day-to-day, any kind of criticism, negative or positive, we listen to and evaluate. If we fail at something, I believe there's always a chance that we get better. We always have, my team is just so great. There's a lot of strength amongst the staff.
Were you able to stay positive throughout challenges? If so, how?
Well, I showed up every single day. I think my team can feel it, we're not going to give up on each other. I never think “oh there has been a change and they're not going to show up”, they're very consistent, awesome, and I think no matter what, we show up together. I've had those moments, in the early days of opening the business, where I just put my head down on my desk downstairs in the office and would think, “how are we going to do this?”. I do wear a lot of stress but I know the things that I can control. If I catch myself stressing about things that I can’t control, I'm just like, “Okay, well, think about it tomorrow because you're just giving yourself wrinkles”.
A lot of your staff members have been there from the beginning. In a time where the restaurant industry is struggling to fill jobs and the great resignation is upon us, how do you keep your employees engaged and satisfied?
I think it's important to evaluate what you're offering as an employer. If you have someone working for you that can't afford to pay rent and buy food, then you need to look at yourself and how you can grow your business in order to support everyone that works and helps you grow it. I believe in paying a living wage and that has gone up exponentially, especially with COVID-19. I believe in taking care of people who take care of you. We're a restaurant and we offer benefits, no one's on minimum wage, and make sure that if you're doing well, then your staff is also doing well.
They are your top priority. They're showing up every day and working their butts off and they are, ultimately, the reason the business is growing. They should get to see the benefits of that. You can run a successful business and pocket all the money. I don't. I'm not in it for the money, so it really doesn't matter to me. I really just want to be successful. When I am successful, I want to make sure that the people who helped me get there are taken care of. We’ve chosen each other and we spend more time together than with anyone else. If someone gets in the weeds, someone will jump in and help them; no one is hung out to dry at Rustica.
Thinking back to the beginning of the pandemic, what are some of the biggest lessons you learned?
I think just focusing on what I can control. It's less than before, but there are lots and lots of things within our control. There are definitely things that are not, which wasn't really a thing for me before. So, we focused on what we can do, what we can do better, and leave that for another day when we have more control.
If you were to give one piece of advice to a business owner on one easy thing they can do to keep their employees happy, what would you say?
It’s a learned skill, but you need to care about your employees as people. I know everyone on staff and what their different needs are. When it comes to managing them, especially the ones who've been around for five years, the way I discuss issues or rewards is different depending on their personality.
It's important for you to listen to them. Whether it's them actually voicing concerns, you can see their burnout, they mesh better with somebody else, or if they're better at a different job than they've been assigned; I like to focus on what the individual brings. I think a lot of companies are led by numbers. It's important to know your numbers, it's important to know what margins you're working with, but it's not the most important thing. As an employer, it's your job to know what's going on in the building.
After our interview, I was so inspired by Jenna’s leadership abilities. Rustica utilizes so many of the techniques that Botree values as a business. As we look forward to a post-pandemic society, employee retention is becoming a huge issue for many businesses. Jenna is a supportive leader. She is able to tailor her communication to her employees based on their personality, remained level-headed, and lead by example, even through difficult times. She is relentless in her vision and is always willing to try new things. Jenna evolved, just like we encourage our clients to do, to meet the needs and requirements set for her.