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Bryan Dayton On Rewriting The Pandemic Restaurant Playbook

Retrenching the business to get past the crisis, while using the opportunity to evolve the industry.

Bryan Dayton is founder of Half Eaten Cookie Hospitality, which operates five venues in Denver and Boulder.

It’s been a wild transition here in Colorado. We have four restaurants and one small dessert shop, and we shut down everything for a couple of days right when the pandemic started. Then we reopened BriDer, our quick-casual concept, which was already doing a ton of to-go. So that was super simple. Then Oak at Fourteenth, which is our flagship restaurant—we switched that over to to-go and kept that rolling. But with Acorn, Corrida, and Melted, we shut that all down and have just been waiting to see how it goes.

It’s given us time for a lot of reflection on this business in general. In the press, finally everybody’s like, “The system’s broken, and it’s been broken.” Things I’ve said for years. These numbers don’t work anymore because of what it costs for payroll, what it costs for basic goods, what it costs for rents and everything else.

I’m very thankful for the Independent Restaurant Coalition for pushing as hard as they have to help get funding and change the Payroll Protection Program and things like that. That’s been absolutely amazing. On the other hand, it’s like, what can we do collectively as a restaurant industry to help change these broken systems? I understand we’re all in triage, and we all need to survive and get money and start paying bills. Who knows who’s going to work with us and who’s not? There’s still a lot of unknowns.

But at the same time, why don’t we walk a little bit toward the future? Let’s not run back. How do we make this a functional business in a post-COVID world that’s going to be somewhat inhospitable? Some people will go back to being normal and super-casual about it, and it’ll be the same system. But there are very few times in our industry where you can make a stark change. You’re always going to get pushback in some way or other. But in the name of safety and in the name of sustainability and in the name of progression, we have to look at new models.

Things that have been on the horizon for the restaurant industry, that have been coming at us for 10 years down the road—how do we make those happen now? How do we make the future now? How do we make our staffs better? How to make our staffs safe? That’s where a lot of our thought process is coming from. We’re trying to divide and conquer this thing. What can we do at 50 percent occupancy? What can we do with online ordering? What can we do with hospitality? It’s always been about the kitchen in restaurants, but over the past few decades you’ve seen it switch to being about hospitality in the front of house. How do we focus not only on the aspects of where the restaurant is, but also, most importantly, the discrepancies between the front and back of house as far as pay goes, and sustainability and benefits? All these things really come into focus for us.

Everybody’s been talking about the divide between front and back of house for years, and it’s getting worse with the tip credit. Your tip minimum wage is just short of $10 an hour in Colorado, which is wild. Your minimum wage in general is short of $13 an hour. How does that work? So you have some front of the house employees that are making $70,000 or $75,000 a year, and your highest-paid managers are barely getting that. How do you get people to have more of a balance and a better lifestyle in this business? We’re looking at business models that we can create where the back of house staff is compensated for their hard work and what they’re doing and their grind every day, and then the front of house is compensated in the same fashion, but probably at a lower point or lower annual salary, but with benefits added.

And we’re looking at these models where we’ve been open seven days a week—13 shifts where we’ve done seven dinner shifts, six lunch shifts. You’re just running these massive machines all the time trying to make bills and pay for overhead. You have to do so much to try to get a bottom-line number. What if we go back to the drawing board. What if we do five days a week—we open up for happy hour, say 3 to 10 every day, do a kind of happy hour in the afternoon, and then we have dinner service from 5 to 10. Everybody has two days off, so you’re eliminating the juggling of schedules having to hire extra employees and have all these chefs. On average, we’re just short of 70 employees in each restaurant. That’s a lot of bodies to manage.

Five days a week is a little more sustainable, a little more old-school. You’re running with a shorter crew, a smaller crew. And you’re running with 50 percent occupancy, maybe at least until there’s a vaccine. We can run lean and mean, and get this to where everybody’s getting a higher price point, and add in a service-included option that the guest actually chooses. Or maybe some sort of surcharge we build into the pricing of our menu items. Then we’re actually able to hire people and offer an hourly wage or a salary that includes benefits. Then we’re able to treat it like a “real” job, which has always been an issue in our business.

When I was coming up, people were like, “You’re a bartender. What are you going to do when you grow up?” And I’m like, “Well, I’m grown up and I’m a bartender. I have a house, I have children, I have bills, and I’m a bartender. And one day I’m hopefully going to be a restaurant owner.”

I think the restaurant industry has been overlooked, and maybe not disrespected exactly, but certainly deserves a little more acknowledgment of our hard work and sacrifice. We’re going into uncharted territory. We’re literally subjecting our employees to the risk of getting sick. They have families and responsibilities that I’m super nervous about. How do we compensate them in a fair way, get them to where they can have two weeks paid vacation, hopefully add in some benefits and insurance and 401(k)s eventually?

Our crews have become vastly smaller. We’ve run the numbers at 50 percent occupancy, and even on two-and-a-half turns at the restaurants, we can still get up to 120, 130 people in a night, especially in the summertime. Wintertime is probably a different story, because people won’t want to eat as late. It’s a little more of a bedroom community out here.

We don’t have it all figured out right now, and it’s another reason I’m slow to reopen. I really want to make the right decisions for reopening because I want everybody to be a cohesive team—I want us to be small, to be nimble, and then also to be able to compensate people for their hard work.

The technology isn’t quite where we want it for the ideas that we have. OpenTable is working on it, Tock is working on it, a lot of people are working on it. We’re all pushing, trying to figure it out. I’m a little bit more progressive. I want a dine-in system that’s like online to-go ordering. As soon as you make your reservation, it prompts you to actually pick out everything your party is going to order. You and your buddies do that, boom, boom, boom, and we’ll see you on Friday.

Then once you show up at the restaurant, you’re taking away a big expense for us—paper products and single menus and having to throw those away anyway. Now that’s a thing of the past. Everybody wants to order on their phones. We could still do it as an a la carte experience versus a prix-fixe experience like at a fine-dining restaurant. You make your reservation time, you get the food order in. We can offer a beverage pairing, or you can get a bottle of wine, or you can start off with a couple of Manhattans, whatever you want. It’s still normal dining.

The cool thing about it is now we have all the information ahead of time. You have allergies, you have preferences, now we have all those things, and pre-service becomes so much faster. We already know the food that is going out tonight. Here’s your piece of paper for all the guests that are coming at your table. You know what’s going on. We have the script down. The turn—which is always the hardest part of it, because people come in, they’re drinking, they look at the menu, they don’t know what they’re going to order—that 25 minutes is gone now.

Now you come to the table, it’s a four-top. John and Sue wanted sparkling water, and Danny and Bonnie wanted still water. You walk over the table and you’re like, “Hey, John and Sue. You had sparkling water?” They raise their hand. You’re bringing this hospitality back to them. “Danny and Bonnie, you guys got still water. Here you go. Cool. We’ve got your order. Anything for you guys? Any questions?” Bada bing, bada boom. They’re like, no, we’re good. We hit them with a little amuse bouche, a little cocktail. So we bring this kind of hospitality back to this inhospitable world.

We know who you are. You’re here with us. We’re giving you the proverbial hospitality blanket of hugging without being able to do that, because we’re going to be wearing masks and everything else. So we get everybody comfortable, then we start the dinner. Maybe the only thing that’s on the table at the point when the guest sits down is the serviette.

The other thing is you’re always taking so much time when you’re marking or resetting the table between each course. Now what we’re going to do is eliminate marks on the table because we’re thinking about touches. People don’t want to see that—you going around hitting a fork and a knife and a plate with your hands, even if you’re wearing gloves. You don’t know who’s super-sensitive to it, or who’s saying “fuck it” in the germ world. Why don’t we just err to the side of caution?

Now we could put the marks on the plates in almost a decorative manner, in the kitchen instead of at the table. It honestly gives the kitchen a little bit more fun, like what you would see in a high-end restaurant. Maybe we could use cool chopsticks for something, or there’s a special fork or a spoon or something that comes with that. And so you bring that out and it’s already on the plate. Each course goes a little bit faster because you’re not going through this big, long process of re-marks. The kitchen can hit a little faster, your turn becomes a little bit faster, then you’re able to get the table back faster, and you’ll be able to run a little bit more of a sustainable business model.

The way we want to do reservations is different, too. The way we’ve all done online reservations in the past, it only gives you options to reserve tables every 15 minutes. One of our restaurants is on a roof where you take an elevator up. If we have six parties showing up every 15 minutes, or four parties showing up every 15 minutes, we’ve got to put all these strangers together in an elevator, and that doesn’t work in COVID times. What if we go to 7-minute intervals, or 10-minute intervals? You’re creating time to get a table upstairs, and get back downstairs.Even in a restaurant without an elevator, what you’re doing is spreading out the bottleneck in the name of safety. Your turns become more fluid, because the clock’s ticking. If everybody’s on an hour and 45 minute turn, you start every 7 minutes, every hour and 45 minutes, you’re constantly resetting. Boom, boom, boom. We’re thinking of some pretty crazy shit.

This sounds great to talk about, but I’m sure there will be 20 million issues in practice. I don’t even want to think about it. My team’s like, “Oh, that sounds great, but what about this, or this?” I’m like, “Oh my God, I know.” People might be like, “What do you mean I’ve got to pre-order? We’re here to support you.” It’s never going to be perfect, and it never has been.

But what can we do to really change things? If we can make this system work, we get the cash faster and a better handle on our product inventory, so we’re able to run a leaner business model. It’s a better experience with food options and portion control. It also gives us a little bit more leeway with people putting in tips, though it won’t be called a gratuity. We’re trying to figure out legally what it’s going to have to be called. Because tipping is still so fucked up in the States. People still want to have that control. How do we give them a sense of control, while explaining how we’re doing it and how we’re dividing it up?

We’re trying to make 7 percent bottom line margin for our business, and that’s a fair market. Honestly, we should be trying to make 15. I’m almost at the point that I’m willing to be open-book to the public on my finances, because we really want to make a statement. We really want to make a change. We want our staff taken care of, our communities taken care of, and the business model taken care of, instead of just always shooting from the hip in our industry.

If you’re at Goldman Sachs and you say 7 percent margin, they would send you out the door. You say less than 20 percent, they send you out the door. And those dudes aren’t going to do open books. I’m thinking the more progressive we are, maybe other restaurants see it as sustainable. I’m not looking to get rich in this business. I do think there should be some reward for the risk. But at the same time, we have an opportunity. Of course, maybe this will all blow up, and people will be like, “Well, I can go down the street to another restaurant and not deal with your bullshit.”

I’ve been fortunate to eat in amazing dining rooms around the globe, from Noma to Per Se or whatever. You have this amazing experience, gluttonous and fun and beautiful. Just the most pristine moments of dining in my life. But there’s always been this hassle at the end where you have the check to deal with. You’ve gone through this four or five hour experience, and you probably drank too much, and then you’ve got this check and you’re trying to figure out what the tip is and everything else. It’s a jarring point in hospitality. “Oh, wait, I’m back to reality now. I need to stop and do this check.”

I want to sit down with my family at a restaurant, just like we do at the kitchen table, and not think about the process at all, and all of a sudden the food shows up. Even if my buddy and I are celebrating a birthday, and we’re like “Let’s get a shot of Chartreuse.” Okay, cool. We can plug that in, and the bill just goes to my freakin’ email. And then when we’re done, we’re like, “Okay, we’re done. Let’s go. See you later, guys.” And you just leave.