Jason Wotman opened a Mighty Quinn’s BBQ franchise in Garden City in August 2020 amid the surging pandemic. What was he thinking? “I could keep sitting at home on the couch or get up and make the best of it,” says Wotman.
For two years he had envisioned owning a restaurant. Wotman had spent a decade in tech, working with startups, and it was time to do something he was passionate about. “I kept coming back to the idea of a restaurant. I love the magic of restaurants, beautiful food.”
He planned to open in late March of 2020, but construction was shut down, delaying the opening until August. When those doors swung open, his playbook was different. He could only operate at 50% capacity, people were socially distanced, and nobody was sitting at the bar. “I’m glad I opened when I did, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, though there were days I thought I should have waited.”
How did you have to adapt?
I built a unique version of Mighty Quinn. I have the smokers in-house and a full bar, that’s not typical. It was designed so that people would come in, have a drink and slowly get their food. But customers wanted to pick up food and get out quickly. I had to train staff so responsibilities could move from one person to another smoothly. I started a second service line that customers couldn’t see. That line made to-go and delivery orders. My expectation was that the restaurant would be 70 to 80% dine-in and the rest takeout and delivery. That equation was flipped because of the pandemic. I had to work on changing positions and responsibilities, to keep payroll ratios at the right levels. This is an ongoing recalculation now as we have started seeing more dine-in again.
What were some of the challenges of opening during the pandemic?
Advertising seemed like a fool’s errand, a poor return on investment. I decided to focus on customers for delivery, offering discounts and using third-party platforms to try and win the orders that every restaurant was competing for. I looked at it in the same way I might look at giving out free samples in order to get people into the restaurant. Uber, Grubhub, and DoorDash were fertile ground for customers. Say there was a $100 order, DoorDash would get a percentage, then the customer gets $20 off, so maybe I break even. My hope was that they would be a repeat customer when indoor dining returned, and that visit would be more profitable.
A lot of restaurants are having trouble hiring. Are you?
Finding staff has been difficult. I have 16 employees, about 30% fewer than I would like. Every day I’m short-staffed.
How is business now?
As soon as the weather warmed, the numbers got better. We have a big outdoor space, so month over month we are building. We’re still doing a lot of deliveries, but on the weekends, we’re getting a lot more in-restaurant diners, it’s not 80%, but we’re on our way.
Any regrets about opening the restaurant?
I love cooking. I can cook everything in the restaurant. I am an avid home cook. I host dinner parties. I’m excited to take my creativity to a professional level. I always knew a restaurant is a hard business, but to open my first restaurant in a pandemic, well, it can’t get any harder than that. I keep telling myself, it can only get better from here.