Maybe more than any other industry apart from health care, restaurants experienced firsthand the economic trials of the COVID-19 pandemic. They lost business, closed for indefinite periods or even shut their doors permanently. My heart hurts for those restaurant owners and employees who still may not have gotten back on their feet.
I’m fortunate to say my business, Caliente Pizza & Draft House in Pittsburgh, has gone in the opposite direction. Coming out of some trying times, we’ve been able to open two new locations in the past year, taking us to seven total as we celebrate 10 years in business.
It hasn’t always been easy, but I think our success in expanding and pivoting in difficult situations ultimately boils down to three factors: the team’s communication philosophy, ability to make quick decisions, and our confidence in the restaurant’s team, brand and story.
Consistent, active communication is key, so listening to staff and their needs and responding to them proactively is a critical step in strengthening any team, especially in times of crisis or uncertainty. My leadership and communication style has evolved over the years as I’ve learned how to adapt to changes and obstacles that are often out of my control.
As a leader, you can’t be everywhere at once. Instead, you must develop a communication rhythm that allows you to attend to everyone’s needs and concerns while delegating management responsibilities to other leaders on your team. This means considering how often to convey messages and check in with your team, along with the best channels for facilitating that communication. It also involves operating from a place of integrity; leaders should say what they’re going to do and follow through in doing what they say. Team members will have greater respect for leaders who listen to them and work to correct any issues their employees are experiencing. Your employees don’t just want to be a cog in a wheel — they want to be heard, and they want to work under leadership who actively listens.
Training managers and employees over the years has also strengthened my philosophy of communication, growth and development for the company. Every time you train someone, you learn from them as much as they learn from you. Every day is a learning opportunity, and as we continue to expand, I plan to continue to impress upon team members the importance of being open to new perspectives and ways of doing things, even when it means having to do a lot more listening than talking.
COVID-19 isn’t the only challenge restaurant owners have been hit with in the last few years — supply chain issues and hiring droughts have taken the industry by storm, forcing owners and management teams to improvise in ways they haven’t before. At the end of 2021, 95 percent of restaurants had experienced significant supply delays or shortages of food items, and our restaurant was no exception. At Caliente, we are utilizing all resources at our disposal, working with multiple distributors to ensure we’re getting the products we need, staying on top of how much product we’re using and bringing in the right volume of product each month.
Over the past few months, we’ve been focused on building a centralized headquarters to improve product consistency, better facilitate restaurant operations and allow for more fluid expansion efforts. Rather than having several people at each store make dough and sauce for the week, in the commissary kitchen, we’ll have two or three people making the product and the dough and sauce will be made in the exact same way for the entire company.
Like many other restaurants and small businesses, we’ve had to ramp up hiring efforts in the wake of the recent labor shortage. The primary focus for us hasn’t just been on bringing in new talent, but also retaining the talent we have and reminding each member of the team how integral they are to Caliente’s brand and growth. Rather than just searching for new employees when we need them most during a crisis, we make it a priority to actively search for new team members year-round, even when it feels like we don’t need to expand the team. This shows both existing team members and prospective employees that we’re always willing to create new positions within the company to showcase members’ unique strengths and interests in the pizza industry.
Coming out of 2020, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty among restaurant owners who had been looking to grow their presence in their community and surrounding areas but were afraid to take a chance during such an unprecedented time. Opening two new Caliente locations during the pandemic certainly wasn’t easy, but my belief in our brand and the teams we’ve built gave me the confidence to hit the ground running with our new stores.
Ultimately, the timing was right because it allowed us to increase Caliente’s impact for families and community members throughout Pittsburgh and beyond and create more positions within the company — particularly longer, career-focused jobs — so our team members didn’t have to look for positions in other workplaces or industries. Amid the chaos in recent years, I assured our team that we were going to come out of the pandemic stronger, expand quicker and create exponentially more jobs than ever before. I share the same sentiment now, especially after seeing what our team is capable of during the sixth and seventh store openings.
We can’t predict all the new challenges in store for us in the latter half of 2022 and future years, but I have no doubt that our team’s strong communication, efficient work and problem-solving strategies and clear company vision will help us achieve even more growth, expansion and long-term success moving forward. For restaurant owners who are continuing to struggle or lose faith today, start with a belief in yourself, your product and your team — that’s the foundation for your success.