Overcoming the Pandemic: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities in the Restaurant Business

When I read that more than half of restaurant operators said it will be a year or more before business conditions return to normal, and they expect food, labor and occupancy costs to impact profit margins in 2022, it made me think. Are my businesses back to normal? Yes and no. Yes, we found ways to pivot and stay profitable through the pandemic. And yet, no, we are not back to normal, considering how much we’ve had to change in order to survive. There is a continued need to persist and find new ways to tackle the challenges facing businesses, and this is especially important to me as I lead my own company.

In 1994, I founded Shipyard Brewing Company, financed in part by $600,000 that I charged to eight separate credit cards. In those early days, I used my own car, a 1992 Chevy S10 Blazer, to distribute my beers to local pubs and restaurants. By 2002, my partner and I founded a second operation: Sea Dog Brewing Co., and we now have 16 locations in Maine, New Hampshire and Florida.

I’m proud of this success, but the road here wasn’t without obstacles. This was especially true growing up as a kid with dyslexia. Early on, I had to learn how to overcome this challenge and find my own unique ways to succeed. This persistence has become a defining characteristic for me personally and professionally. Some might joke that I’m just too stupid to quit, but I always try to see the opportunities that lie beyond the obstacles.

This mindset influenced how I led my businesses to thrive throughout the pandemic, and there are a few ways we persisted that would be relevant for any business navigating similar challenges:

Prepare and Adapt When Disaster Strikes

As best you can, prepare yourself and your business for the day when things go wrong. Your business could be negatively affected by any number of things, like a natural disaster, supplier issues or changing consumer preferences. Play some negative “What if…” scenarios through your head during the good times so you’ll be better equipped to manage and evolve your business when things go wrong.

When people stopped going out for food and drinks, we immediately knew we had to find new, creative ways to do business if we were going to survive. Fortunately, my team absolutely refused to quit. We had to find a way to make our direct-to-consumer operation work and turned to delivery, like many others in our position. We transformed our Sea Dog Cantina in Clearwater, Florida – which used to be a gathering place – into a delivery operation that provided food and alcohol direct to consumers.

You Can’t Always Do Everything by Yourself

When the going gets tough, of course everyone has to get to work. But sometimes there comes a point when you’re forced to realize that your challenges surpass your expertise. That’s the time to find a partner who can help you get your business back on track. 

This was true for us with delivery. We started slowly but quickly found that we were stretching ourselves thin trying to make so many deliveries in our area. We knew we couldn’t do it alone and decided to partner with Cognetry Labs for our e-commerce platform and Walmart GoLocal for delivery.  Partnering with Cognetry Labs and Walmart GoLocal to expand and enhance our e-commerce and delivery capabilities is a major reason why we are still around today.

Lean into Your Strengths

Too many business leaders experience a kind of tunnel vision that prevents them from seeing new opportunities. You can’t be everything to every customer, so think about what your business does best and then spend your time and energy building from that solid foundation.

We’ve been successful with our delivery model that we’re now looking at new ways to expand what we’re offering to customers. Sixty-one percent of customers say they order takeout or delivery at least once a week – a 32 percent increase from one year ago – and 40 percent prefer to use a restaurant’s own branded website or app. This presents a huge opportunity for us, and we’re working with Cognetry Labs and Walmart GoLocal on expanding our remote ordering and delivery capabilities by creating a concierge-style app that will let people order items from multiple places. For example, someone might order some beers from Sea Dog Cantina, food from another restaurant and spirits delivered from their local liquor store. 

Adversity is a part of running a business, but it’s how you navigate it and identify opportunities that allows you to succeed. I know that we’ll face more challenges in the future – that’s just how the world works. But through persistence and the right partnerships, we’ll be able to pursue new opportunities, grow the business and serve the ever-evolving needs of our customers.