Restaurant owners across the country are grappling with the challenges of the worst crisis the industry has know since the onset of Covid-19 closings, re-openings and regulations.
Marissa Hermer, owner of widely hailed Los Angeles-based restaurant duo Olivetta and The Draycott, recently shared she feels as though she and her team “are riding a roller coaster blindfolded. Even during the good days, the role of a food and beverage worker is akin to a firefighter –– we put on a daily show, and constantly anticipate a little metaphorical fire around every corner as each service is treated like opening night, and yet, unlike Broadway, our cast of characters changes. The set is in constant motion and, of course, there are sometimes real kitchen fires to put out.”
For industry veterans like Hermer, this has also been heightened and magnified in the era of Covid-19 with “the pandemic the biggest fire we’ve ever been faced as we do our best to manage day-to-day the breadth, depth and scope of a constantly changing situation. We also feel more of a responsibility to give our guests some form of respite –– if only for cocktails and dinner –– from all that Covid-19 has brought to our daily lives. But, we love it ––so the show must go on.”
As a restaurateur, Hermer emphasized “training in the art of planning and preparation is both a part of our careers and our calling to feed our communities especially now.”
In the midst of it all, cookbook author and skilled restaurateur Hermer, with her deep experience from opening Ian Schrager’s Gramery Park Hotel and with her husband Matt Hermer locally-loved spots through the duo’s Ignite Group, a UK-based international food, beverage, and entertainment corporation, that owned and operated Boujis nightclub, Bumpkin restaurants and Eclipse bars in London, Europe, and Asia. Marissa eventually went on to start her first solo restaurant, Top Dog, in 2015 shared her five recommendations to stay afloat during these challenging times.
Feed Your Team. Remember your employees are your family. During these tough times, families and your teams are your support systems. Give as you can and lean on vendors as it is a particularly scary time for employees depending on sporadic hourly wage as restaurants are or were forced to shut down their operations.
Even if with furloughs, support your restaurant family with basic necessities along with love and support. Hermer improvised by “setting up days when our kitchen teams would cook for our employees and we assembled boxes of essentials –– replete with toilet paper, soups, eggs and beyond –– anything that we could get from our suppliers that were dwindling rapidly on market shelves. Our restaurant family felt our love, and we felt theirs. While we couldn’t be a team on the floor, we were committed to powering through this uncertainty as a unit.”
Give Back And Set Up A Platform. Hermer’s Covid-19 mantra is “These are the times to pay it forward because those in need are in greater need than ever before; but, also giving back feels good. We all seem to need feel better now more than ever before.”
It all happened organically. Hermer’s initiative began when a friend of hers, who works as a nurse in a local hospital, shared how overwhelmed she and her teams were with the influx of patients that the hospital felt like a war zone. They didn’t have any idea what to do to navigate the circumstances at hand and were so busy during the day they couldn’t even stop to eat lunch. Finding herself so exhausted at the end of the day that the the nurse couldn’t even prepare food to take into work the next morning.
The Draycott and Olivetta teams stepped up and began prepping lunches for her and the team including meals being dropping at the hospital. The even bigger silver lining is Hermer’s friends, along with her many followers from her former Bravo’s Real Ladies of London starring stint, learned about the initiative via Instagram resulting in significant donations to cover the cost of the cooking, prepping and packing even more meals.
Hermer then set up the YOU GIVE. WE COOK. THEY EAT. platform and has already raised over $50,000 to keep her restaurant family cooking and nourishing the heroes out there fighting for all of us. They continue to deliver donated meals to local Los Angeles hospitals, fire stations and ambulances as the program “is much more than just delivering lunch, but showing forever gratitude to those risking their own safety for our community.”
Pivot Pivot Pivot. Hermer emphasized, “Thinking creatively about how to keep your brand and business alive in a new iteration means calling on friends for support –– and often, the new venture can be symbiotic for all parties.”
Admitting she’s never used the word “pivot” more, Hermer dug deep to strategize more creatively than ever before on how to successfully retrench Olivetta after a stellar start to the year.
For the first few months of 2020 after the opening of Olivetta in January 2020, Hermer’s Melrose Avenue jewel box was, according to Eater.com, the ‘hottest restaurant in Los Angeles’. Then March 15 arrived, and it was a steep drop from the pinnacle as they were “were forced to close our doors, our indoor restaurant space started collecting dust… and rent.” Following local LA guidelines, they were then able to reopen again, for 2 weeks, hired back the team, and then after another lock down was put in place, had to let them go a few weeks later.
The pivot came a month after the second shutdown. Out of both a business need and a responsibility to keep her restaurant family working, Hermer scoured to find a space that could translate the Olivetta brand outside where patrons and team felt safe as well as continue to operate as a business. The solution, the neighboring La Peer Hotel with its outdoor poolside area and rooftop. With a bit of paint, plants and some clever re-purposing of Olivetta’s furniture, the space was transformed into an al fresco iteration and Olivetta on Holiday was born along with hiring several hotel employees.
Vanessa Williams, GM at Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, used a similar methodology to pivot her signature and highly beloved dining venues explaining, “Our approach in terms of ramping up our business especially as it relates to Food & Beverage has been to re-open our outdoor dining options in phases. We re-opened the newly renovated Rooftop by JG in June creating a safe and extraordinary outdoor dining experience for guests and local community. Three months later we are poised to re-open the Jean-George Beverly Hills Terrace.”
Put Your Connections To Work. Hermer advises, “ The power of connection and communication not only provides essential information during this time of questions, but creates a stronger community.Professionally and personally, communicating and connectivity have never felt more important. We’ve always appreciated feedback from our team and patrons, but now more than ever, we need to check in with them to understand their dining experience during a pandemic.”
Hermer added, “We want to consistently improve and adapt our offerings to ensure that when a guest chooses to leave their home and get dressed up, they have a very special evening ahead of them with little to no hesitation or feeling of concern. We’ve set up new systems to connect with our guests following their visits, requesting feedback, all the while learning more about how to shape the customer experience in this new landscape. Through the connecting process, we are also getting a better understanding of who our customers are, what their needs are and how their needs are fluctuating during this time. Stronger relationships and connections can only bode well for the future of our business, and all businesses across the hospitality landscape.”
Branding on a Budget. This may be the toughest part of adapting to today’s challenging environment. Hermer shared that “this part of the process definitely put our creativity to the test — how do you translate your brand to a new space with nearly zero dollars and about two days to make it a reality?
Olivetta’s solution was to “make it work with what we had at our disposal. With two restaurants filled with ample indoor furniture that wasn’t being used, that was one line item crossed off the list. Dining chairs, accent pillows, pink couches from our sister restaurant, The Draycott — you name it, we took it (and didn’t spend a dime).
For the brand aesthetic, they got “scrappy.” This included everything from tapping friends over at LAX for airplane wrap to reproducing a wall mural they had at the restaurant. It was “the little things that made their customer base feel at home (and brought them back)” making sure guests didn’t feel “shorted just because they are in a different space.” Bottom line, the quality and thoughtfulness needs to be universal throughout, whether it’s in your surroundings or on your plate.
Hermer’s final words of advice are, “Work with what you have to create a familiar space for your patrons. Pandemic or not, a well-rounded experience and environment are key.”