On March 20, Totonno’s, a nearly century-old pizzeria on New York’s Coney Island shut its doors amid the COVID-19 pandemic, its 1,800-square foot space consumed by darkness.
“We’ll come back,” Totonno’s co-owner Antoinette Balzano continuously assured loyal customers.
Balzano’s confidence wasn’t misplaced, as her third-generation, family-owned pizzeria has a sturdy track record of recovering from mighty blows. Fires in 1997 and 2009 forced the eatery to close for three and 11 months, respectively, while damage from Hurricane Sandy shuttered the beloved Coney Island institution for five months. Each time, Totonno’s, through a special blend of hustle, passion and determined leadership, found its way to reopen and rebound from life’s unfortunate turns.
“It’s not even a question of if we’ll be back,” Balzano told Pizza Today on April 8, the 19th day of Totonno’s closure. “We just will.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the American landscape in March, many restaurants were forced to temporarily close or shutdown aspects of their business. On March 25, still the early days of COVID-19’s wrath, the National Restaurant Association reported that 44 percent of operators had temporarily closed their restaurants.
With carryout and delivery so engrained in pizzeria operations, most outlets had a head start on their culinary peers in servicing guests and fulfilling orders. Still, pressing challenges remained. Shuttered dining rooms meant eateries couldn’t capitalize on high-margin beverages, while sagging consumer confidence combined with food safety concerns hampered sales.
“Shutting Totonno’s was like turning off a piece of ourselves,” Balzano says. “That’s our blood, sweat and tears in there and it hurts on so many levels.”
Now, many pizzerias are plotting their march back to sustainability, looking to rebound from a global health crisis that shook the American economy and altered daily lives.
Life after a closure
Following a closure, pizzerias face a litany of challenges to restore business operations and achieve stability.
Some restaurants, for example, might need to fulfill regulatory obligations such as inspections before reopening to the public. Others may encounter supply chain pressures. As other eateries reopen and ramp up post-pandemic production, pizzerias could face heightened competition for goods that impacts availability and costs. Restaurants will need to closely monitor inventory levels and contracts.
For many, the most pressing issue will be financial, as closures, even partial or temporary ones, dampen revenue and cash flow. Utilities, landlords and other vendors will likely push for scheduled payments, pushing an already tenuous financial situation to the brink. Seeing cash flow as critical, Totonno’s leadership spent much of March and April communicating with banks and assessing options for capital.
“Have a line of credit set up and ready to go,” Jeffery Elsworth, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality Business, instructs reopening restaurants. “You don’t want to get stuck in a cash flow problem.”
Beyond the financial, Elsworth says restaurants will need to continue marketing, albeit by favoring more creative, cost-effective efforts like social media, loyalty programs and limited-time offers that spur relevance and brand awareness.
“You have to stay in the eye of the consumer the entire time,” Elsworth says, adding that restaurant websites should be “up to speed” as well.
In addition, restaurants will have to reintegrate employees back into the mix, so many of whom were laid off, furloughed or had hours cut amid the pandemic. National Restaurant Consultants CEO Richard Weil suggests operators fine-tune their training manuals and procedures and capitalize on the opportunity to incorporate “A players” in a shaky post-virus labor market.
“We’re going to see a labor component that we haven’t seen in close to a decade and stores might be able to become choosier with staff,” says Weil, the former president and chief operating officer of the 135-unit Nick-N-Willy’s Pizza chain.
An invitation to reset and evolve
While the road to recovery will undoubtedly be rocky for pizzerias, it’s also an opportunity for operators to redefine who they are and who they want to become. In fact, Elsworth says the restaurant closures demanded by COVID-19 allow ownership to put “fresh eyes” on their business. That means assessing the business plan and operations while also exploring new revenue opportunities or ways to engage customers.
“In many ways, [COVID-19] has given restaurant operators an opportunity to assess what they’re doing and to reset,” Elsworth says.
The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, pushed curbside pickup into the mainstream. A fringe service option at U.S. restaurants, curbside became commonplace amid social distancing guidelines and pizzerias across the U.S. added the service model to their operations. Though born out of necessity, curbside could have long-term potential for restaurants, according to Weil.
“I really think curbside will be part of the new model,” Weil says. “I see runway for those who keep it personal, efficient and convenient.”
After a closure, Weil continues, is the perfect time “to trial new models and incorporate new trends.” Stores might also revisit their menu, ridding it of poor performers and introducing new, on-trend dishes, refresh the dining room or revitalize company branding elements. Such changes will not only modernize restaurants, but also give operations something exciting and interesting to discuss with customers upon reopening.
“You almost need to view this as a grand opening – talking to press, balloons, the whole bit,” Elsworth says. “Try to secure as much attention as you can get and take that opportunity to reintroduce yourself to the community.”
In fact, when Totonno’s reopened after its 2009 fire, it did so with music on the street and a ribbon cutting.
“What a way to reconnect with our community, to show them we were back,” Balzano says.
With consumer confidence shaken by the pandemic, especially on the dine-in side, Weil says such displays of positive energy and assuredness will go a long way to encouraging visits and orders. Otherwise, a pizzeria, after enduring all COVID-19 threw at it, could languish and perish in its aftermath.
“People need to know it’s okay to dine in,” Weil says, “and we need to give them reason to believe so.”
Daniel P. Smith The Chicago-based writer has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.