Miami has been one of the hardest hit areas in terms of COVID cases and deaths. According to Johns Hopkins University, more than 180,000 cases have been confirmed in Miami-Dade County, second only to Los-Angeles County. Of that amount, more than 3,500 have died. Miami closed dining rooms for a second time in July due to rising COVID cases and then eventually reopened in late August.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed restaurants to return to 100 percent capacity in September.
“The fact that we can have our tables and chairs out again, obviously it definitely helps. People want to get out,” De Varona says. “We do have outdoor seating, as well. They’re just tired of eating [at home]. The catering is going to pick up. It’s a part of the business that has lagged, but once that comes back, we’ll be back at 100 percent.”
CAO Bakery is leveraging the momentum to forge a new franchising growth initiative. It plans to open 10 locations in 2021 and 35 additional stores by 2024. The strategy is to target other areas in Florida with strong Cuban-American populations like Tampa, West Palm, Lake Worth, Gainesville, and Tallahassee. After that, the next phase will be to extend outside the Sunshine state into markets like New Jersey, Los Angeles, Louisville, Texas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
A part of that development will be an emphasis on off-premises, including a drive-thru prototype that will soon open in Hallandale Beach, Florida.
“That’s a concept going forward that I’m very excited about,” Cao says. “It’s kind of like an express concept inside, a little less seating, but I think it’s going to be a great hit. It’s going to be one of our top sellers.”
Right now, Cao says the brand is focusing on second generation locations where the initial investment is almost halved. Every day, he’s sent three to four units that are completely built out and only require minor repairs to the front.
“There’s a lot of good opportunities right now. Unfortunate for others, but there’s a lot more opportunities for us,” Cao says. “… I think pricing is going a little bit down right now on commercial spaces because of the fact that a lot of things are closing down. You get a lot better deals at the moment. We were going toward this direction anyway. We have all of our systems in place. We’re organized and ready to go. In house, we have our team in place.”
The bakery-café category is a multi-billion-dollar segment with Panera as the lone leader, De Varona explains, meaning there’s room for CAO Bakery to take advantage.
After listening to its customer base, CAO Bakery feels there’s a genuine need and demand for its product outside of South Florida.
“We feel like 100 stores in Florida is easy,” De Varona says. “And then when you talk national, when you talk the rest of the U.S., there’s a lot of Latin communities. … It’s really endless.”