After a few years, we began to think about expanding. We felt we were ready and had learned enough about our operations to scale it. While we searched high and low for a second location, things at our first store didn't go as planned. A significant conflict unexpectedly arose with our landlords, and we lost our first store due to no mistake of our own. Suddenly, we were right back at square one: starting all over again with minimal resources. We lost our primary source of income when we lost the first store. And when the contractor for the second walked off the job, he took most of the money we had to build the second location with him.
For an entire year, while we struggled to get the second store open, the brand lived on only through social media. When the store did finally open, it was like we never left. The brand equity was still there, as was a new customer base and our old customer base. Former customers found our new location and came out to support it, while new customers discovered Flatbread Grill. We operated in a smaller kitchen, with scaled-down operations, but we remained true to our core values of fresh food served in a casual, warm environment at affordable prices.
We also noticed that the industry was beginning to change. Mobile ordering was taking off. Credit card payments were replacing cash payments. Delivery and takeout accounted for nearly half of our orders. Our self-ordering kiosks were so popular that barely anyone walked up to a “cashier” to order any more. No one even seemed to notice we didn't have menuboards in our restaurant. Times were changing, and we took notice. We changed with it.
My sisters and I never stopped being involved in day-to-day operations, even when we hired a full staff and shift management. This involvement made it much easier for us to spot the incoming changes, so much so that we knew a pivot was going to be in order nearly two years before the global pandemic hit. When it did arrive, we were as prepared as anyone could have been. We were opening up a third store, knowing this would be our last for a while, while preparing to launch an offshoot brand into the retail space.
The third store is where we finally capitalized on all the industry changes happening over the past few years. There was once again no more menuboards. We emphasized mobile ordering, established a pickup station for prepaid orders, and encouraged customers to use our self-ordering kiosks. We also began utilizing third party delivery aggregators with limited menu items.
My sisters and I also began discussing turning our brand into a more mobile-friendly delivery and takeout concept. We threw around ideas, everything from on-demand delivery to even a sliding pick-up window. Fusun, Arzu, and I understood resources would become limited due to the pandemic and lockdowns. We strategized on a way for our brand to have an impact even as circumstances became challenging to navigate. We decided to move away from opening up more brick-and-mortar stores to evolve into launching virtual stores. We also decided we would venture into retail in 2021.
I can offer no magic formula other than hard work, strategic thinking, and quick decision-making, even when all seems hopeless. My sisters and I didn't focus on “trends”—we anticipated them before they happened. We focused on continually improving our operations, watching our food costs, focusing on quality and consistency, and paying attention to the customer experience. Smaller owner-operators are almost always cash strapped. They don't have the luxury of taking risks or a/b testing to see what works. Things have to work when they are executed because mistakes can be costly. I learned this the hard way over the past 13 years. Even a small mistake can cost thousands.
Next year, things will be different. Real estate prices will be competitive, third-party aggregators will be consolidated, new labor laws will be introduced, recent climate change regulations will impact the industry, and the cost of goods will rise. The restaurant industry will continue to evolve, change, and shift. However, it will not die. It can't. The pandemic won't take away the one thing this industry needs to survive and most definitely already has in place: people's love of food and gathering together with loved ones. Customers will always seek out food establishments that can satisfy their palates while providing an exceptional experience.
My sisters and I are betting on that one.