For the past year, Joandry Vasquez has been running his Mexican restaurant, El Barrio in Dorchester, day by day, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. But now he’s finally able to see the future.
Last week, he hopped on a call with a pair of restaurant consultants who were able to forecast his revenue for the year ahead. “I never thought about doing projections,” he said. “I was like, ‘Really, I can make that this year?’ It was amazing.”
Vasquez is one of eight restaurant owners enrolled in the new Restaurant Resiliency Initiative at the Dorchester food-business incubator CommonWealth Kitchen. The program, launched earlier this month, provides coaching and support for independent restaurants to help them recover from the pandemic.
The four-month course is a mix of group coaching and hands-on financial literacy help. It will also offer webinars on topics like accounting, hiring, and social media and marketing that will be open to the public.
The initiative emerged organically. In the first few weeks of the COVID-19 shutdowns, when CommonWealth Kitchen was forced to close. its executive director, Jen Faigel, realized it quickly needed to shift gears. She reached out to local restaurants and asked if they’d help make culturally appropriate meals for those in need. With help from a grant from the City of Boston, 14 restaurants stepped up, and they began a weekly call to strategize about their efforts.
Since last March, that effort, dubbed CommonTable, has served over 150,000 meals. But something else emerged: a shared sense of support. Many independent restaurant owners don’t have the time or wherewithal to dig deep into their books, or a network of people to refer their questions to. So even after the funding ran out for the meals program, the group wanted to keep the phone calls going.
“They were still feeling the need to connect,” Faigel said. “They didn’t know each other before. But this was this kind of safe space where there was a trusted opportunity just to . . . share what was working and what wasn’t.”
She began bringing in consultants who volunteered their insights on how to manage the businesses. Now, she has formalized that concept.
Eight businesses in the first group — several of which were on those early calls — are being offered free one-on-one support, with weekly classes and peer networking. Participating are Tawakal Halal Cafe in East Boston, Achilitos Taqueria in Jamaica Plain, Cafe JuiceUp in Mattapan, Soleil Restaurant and Suya Joint in Roxbury, Auntie Vie’s and El Barrio in Dorchester, and Las Palmas Restaurant in Roslindale. All are Black- or Latinx-owned.
Irene Li, the chef and owner at Mei Mei in Boston and a board member at CommonWealth Kitchen, will be stepping into a new role overseeing the program.
“This is my dream job,” said Li, who’s transitioning Mei Mei from a sit-down restaurant into a prepared foods marketplace.
“Part of my journey through running the business is that the more I learned about the restaurant industry,” she said, “the more I felt like my job and my obligation and my dream was not to just run a great restaurant, but to try to change how things are done and what the standards are.”
Li has been on the forefront of the open book management trend in the city, working with the local Rethink Restaurants consultancy to help her employees better understand Mei Mei’s economics and make smarter decisions on increasing revenue. Rethink is working as a partner on the Restaurant Resiliency initiative. The city and the technology company Toast are also supporting the effort.
“When we work with restaurants, most people haven’t costed out their menu, meaning they don’t know what it costs them in dollars and cents to put the lunch on the plate that they’re serving,” said Dylan Gully, a partner at Rethink. “And that’s not unique to this group. That’s everybody.”
The training sessions, he said, are a mix of financial literacy and basic business skills, coupled with coaching on management and staffing and creating an environment of “economic engagement” in which every employee, from dishwasher to front-of-house staffer, is engaged in the success of the business.
Both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration have found that once a small business is forced to close because of an emergency, about 90 percent of them will close permanently after two years.
“There’s a potential huge tsunami impact that we saw was coming, when we thought about the neighborhoods,” Faigel said. “If the restaurants close, how are the barber shops going to make it? It’s going to be this domino effect.”
Vasquez, of El Barrio, had started in the restaurant industry as a chef. Je said he underestimated how hard it would be to run his Mexican grill when he opened it six years ago.
“I didn’t have any idea what goes into a business,” he said, recalling his 20-hour workdays early on. Through the program, he said, he’s begun recategorizing his expenses and assessing which items he should be including in his tax filings. “Now, when I meet with my accountant, I know more of what I need to ask him.”
Faigel said the program’s goals are to give owners like Vasquez the confidence and skills they need not just to survive the pandemic, but to thrive in the tough years ahead.
“Just because you’re a great chef doesn’t mean you’re a business owner,” she said. “And just because you’re a great business owner doesn’t mean you know restaurant finance.”