Mike Ferrara, owner of Cabo’s Island Grill and Bar in Tallahassee, Fla., says one of his primary jobs is “neutralizing negativity.”
The past 18 months have served up a whole new twist on negativity, as the restaurant industry has been affected by the lockdowns and restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
I’ve heard some frightening stories from people in the hospitality industry about how their businesses have been affected and also about how they personally have dealt with the blows handed them since March 2020. As was the case with this post, I set out to ask people within the industry what they want people who are not in the field to know.
Let’s dive in.
Before we start, a bit of history
Mike Ferrara started Cabo’s as a 575-square-foot taco stand in 1987. Despite having no experience in the restaurant industry, he was sufficiently inspired by Juanita’s, a San Diego taco stand. He and his partner opened the current location in 1994.
Mike’s business philosophy
Before exploring Mike’s experience during the pandemic, we discussed his general philosophy.
There are three components a business person should ask when going into business, he said, one that applies directly to restaurants, but two that can apply to almost anything you do in life.
First: What would I want to eat? You know, what, what would I want to have in front of me?
Second: What would I want to pay for that?
Third: What would I want to hear if things didn’t go right?
Business changes related to COVID-19
In March 2020, prior to the start of pandemic lockdowns, Cabo’s had 48 employees. At one point, it dropped to 16, but is now back up to 26.
Mike has 3 people in the kitchen doing the work of 4 and 3 servers doing the work of 5. The place is running without expeditors and without hostesses.
“They’re all working doubles, triples. A lot of them are here from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. They’ve been doing that for 18 months,” says Mike.
He is also adding another day of closure to the restaurant’s schedule to try to keep people from burning out.
The Paycheck Protection Program was a critical component of Cabo’s survival, along with money Leon County’s government distributed to restaurants. That helped tide the business over until the second stimulus arrived.
Increasing food costs are also having an effect on pricing.
Cabo’s did its own deliveries while staffing was sufficient, but they had to stop doing that as people left for college or otherwise left the business. Delivery services such as DoorDash are a “loss,” says Mike, since they take around 30%.
As I was sitting in a booth talking with Mike, he pointed out the manager personally delivering food to a table, the woman who teaches at an elementary school during the day and does five shifts a week at night, the party that decided to go elsewhere because Cabo’s no longer offers brunch (another casualty of staffing).
About the restaurant business amid COVID-19
I asked Mike how he and his staff handle customers’ frustration with wait times and other pandemic frustrations.
“Our staff members tell people straight up.”
It’s absolutely important to be honest with customers about the challenges that are contributing to long wait times, says Mike. A situation can often be smoothed over by explaining how understaffing ties in to long wait times and making a simple concession such as offering chips and salsa while they wait.
Owners and managers have to take a role in mitigating customer frustration, Mike says.
“People need to understand that we’re not trying to mess their day up and not trying to make them sick. We’re doing everything humanly possible to provide a safe environment at the same time generating enough revenue to stay in business.”
Restaurants complain about rude customers, said Mike, “and they really need to look in the mirror.”
Mike asked, “If I had a car with a bad tire and you asked to borrow it, I would let you know about the tire and you would be taking your chances. But if I say, ‘Take the car; everything’s fine,’ you would be upset when you get a flat tire.
“Don’t assume that customers understand what’s going on. If somebody has to wait, be there. If you’re in tune with what’s going on in your business, you can look at people … you can see their body language … you know when they sit down and you see them.
“We didn’t wake up this morning trying to screw your day up.”
About mandatory minimum wage increases
The minimum wage in Florida is slated to increase to $15 per hour by 2026 (it increases to $10 per hour on 9/30/21).
Mike has definite thoughts on the way the minimum wage increase may affect his business. In the interest of space and brevity, I am condensing this section.
To cut to the chase, here’s Mike’s opinion: “If I told my tipped staff that they weren’t working for tips anymore and I was paying them $15 an hour, they would quit.”
Mike also gave me a mini-tutorial on tip credits, and you can find out for yourself here.
On a positive note
Mike was very generous with me by sharing almost an hour of his time and being candid about the difficulties he has seen as a restaurant owner over the past year and a half.
However, he was also insistent that this post frame the positives, and I want to honor his request.
This restaurant is clearly a labor of love, and as a resident of Tallahassee since 1982 (with the exception of three years in New York City), I can attest that Cabo’s has earned itself a reputation as a beloved local establishment. Mike, too, attested that the community response to the pandemic challenges was a light in a dark time.
Mike talked about what his regulars say:
“Our kids grew up eating here.”
“My first date was here.”
Mike himself met his wife at his own restaurant.
COVID-19 has eaten away at all of us in different ways. It has eaten away at the simple activities that bound us together — a dinner out, a work lunch, Sunday brunch.
We’ve all gotten aggravated with long lines. We’ve seen our friends in the service industry lose their jobs in some cases.
Maybe we can all do our part to neutralize negativity.
Be like Mike.
NOTE from Paula: I’d love to hear from other hospitality professionals. Full disclosure: I only want to talk to people who are serious about protecting themselves and their customers by following safe procedures. If that’s you, fill out this form and I’d love to consider using your thoughts in a future post if they’re a fit.
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.