The Flavor of Ingenuity

Local restauranteurs adapt to thrive.

Lead Photo: Co-founder Veljko Pavicevic and his team at Sails Restaurant in downtown Naples prove that the most adaptable survive. Photo Credit: Brian Tietz

 

Many local restaurateurs have embraced the necessity of change in recent months; some have even adapted new business models that made their operations more successful. Recent creativity to meet a need or solve a problem proved ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s proverbial belief that necessity is the mother of invention. We certainly have local proof that where there’s a will, there’s a way—as entrepreneurs stepped up efforts to survive and even thrive during an unprecedented business disruption this year.

Adapting to new business models requiring extra safety precautions, third-party delivery apps, smaller menus, increased alcohol sales, more outdoor dining and the introduction of other amenities, some local restaurants were able to buck the national trend and actually grow their business during the pandemic.

When sales dropped 92% at Gustitos Peruvian Bakery & Cafe immediately after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis temporarily closed restaurants in early March, the Torres family leapt into survival mode to figure out how they could successfully change their longtime business in North Naples. “We have to do something. We have to make a move,” says co-owner Gonzalo Torres.

The pandemic crisis pushed the Torres family to add something new and reach new customers. It was the perfect impetus to improve the Gustitos concept, which became a pandemic success story. “We adapt- ed,” says Gonzalo’s brother and Gustitos co-owner Rodrigo Torres.

The local entrepreneurs made more than temporary changes, which most businesses had to do to survive. In April, they remodeled the entire interior to streamline social distancing, improve counter service and better showcase their menu items. They also added a take-and-bake empanadas case and a new consultation and display station to order custom cakes and view them being decorated.

To expand their family business model, they launched Gustitos Late Night, an on-demand service that delivered empanadas and baked goods to customers’ homes from 9 p.m. until midnight every day. The free late-night delivery they began in April proved to be so successful that they continue to offer it Fridays and Saturdays. They even started bottling their popular yellow pepper sauce condiment.

The strategic changes were perfectly timed and executed. The delivery service and the drastic increase in business necessitated the hiring of nine more employees, Gonzalo Tor- res said. “We got to a point that we couldn’t respond. I think the change we made is the change we had to make. It literally activated my business again and we are doing better than before. I’ve tripled sales at the moment,” Tor- res said in mid-June, noting that the eatery’s average ticket tripled because their cakes, pastries and empanadas are better displayed now. “When you walk in, that’s the first thing you see. Our cake orders are nonstop. We are doing cakes like crazy.”

Sails Restaurant in downtown Naples also pivoted this spring and experienced its highest success levels since the restaurant opened. Sails added curbside pickup service, meal deliveries to health care workers and an aggressive to-go wine and cocktails program promoted daily with videos of lead bartender Teddy Halmi sharing
drink recipes and tips. But the secret behind Sails’ 47% increase of sales in May and more than 58% in June is repeat business by providing guests personalized service, said co-owner and manager Veljko Pavicevic.

“Even though we were only open [at] 50% occupancy, we were just crushing it. This business is all about repeat business,” he says. “It’s not the strongest or the smartest who survive. It’s the most adaptable.”

Another part of Sails’ success story is the restaurant’s Sunday brunch, a limitless menu providing a positive dining-out experience and energy that Pavicevic compares to a ray of sunshine. “We just became a light in the tunnel because there’s so much darkness,” he says. “We are booked weeks in advance. I just love it.”

Pavicevic and partner Corinne Ryan are restaurateurs who are able to expand their local business at a time many have had to cut back or close. The couple plans to launch two new restaurants this fall. A companion restaurant named Sava is in the works next door to Sails on the corner of Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South, and they purchased the former Agave restaurant in North Naples, where they are readying The Butcher steakhouse and burger bar.

“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for growth right now,” Pavicevic says. “We are not in this for the short- term. We are in this for the long play.”

To survive the pandemic, Bubba’s Roadhouse & Saloon in Cape Coral shifted its regular bar beer revenue to package sales and sold liquor, bottles of wine and its signature Bubbarita cocktails with lime and salt for curbside pickup.

“It was a great marketing tool for us to talk about to-go liquor,” says Jay Johnson, owner of Bubba’s for more than 25 years and the chair for the Lee County chapter of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

The only way restaurateurs can preserve the restaurant industry is to protect their guests, said Johnson, believing that they will get through these difficult times as they have previous economic downturns, hurricanes and other disasters.

“We are a business of survivors. That’s become part of our business model,” he says. “We are going to do what we need to do to survive the pandemic and make it to another day.”