Proof Bar & Incubator was founded on serving as a resource for startups and businesses in the hospitality and food and beverage industries. The restaurant incubator’s timing was interesting — after opening in late winter 2020, the team faced a scramble when COVID-19 shuttered restaurants.
Prior to March, Proof worked with Chattanooga’s CO.LAB, offering a consumer goods accelerator program. But the pandemic necessitated additional resources.
As the Proof founders worked to navigate new waters, they aimed to help other businesses, too — the result was a partnership with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center (TSBDC) to connect restaurateurs with valuable resources and education through a restaurant recovery course.
Impacting Local Communities
Many businesses began to close in mid-March of this year in response to local regulations targeted at slowing the spread of COVID-19. When the CARES Act was passed at the end of March, small business development centers across the nation, including in Chattanooga, worked to help implement loans to keep businesses afloat. Josh Brown, senior small business specialist at the TSBDC at Chattanooga State Community College, connected with Proof founders Michael Robinson and Mia Littlejohn to develop a plan that would have the most significant impact on the food and beverage community.
The TSBDC is one of multiple state centers and oversees an eight-county region, including Hamilton County.
“We recognized early on that if we could help stabilize restauranteurs in hospitality-related businesses, we could stabilize the owner, stabilize the jobs they provide, and hopefully help them weather the storm,” Brown says.
Robinson, Littlejohn, and Proof beverage director Kaleena Goldsworthy worked with Brown to create curriculum and resources to engage local restaurateurs with tools and a way to navigate the disruption in business. The Restaurant Recovery class, now wrapping up its third cohort, was quickly developed and implemented to assist business owners in managing the chaos.
How to Navigate the Pandemic — and Build from Here
The Proof team created a four-week recovery class that met twice weekly and provided one-on-one sessions to participants. “Classwork” included learning best practices on specifics like meeting health codes, training staff, sanitation standards, and crisis management, but also considering the larger pieces of a business plan: cash flow, menu costs, and supply chain challenges.
“We guided three cohorts of restaurateurs through the course, and it’s transformed from solely helping participants survive to building resilience — COVID-19 isn’t going away,” Robinson says. “We’re working with these business owners to help them plan for the rest of the year and next year.” In the second and third rounds of the course, Brown and the Proof team reached beyond restaurants to connect with caterers and food manufacturers as well.
“One of our longer-term goals is to demonstrate a matrix of success and economic impact associated with this program,” Brown says. “When the Restaurant Recovery program is over, these restaurateurs and other participants still have access to ongoing counseling and feedback through the SBDC at no cost to them. They can get ongoing help with sales strategies and goal-setting.”
Similarly, the curriculum shifted from solely crisis management to helping businesses find stabilization and growth, including other verticals like online sales.
“We’re helping businesses consider what verticals or sales channels we can develop and strategies we can use during another shutdown,” Robinson says. “We’re helping businesses diversify their businesses, if possible, and work creatively to achieve a strong 2021.”
Room for Growth
Proof and the TSBDC will continue to develop relevant programming for businesses, including a dedicated online optimization course that’s in the works. According to Robinson, online consumer sales took a 10-year leap within the span of three months. Proof leaders want to help businesses translate their brick-and-mortar, relationship-driven businesses to online platforms, which they adapted into the recovery course.
They’re working to expand the Restaurant Recovery program and meet immediate needs and demands for the restaurant industry.
“These businesses are challenging when things are doing well and impossible when they’re not,” Robinson says. “Our team consists of entrepreneurs and food and beverage industry professionals who have been in the trenches. We know that food and beverage is a critical element of any thriving city, so we’re working to continue adapting our curriculum to meet ever-evolving needs, while ensuring our core curriculum holds strong.”