California restaurant gets help navigating the pandemic

Bella Cuba overhauled operations with some technological assistance
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Along with the horrific human toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the financial toll is creating its own hardships. That’s particularly true within the restaurant industry — as more communities ordered businesses to close and residents to stay home, sales at restaurants nose-dived. At Bella Cuba, a family-owned Cuban restaurant in Santa Ana, Calif., sales dropped by more than 75 percent in February and March, says Aneris Chaidez, manager and daughter of the founder.

After closing for a month to implement stricter disinfection processes and access resources to maintain heightened cleanliness standards, the restaurant reopened for takeout orders in late April. Employees also began boosting the restaurant’s social media presence and tried to make it easier for customers to order online.

All necessary steps, but not easy ones. “We were not technologically prepared for this shift,” Chaidez says. Most customers dined on-site prior to the pandemic, she says, and takeout orders were handled over the phone.

Keeping business intact

COVID-19 will require many restaurants to overhaul operations, says David Naidu, CEO of marketing firm Socialincs. Like Bella Cuba, many have had to quickly transition from dine-in operations to take-out and delivery orders. For most, he says, these orders previously accounted for just 15 percent of their businesses.

The entrance to Bella Cuba restaurant

Socialinc’s Restaurants Rising program offers restauranteurs access to technology, marketing and business advice and support, much of it at no or low cost. While the program is open to all, it’s focused on independently owned restaurants with fewer than 30 employees that are on the brink of closing forever. “Our common goal is to help local restaurants keep their businesses intact and rise out of the current challenging economic environment,” Naidu says.

Restaurants Rising helps restaurants with ordering, delivery, marketing and payments. Loqalli, a multi-lingual online ordering system works for restaurants, markets, wine/liquor stores and pharmacies. It also supports contactless delivery and on-site dining. Users can access virtual marketing clinics to help restaurants develop and sustain growth, and technology to facilitate online payments and sales tax filings, using Stripe’s payment processing platform. Community-driven support is available as well, including emotional support from psychologists and other experts, advice on operations and other functions, and peer mentoring groups.

Just as important, the app gives restaurants a way to directly connect with their customers. “We can reach out to them and send emails and information on specials,” Chaidez says.

Meeting demand

Many restaurants still face challenges, given consumers’ concerns about returning. A survey by Inspire PR Group and market research firm Illuminology found that dine-in traffic could drop 20 percent from pre-COVID-19 levels.

Naidu predicts take-out orders will account for about 60 percent of many restaurants’ business, even six months out. And as they reopen for in-service dining, restaurants will need to consider other potential safety requirements, such as order-ahead capabilities that minimize the time patrons spend waiting within the facility.

At Bella Cuba, getting up and running took little more than a day, Chaidez says — Loqalli has boosted the number of online orders submitted through the restaurant’s website. And revenue has tripled compared with the amount the restaurant was generating right before it closed, Chaidez says.

“The demand is there,” she says. “This makes it easier for customers to order and helps us stay open.”

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