Business and Operations
How playing to her strengths and looking ahead is helping one savvy operator handle the uncertainty of the pandemic
By Colleen Cross
When Tina Brisbin heard the coronavirus was shutting down businesses in Canada and much of the world, two words came to mind: Déjà vu.
To explain: about five years ago, Brisbin, the owner of Mambella’s Italian Kitchen in Waterloo, experienced an event that was out of her control but affected her restaurant and many area businesses. It wasn’t a health scare but the downsizing of one of the area’s largest employers, tech giant Research in Motion, maker of the once-dominant BlackBerry now overshadowed by the iPhone.
“I thought, ‘Been down this road before,’ ” the entrepreneur says, recalling the March shutdowns. “Of course, that was a Waterloo region event. This is a world crisis.” The 13-year-old restaurant, located off the beaten path in a commercial area and heavily reliant on business lunch customers, took a financial hit. “RIM affected us. We served more than 200 customers a day. After RIM was gone, walk-in dropped to 80 to 100 a day but we made up for it with the catering sales. We had just finished climbing back up. Last year we got into ready-to-eat.”
When COVID-19 hit, she steeled herself for another upheaval. Alone in the kitchen, after being forced to lay off nine employees, she set to work pumping out lasagnas and other comfort foods to sell for takeout. Mambella’s already did takeout, so that wasn’t a huge shift. Before COVID-19 the dining area accommodated about 20 people, but 80 per cent of customers picked up their food to eat at their office or other location.
Brisbin worked hard. She calculates that in April and May she pumped out 25 per cent of the output her full team did in March. She was physically tired, emotionally tired and mentally tired. “Until this spring, I never understood the difference between mental and emotional stress. I was brain dead at end of the day.”
Before the pandemic, walk-in was 80 per cent of the business and catering was 20. Then it flipped to 60 per cent catering, 32 per cent walk-in and eight per cent frozen meals. They were open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. During the pandemic, she extended her hours to 6 p.m. to keep up with demand and make up for the much slower lunch hour.
Streamlined menu and pivot to frozen
Mambella’s carried frozen meals for years but Brisbin started to think about promoting them only after she took part in an accelerator program in Calgary in 2019 where I met her mentor, chef Christine Couvelier. “In March we streamlined the menu, offering 10 different items. We already had very little waste, but we started using every ingredient in at least two dishes. We keep it clean and mean. Ninety per cent of ingredients are going into the frozen food such as Stuffed Eggplant Parm, made fresh in house. People asked for it frozen, so we started selling it frozen. You kind of learn as you go. Get rid of the fluff and do what you do best. For us that’s basic comfort food.”
Restaurants are reinventing the wheel,” Brisbin says, predicting that any business related to entertainment is changing. “If they’re not thinking some way of pivoting, they’re not going to survive.”
The Frozen Dirty Mac and Cheese is proof people craved that comfort. Made with homemade cheese sauce and pulled pork, the bestselling dish was not on Mambella’s menu until the pandemic hit. They sell it in large and small portions. They also make a not-so-dirty version with chicken that sells equally well and will make a vegetarian version on request. The frozen meals have sold well.
Relief fund grant a lifeline
Running on adrenalin, Brisbin applied to the Canadian Business Resilience Network Small Business Relief Fund, which was designed to help small businesses stay afloat and support their recovery by paying salaries, retrofitting their workplaces or acquiring technology to adapt their business model. Her 800-word letter helped land Mambella’s a $10,000 grant.
According to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which ran the program, sponsored by Salesforce, recipients “best demonstrated their financial strain, how the business will use the grant to change or innovate, how the change or innovation will sustain the business’s recovery and allow it to prosper, and how the grant will support the role each business plays in their community.”
Brisbin isn’t sure why she was one of 62 small businesses chosen for the relief fund out of 1,100 who applied, but she is extremely grateful for the lifeline. The entrepreneur thinks the success of her application, which included an 800-word letter, might have something to do with the research and planning she had already done with an eye to selling her frozen lasagnas, cannelloni and other comfort foods at retail.
In her grant application, Brisbin wrote that she didn’t see catering and walk-in sales coming back anytime soon. She had changed direction to focus on frozen food, which, she says, had already been on the rise before COVID. The pandemic will accelerate that trend, she predicted.
She also had been working with Innovation Guelph since January to develop her business plan. “I think part of why I was looked at is that I had already started with this prior to COVID. I got one foot in already. I did the background work.”
“I talked about pivoting and how, if I did get the grant, I would use it for marketing,” Brisbin says, adding that marketing is essential because few people outside of her area know about the business. She will use the money to continue the marketing plan set up with advertising company Jump Branding & Marketing and put on hold in March.
Always looking ahead, she sought out and received a grant from Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to hire a marketing graduate, Kirsten Merrifield, from nearby Conestoga College. The government will pay her salary for seven months at a minimum of 30 hours a week.
Looking ahead to fall
In fall she’s been told to expect 30 per cent occupancy for nearby offices.
“I never thought it would go on this long. Restaurants are reinventing the wheel,” Brisbin says, predicting that any business related to entertainment is changing. “If they’re not thinking some way of pivoting, they’re not going to survive.”
She hopes to launch her new brand this fall and to hire some people back, especially if sales ramp up. Originally meant to be 20 to 30 per cent of her business, frozen meals are now expected to make up 90 per cent. Her business plan involves three paths: walk-in or curbside customers, online ordering direct to customers from a limited menu, and sourcing a co-packer, which will help her get into grocery stores.
“I’m looking ahead eight months to a year, bracing myself for the hard times to come. I am very focused and determined to stick with what I want to do.”