By Cristina Morales Heaney, 2020-2021 Board Chair, the National Association of Women Business Owners
Washington, D.C. — Most restaurant owners never imagined a world where they’d have to close, open, and close our doors again in the face of a pandemic. But many have done just that as COVID-19’s challenges continue to emerge for business owners.
It’s been daunting to say the least. In fact, the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) recently conducted a COVID Survey of its members. The results showed that as the pandemic spread into its fifth month, 60 percent of respondents had seen a decrease in revenue. Moreover, if states must shutter again, 38 percent were concerned about their businesses failing.
Madelyn Alfano is owner of Maria’s Italian Kitchen, a California-grown company that serves authentic Italian family food. Alfano’s uncle owned restaurants and her parents a grocery store. “I come from a long line of food,” she said.
Maria’s began the year with 10 restaurant locations and is now down to eight. One of the closed locations was in a large mall. “We were fortunate to be considered an essential business when COVID hit, but once that happened, we really needed to react quickly to implement new protocols.”
Communication was their greatest challenge. With employees, Alfano made sure they understood what was going on and that they could work and be safe. For customers, the message was: “We’re still Maria’s with the same great food you have been enjoying for 40 years in a clean, safe environment.”
Maria’s had 338 employees pre-COVID. When two locations closed, that number reduced to 284. Then, they furloughed another 39 percent. Of those who remained, Maria’s didn’t cut salaries or hours. They cross-trained so team members could work in different capacities and modified shifts to accommodate working parents. Today, they are back to 218.
“I’m very proud of how restaurants have been so creative during this time,” said Alfano, who recently stepped into the role of California Restaurant Association chair. For Maria’s, this has meant offering alcohol, some groceries, pastas, and sauce in a jar to go. They gave 15 percent off online orders, 50 percent off bottles of wine, and additional discounts through their app.
They also made major investments in glass partitions for between booths, air scrubbers for their air conditioning systems and professional sanitizing. Additionally, they created COVID-19 safety videos and handbooks for every restaurant.
Community outreach was important, too. They fed more than 1,000 front line workers, with Alfano delivering most meals herself. They even set up an option on their website where community members could buy gift cards to supply meals for firefighters, hospital workers, etc.
“I felt like I was opening a business all over again, only 10 at the same time,” she said. “I was working seven days a week communicating with the managers and making sure everyone felt safe and confident. I was also thanking everyone for showing up and being brave.”