John Baldassarre is a third-generation restaurateur and owner of The Stirling Tavern and partner at The Stirling Hotel. In 2019 John started a hospitality group called Spoon Fed Hospitality with two partners doing consulting work with goals of helping distressed restaurants. John and his partners are currently in the process of purchasing locations. With 15 years of experience in the industry and much of that knowledge is accredited to his parents who created the culture which he instills in his companies to this day. John’s growth is focused on creating new innovative dining experiences for everyone in New Jersey do enjoy.
We are living in unprecedented times that’s making everyone pivot that has never been seen in our great nation’s history. The reality is this: we are literally at a standstill, as I write this, my kids sit in the room with me doing homework and watching movies. John Baldassarre took time out of his new normal: social distancing with his employees, delivering food to customers, and trying to figure what the future looks like to give us a look behind the curtains.
Restaurant owners are also being strongly affected in a way that is not being highlighted in media, this story is one of many. Let’s get to our interview.
What does COVID-19 mean to you as a multiple location restaurant owner?
By having to shutdown dining and only have takeout and delivery available, it means an ugly truth. That I will have to let go of employees, and that hurts. The second item on my mind was pivoting quickly to a takeout and delivery model and how that would look like with all the hysteria. I needed to get the message out to my clients that we are still operational and are taking every precaution to make sure your food is safe and handled with the most care.
How much does it feel being forced to shut down operations with no warning and without a solution?
I was overwhelmed with stress and anxiety and was not sure what I was going to tell my staff. Seeing what was going on with New York and across the world, we were all ready putting things into play. That helped me get ahead on this and pivot to a takeout and delivery model, etc.
How many employees did you have to lay off? How did that feel?
We laid off 100 employees, but that is only temporary and they know this. My team knows I would do anything for them and thanks to the culture my leadership team have built they understood that this needed to happen. It hurt for me as their leader to tell them they could no longer work but we will return stronger than ever.
When the call happens that we could allow patrons back into the dining rooms, what is your plan to make the people feel safe eating at your restaurants?
As an industry we need to start thinking about putting plans into place now that are COVID-19 specific and the National Restaurant Association and New Jersey Restaurant Association should start thinking about putting the guidelines into place now. As owners, we cannot do it all, we need help from our government.
What do you do when the dust settles, what is the plan?
Our goal will be to move quickly and be operational. You need to be ready for customers, people that love your restaurant will want to come and support it. People know how much you are struggling. For example, our customers have been buying gift cards left and right.
Do you have an employee relief fund in place? How are you distributing the funds?
Yes we do. We have a couple of thousand in our employee relief fund, they come from tips and I am also donating 25% of every gift card sale. The distribution is tough, my team understands that some are hurting more than others and those individuals will receive the funds first.
Ronaldo’s thoughts: These actions are an amazing demonstration of true leadership. Putting your team first and making the unpopular decisions are when true leaders rise up. John Baldassarre has built a strong chain with no weak links within his team. Everyone is on the same page, the FOH and the BOH.
Will restaurants weather this storm?
Unfortunately, there will be a lot of restaurants that cannot weather this storm and will not be able to reopen. It is an unfortunate thing to say and even think, but that’s reality. Most restaurants are operating on a week to week basis and with the shutdown and no money, coming back in the picture is not a pretty one.
Quick interjection – That was a tough question to ask because I know a lot of these restaurants and it was not an easy one to answer. It is a sad reality.
What advice do you give to restaurants to stay ahead of the game and be able to reopen post COVID-19?
When you have the time set up shop in your office, figure out what your breakeven is, labor, etc., figure out the number to stay open. Figure out the plan to reopen as fast as possible. The quicker you open means more net cash for your business. Lastly figure out how to get cash, a loan or anything like it. Find where you could save money, speaking with purveyors, speaking with your employees.
Ronaldo says: “It needs to be a community effort and now more than ever. The reality is that the hospitality industry provides over 895 billion dollars to the American economy and over 47% of employment, the government needs to recognize that and bail us out.” John’s fight is incredible, during the interview he said something that gave me goosebumps. “If I have to start from Scratch I will.” ~ John Baldassarre
Last words of advice to the restaurants?
Stay united, work together, and be ready for the people. We are resilient and when the dust settles, it will all go back to normal.
I want to say thank you to John Baldassarre for taking the time to speak with me and share his expertise and thoughts during this time in our nation’s history.