Restaurateur and CEO & Co-Founder, Upward Projects
Lauren Bailey is an established restaurateur as well as the CEO and co-founder of community focused restaurant group, Upward Projects. Bailey is responsible for continuing the group’s growth while maintaining its vision. Her success is evident through favorite restaurants across the southwest such as Postino, Joyride Taco House, Windsor, Churn Ice Cream and Federal Pizza.
In 2014, Lauren Bailey was inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame and honored as the Food Pioneer by the Arizona Restaurant Association. The hospitality industry is not the only place Bailey shines. She is also a steering committee member for Devour Phoenix as well as a board member of the Entrepreneurs Organization, the Grand Canyon University Colangelo College of Business Advisory Board, and the Tyrann Mathieu Foundation.
Total Food Service reached out to Lauren Bailey to learn more about her future ambitions as a restaurateur and Upward Projects’ goals, mission and vision, as well as her commentary on some of the industries’ greatest challenges coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a prominent restaurateur in Arizona and CEO of Upward Projects, how did you first get involved in the food industry?
I was actually going to grad school in New York City for an art degree and spent one summer working at a restaurant in Nantucket, Massachusetts. While I was on the island I just fell in love. Seeing all of these incredible chefs who are living in this beautiful place I just thought, this is everything I love about life — it’s people, the food, wine, design, creativity, entrepreneurship. That summer, I knew my ultimate dream was to have my own restaurant.
How did that dream turn into 19 restaurants and five concepts across the American Southwest?
Well, I was always thinking and planning and picturing how my restaurants would look. I was 22 and I would pull pictures and cut out photos from whatever magazines I could get—food magazines, design magazines—and make binders full of menus and concepts, like a scrapbook.
What was it like opening your first restaurant?
Opening my first restaurant was a real struggle. It quickly showed me the gritty side of entrepreneurship. I had saved $30,000, which really doesn’t get you very far in the restaurant industry. I had to find a way to get more capital very quickly, so I begged and borrowed money from everyone I knew. I maxed out all of my credit cards. I took out a second mortgage on my house. I would work 80 hours a week and eat ramen every night. This constant financial insecurity, pouring everything into the restaurant, and eventually restaurants, went on for ten years.
How did you get through that time to where you are now?
I think what most people don’t realize about starting your own business and chasing your dream like this is the amount of drive it takes. The businesses and restaurants that survive are run by people who are willing to do what most people aren’t. When you’re tired and beat and everything is going wrong, you have to be able to push through and pick yourself up.
Growing your company from one restaurant to 19, how have you built a team and shared vision in your restaurants?
Throughout the journey and growth of these restaurants I really prioritized finding incredible employees and empowering them. I became pretty maniacal about taking care of my employees as the company grew. One way we do this is by fostering a sense of autonomy among every employee. Each worker has a direct avenue to reach me and our executive team and offer their ideas, criticisms, or feedback. People want to feel that their work matters and that they are seen and heard. We make sure every team member has a creative, entrepreneurial spirit. Each restaurant has its own unique spirit as well.
Over the past year and a half how has Upward Projects and your restaurants survived the COVID-19 pandemic?
As difficult and heartbreaking the past year has been, it was a great time to be an entrepreneur. We are used to getting kicked in the face, having no money, and having to adapt and change rapidly. I think all the experience of my early career, with all its challenges and difficulties, was incredibly valuable over the course of the pandemic. With restaurants and business opening back up now we feel more committed to our customers than ever. People fell back in love with restaurants and have realized how important food and that shared space are. I think all the excitement about restaurants that was bottled up for so many months is going to help greatly with recovery. For Upward Projects as a whole, it’s really reassuring to know that we have the tools and knowledge to survive such a tough time.
What kind of innovations did you bring to your restaurants to get through the pandemic day-to-day?
It was really all-hands-on-deck. We rallied and just focused on the task at hand. More technically, we had to pivot towards take-out like everyone else. We immediately partnered with Toast, which allowed us to process take-out orders and arrange third-party deliveries, and got really creative. Food from the Postino restaurants naturally travels well and we focused on creating meal packages for families and date nights and making custom take-out bags with a customer’s name and really fun stickers. We focused on trying to create really special moments for people during a tough time. We looked at it as a privilege to be the best part of someone’s day. We were also lucky geographically to be in a state where we didn’t have to fully shut down in an area that, thankfully, didn’t suffer as much as other parts of the country.
What innovations that came out of COVID are you hoping to retain as the country shifts back to normalcy?
Especially at Postino we weren’t really thought of as a to-go place so it’s a great opportunity for us to reach that market. We definitely want to keep those extra sales now that people know that we offer great takeout. We’re really focusing on keeping that programming strong to stay on people’s minds. A lot is changing right now but people and families are still going to want those convenient meals so, in a way, it’s great that the pandemic has allowed us to grow into that.
With more customers ordering food online and used to the convenience of delivery, how do you feel about services like GrubHub and UberEats with ongoing battles over delivery costs?
I definitely think that delivery services are going to need to change soon and be more fair to restaurants, especially small, family run restaurants. These apps charge restaurants astronomical costs and big, corporate businesses can pay that but it seems really exploitative towards small businesses. I think there needs to be a tiered system where restaurants pay a fair amount, according to their size. I also think, though, that there’s a growing population of educated customers. They realize that these delivery apps are hurting the restaurants they want to support and more and more people are starting to order directly from restaurants. I think it’s great that services like Toast are helping restaurants arrange deliveries in a way that lets restaurants keep more of their profits.
As the industry struggles to hire and recruit labor, what do you think businesses need to do in the short term to address hiring issues?
I think the labor market for restaurants was already struggling prior to COVID, but the pandemic exacerbated those struggles. When restaurants had to close and scale down operations a lot of hourly employees found other jobs and asking those workers to return to the restaurants is really difficult. The pandemic forced people to reexamine some fundamental lifestyle choices. It’s hard asking people to work late nights and weekends when workers are already burnt out. I think now the industry has to focus on recruiters that prioritize connecting to other people. We have to get creative and really pose the question: do you want to sit in a cubicle staring at a computer or do you want to interact with people?
How do you see the role of plant-based food going forward in your restaurants and the industry as a whole?
Upward Projects restaurants have never been overly meat-focused so we are already in a great place to accommodate any dietary preference. I think there are some really problematic sustainability issues with the way we produce meat, so we definitely prioritize meatless options. We’ve had a vegetarian board for a couple of years now and each year it gets more popular. This is more than just a fad. It’s something every serious restaurant should accommodate.
In Upward Projects restaurants today what do you want customers to experience and how do you see that changing in the future?
The customer experience at my restaurants is different for every customer, and I really value that. Some people come in with their laptops, order a glass of wine, and never have a bite of food. Other groups come straight from work for happy hour and a lot of customers come for sit-down meals, celebrating birthdays or anniversaries. I really strive to create a space that is approachably sophisticated where people can feel comfortable in flip flops or dressed-up enjoying good food, in a warm, welcoming atmosphere. In the future, as customers eagerly return to our restaurants, it is really affirming to see the important place we hold in people’s lives. Above all else, we need to stay committed to making people happy.
All photos courtesy of Upward Projects. To learn more, visit their website.
Article contributions by Hank Bedingfield