Main Street Restaurant Owners Growing Through the Pandemic

Source: April Anderson

When Matt Horn opened up his first restaurant in Oakland, Horn BBQ, the pandemic was in full swing. It was fall of 2020 and he'd overcome a long list of challenges from location to regulations and more to see it through. So when it came time to launch his second, highly-anticipated concept, Kowbird, just down the street, Horn was ready with a pandemic playbook.

The fried chicken restaurant, much like his original BBQ spot, opened to a line of fans and support from the community. He says for now the focus is on pre-orders, but the hope is to resume a sense of normalcy in the year to come.

"It's been awesome to open Kowbird in the pandemic, a lot of people are happy with the opening, especially in the community," Horn said. "To be able to have something positive in the midst of adversity, and you know this constant bad news, is really cool."

Matt Horn opened up his second restaurant during the pandemic, Oakland's Kowbird.
Source: Matt Horn
Matt Horn opened up his second restaurant during the pandemic, Oakland's Kowbird.

Business at Horn BBQ has grown over the last year, he said, even in the face of ongoing labor challenges and major inflation headwinds, as the restaurant was added to Michelin's Bib Gourmand list of best affordable eateries. Waiting in line to eat at one of Horn's concepts is nothing new to locals, but it provides a fresh sense of pride and urgency for the chef each time he sees it.

"When I see the line, the first thing that goes through my mind, of course, is grateful that people showed up, then on my team, like, okay, come on, let's push orders through," he said.

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Restaurants like Horn's, seeing success and growth throughout the pandemic, have been a rarity. The National Restaurant Association projects some 90,000 locations have shuttered in the last two years, some temporarily and others for good. Half of all operators think it will be a year or more before sales return to normal.

More broadly, Main Street sentiment has been stagnant, according to the latest CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey for Q1. Overall confidence was unchanged at 44, but labor and inflation issues persist. Nearly three-quarters of small business owners say they're experiencing higher costs for supplies and 47 percent are raising their own prices as a result, up 8 percentage points from Q4 2021.

April Anderson's Good Cakes and Bakes in Detroit, Mich., is also thriving and growing much like Horn has over the last year. After realizing many customers had been asking about shipping the bakery's cakes nationwide, Anderson decided to pivot and lean more into delivery in the face of the pandemic.

"We realized we needed to move at a faster pace," Anderson said.

She reached out to Goldbelly, which ships regional and artisanal foods across the U.S. Connecting with the platform allowed Anderson to grow her cake delivery from 20 cakes a day to up to 100 cakes a day. She grossed more than $1 million for the first time in 2021. Anderson is even preparing to open up a facility dedicated to the shipping business later this year.

"The way that we've been able to grow, it has really let me know that the clarity and forward thinking I had before the pandemic has really paid off," she said.

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