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Rethinking Restaurateuring, Alongside Friends: 'Everyone Sticks Together and Supports One Another' 
To say the pandemic has challenged (and threatened) restaurants is an understatement. 

A year ago, popular eateries overnight had to adjust to mandatory closures, then dramatically fewer patrons, along with curfews, COVID-19 safety protocols and capacity restrictions.

Mainly, though, owners and managers conscientiously wanted to keep their employees and customers safe.

The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center saw a way to help local restaurants regain some momentum. 

Jim Biggs, Executive Director of the KEC, recruited the Chattanooga-based Proof Incubator team that been working this year with more than 30 owners and managers of Knoxville restaurants, food trucks, coffee houses, breweries, food-service businesses and caterers.

"This program is a direct response to the challenges that COVID brought on," Biggs says. "All existing restaurants are struggling to some degree. This is about sharing ideas to better weather the storm - or maybe in some cases to develop a new business plan."

Deputy to the Mayor Stephanie Welch, the City's Chief of Economic and Community Development, praised KEC's work in supporting new businesses as they launch - but also, in helping existing businesses to finetune and recalibrate when necessary.

"This partnership with Proof Incubator is a good example of that second function," Welch says. "The City is constantly looking for ways to help businesses innovate and thrive."

Partners in presenting the four-week virtual course included TVA, the Knoxville Chamber, the Knoxville Area Urban League and the City.

The first cohort of 14 businesses kicked off in late January; a second group, another 18, launched in mid-February.

The Proof Incubator course covers everything from navigating regulations to improving financial foundations to more effectively marketing to customers.

"The most interesting thing was how diverse the group was," says Josh Robinette, Chief Operating Officer of the Casual Pint, who was among the first group of restaurateurs and business owners that went through the Proof Incubator program. "We have 20 locations. I thought we could take nuggets of information and share with the franchises.

"They brought in really good partnerships, for every session, including things like HR and marketing. They provided tools to finetune. For some, the focus was on getting restaurants back up and opened up. There was a high level of experience and many different facets."

Josh Robinette
Josh Robinette

Nolan Sherrill, co-owner of Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain, 418 S. Gay St., was another member of the first group that met.

Sherrill is appreciative that Proof staff "have really gone above and beyond to help us with messaging and a focused social media strategy for our relaunch. The entire team has been very generous with their time and resources."

In case you didn't know it, Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain was part of the network of downtown businesses that set a high bar for responsible pandemic practices and community caring.

"We were among the first to close our doors in 2020," Sherrill says. "We wanted to be able to give our pharmacy the space they needed to take care of our most vulnerable, and we were trying to limit undue exposure to our employees and customers."

So throughout spring and summer 2020, with no paying diners, Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain, along with support from local vendors, chefs and farmers, was quietly preparing meals and helping Senior Citizens Home Assistance Service and Wesley House.

Nolan Sherrill
Nolan Sherrill

Sherrill remembers meeting with other downtown business owners in March 2020 at Mill & Mine, as the pandemic was spreading and plans were being made to make sure employees and patrons would be cared for.

"That's one of the unique things about Knoxville," he says. "Everyone sticks together and supports one another - at least that's the case with the businesses downtown."

So peer support and "validation" were intangible but important benefits of the Proof program.

"It was good to see what others are doing as they go through their processes, what's been tried and what's been helpful," he says.

The best-practices financial part of the course was among the most beneficial aspects of the program, Sherrill says. (He jokes that some of what's needed might be akin to finding change under the sofa cushions. But after being closed for a year, it's good to be able to look at the business with a fresh set of eyes, he says.)

Messaging coming out of the pandemic is important: Let people know you're back open, and what your hours of operation are, and that you're conscientiously following safety protocols.

"Businesses have to be community-focused, more so now than ever," Sherrill says, "and people want to know that you're doing everything you can to create a safe space. No one wants to undo the things we worked very hard to get right."

Robinette, Casual Pint COO, is upbeat about the improving business atmosphere and community vibe.

January sales were "a horror," he says, following post-holiday spikes in COVID-19 cases. But recently, with more vaccines being administered and rapidly dropping case counts, "we're seeing a positive trend. It's good news. People are being safe, and as they're getting vaccinated, they're wanting to get out."

Sherrill agrees that the mood in Knoxville has changed - and that's happened very recently. He senses people's excitement every time they get their COVID-19 vaccination. 

The mood was mostly upbeat during the Proof course as well.

"Our comfort level is much different than it was six months ago, or three months ago, or even last month," he says.
Posted by evreeland On 25 March, 2021 at 11:58 PM