Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Proof Bar and Incubator originally opened in March 2020 as a combination cocktail bar and business incubator with sit-down service for start-up food businesses that operate out of a shared commissary kitchen. Since then, they've implementing a rotating roster of six to eight startup restaurant brands operating at one time in Proof for about six months to a year so they can boost their revenue before opening their own businesses.
But as the pandemic got underway soon after opening, cofounders Michael Robinson and Mia Littlejohn knew that they had to shift their focus to help the struggling restaurant industry, so they began a local restaurant recovery program in the summer of 2020. In partnership with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, Proof developed a free four-week Restaurant Recovery program to teach struggling restaurants how to keep their heads above water, with twice-weekly classes (and content available on demand), along with one-on-one sessions.
“We just wanted to provide a resource and a kind-of handholding for the different individual operators who were struggling,” Littlejohn said. "So, we compiled every possible resource we could that was already out there and put it together into a four-week program that also helps provide some structure for businesses and restaurant owners, whose operations were shut down."
In the second half of 2020, the Proof team expanded their courses outside of Tennessee and began offering programs in multiple cities throughout the Southeast. Since June 2020, Robinson estimates that they’ve helped 250 restaurants and are in 15-20 counties, from Nashville to Mississippi and Northern Alabama. They keep it cost-free for restaurants by partnering with local economic development offices, chambers of commerce and even the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Proof sees their recovery program as a business development resource that should and will continue long after the aftershocks of the pandemic have passed. But of course, coursework has already evolved from survival mode tactics to thriving in a changed industry and economy.
“It’s now about getting restaurants to think critically and get them to evolve their models and maintain that spirit of innovation from last year,” Robinson said. “Now that volume is coming back, it's hard to maybe maintain that expanded patio or the to go stuff because Friday night is mobbed and your staff lost their muscle memory, it’s a challenge for sure. […] We get into a lot of branding, marketing, online optimization, employee handbooks and a financial foundation.”
The course also now runs eight weeks instead of four weeks (four weeks for the educational program itself and four weeks for implementation), where they cover basic financial foundation (from supply chain costs to getting a business loan), workforce development, leadership and communication skills, as well as crisis management.
In the second week, they bring in experts to discuss specific skills like digital marketing and basic finance. Then, following “graduation” Proof does a 90-day check-in with participating business owners to see how they’re getting along.
The next step? Expanding the program even further across the Southeastern region. In July, Proof is launching a program for 10 counties in Middle Tennessee and they are partnering with chambers of commerce to attract local independent restaurants to the program.
“Our hope is to expand this year ideally across the country,” Robinson said. “We just want to make sure whatever we're building continues to add value and moves the needle for these small businesses.”
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