Thomas Bonfiglio is the founder and CEO of Triple T Hospitality Group, which has Tio Taco + Tequila bar in Edison, N.J., and four-unit Tommy’s Tavern + Tap in New Jersey and New York. Read his story below of managing casual-dining brands throughout the global COVID-19 pandemic.
What a time we are in right now. If someone would’ve told me back in March that the COVID-19 pandemic would still be going on nine months later, I would’ve thought they were crazy. This has been one of the most challenging and detrimental times for the hospitality industry and the world as we once knew it. From takeout only to indoor dining, occupancy restrictions and rigid curfews, our world and community of restaurants, nightclubs, cocktail bars and watering holes has been turned into a truly new normal that’s beyond anything we could have ever imagined. As a restaurant group owner and someone who has maintained a successful operation amid this pandemic, I can’t stress enough the importance of working together as a community, learning to pivot on a daily basis and becoming extremely flexible and adaptable during setbacks that are completely out of our control.
One cannot be in the restaurant and bar business without thick skin and a strategic business plan in place, but when emergencies happen, like a global pandemic, we must learn to temporarily drop all of the traditional systems we’ve put in place and be ready to act as entrepreneurial as possible to deal with situations as they come. It is absolutely critical to be prepared for the worst, even during a calendar year that started off extremely well and appeared to be groundbreaking for our organization. There may be a lot that is out of our control right now (limited seating, curfews, and weather restrictions related to outdoor dining), but what we, as restauranteurs, must control right now is our capital and team preservation: the secret sauce for success amid setback. We must get creative and adapt to a new set of rules to keep things moving forward, while preserving our customer base, our incredible employees and the revenue we are bringing in from every part of the business. We find silver linings every day in the restaurant industry; there are always good days and bad days and I know that if we learn to adapt and pivot, under pressure, there will be many wins around the globe.
COVID-19 has been eye-opening for all of us in the business world and I knew that my group (Triple T Hospitality Group) and the restaurants within our portfolio, Tommy’s Tavern + Tap and Tio Taco + Tequila Bar, were too important to give up on, not only to my family and the tremendous businesses we have built from the ground up, but to the local communities that depend on us for quality fare, good value and the staff that has created a warm and family-friendly service culture. Without our team, we’d be tables and chairs in an empty room. We’d lack growth and development. We’d lack extraordinary talent that helps with the revenue, at the end of the day.
The key to maintaining your employees during times like these is focusing on the business financials and capital preservation. If it weren’t for my team and I working to restructure our budget, immediately, once we got word of COVID-19 and getting creative with limited menus, food and beverage variety, and tighter inventory (reduced food and beverage inventory that is not selling right now), we would be in deep trouble. We would not be able to maintain the dynamic service culture and multi-generational atmosphere that has worked so well over the years if it wasn’t for making some big, critical decisions in the moments. Cutting costs is not a sign of weakness; instead, I see it as a form of triumph during these times, as it’s not the amount of food one orders that makes a restaurant operation a win, it’s the company values, consistent food and beverage quality and overall service experience that makes the difference for the customer. Six months from now, if the lights go back on at 100% occupancy and we don’t have our service culture and majority of our team in place, then we are missing an integral part of what makes us “us” and the ability to be a successful operation.
Additionally, when I think of service culture and maintaining the quality and values of a restaurant, I can’t help but think back to the family-first and “mom and pop meets corporate in a blender” foundation we set as our business model from the get-go. I don’t know if we’d be as successful as we continue to be, if it wasn’t for branding our business as a family-first operation. At Tommy’s Tavern + Tap and Tio Taco + Tequila Bar, our employees are not just the chefs, servers, bartenders and hostesses who collect a paycheck from us; instead, they are part of the “Bonfiglio” family and we hire people who fit that mold. The shining personalities of our team and the quality of our food doesn’t go away amid COVID-19; instead we preach safety and believe that the mask mandate will help stop the spread.
When people first meet me, they say, “We love Tommy’s Tavern + Tap. We love Tio Taco + Tequila Bar. You must have started very young in the business to be this successful,” and the ironic thing is that I didn’t start in the restaurant business until I was well into my forties. My wife, Yvette, and I were successful already (I’m an attorney and CPA by trade) and provided a beautiful life to our two daughters, Andrea and Christina. At the same time, Yvette and I come from humble beginnings and an old-school Brooklyn background, where “at home hospitality” was always inherent within our family identity. When Yvette, an incredible cook, came to me and thought it would be interesting for us to try to delve into the restaurant business, given our love of the industry and the need for more restaurants that evoked a “big city” atmosphere with suburban charm, I can’t help but admit I was initially hesitant. However, once my mind changed and I seriously dived into the business, I saw that there are not enough people who believe in the traditional “family” values that are critical to the restaurant industry more than ever right now. I believe in coaching and mentoring, the same way I taught my own family. We may be businesspeople with high standards, but we were raised with integrity and treating our staff the way we would treat our own families.
With hard times come silver linings, and I can’t stress enough the importance of finding your own silver lining, whether you are an owner of one small restaurant in small-town America or fifteen restaurants in a big mass-market city. For Triple T Hospitality Group, the pandemic gave us two opportunities we never thought we would have: 1) obtaining bullseye real-estate properties that haven’t been available in over twenty years and will give us the opportunity to open four new restaurants by early 2021, and 2) bringing new talent onboard, who were previously employed by big-city celebrity chef restaurants. The mass exodus of people from the city to the suburbs will add a new pool of restaurant talent for smaller town businesses to bring onboard their company and gain fresh perspective and new ideas.
I encourage all of you in the hospitality industry to find the light at the end of the tunnel, because this too shall pass and the lights will soon go back on. This is a short-term setback, but a long-term opportunity. Once you learn to pivot quickly and efficiently, stay committed to your organizational objectives, live by your brand’s inherent values and focus on the necessary preservation of company capital and team members, you will see that success is possible and the doors can remain open.