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Fat Straw owners Jenn and Terry Pham on finding new business during the coronavirus pandemic.

Terry Pham of Fat Straws in Dallas on leveraging social media connections to make pop-ups work during the coronavirus pandemic

The owner of the four-unit chain specializing in East Asian-style doughnuts and boba teas developed new service options and expanded its customer base

Like all restaurants, we weren’t immune to the economic impact brought on by COVID-19. We saw sharp declines in our traffic beginning March 13th. I knew when they extended University of Texas at Dallas’ spring break and when they told our kids to empty their lockers before spring break, that they wouldn’t be coming back for the spring semester.

During the early stages of shelter-in-place, I kept wondering if they were going to shut us down. When they closed our dining rooms but still allowed curbside and to-go, I knew we had a fighting chance. As a quick-service dessert concept, Fat Straws was well positioned to quickly adapt to the county and state mandates on how we could serve our guests.

We were already setup for online ordering, so we quickly promoted curbside pickup and contactless payments in our stores. In order for us to be fully contactless, we decided to go cashless. This improved safety and operational efficiency. We ramped up our sanitation protocols, implementing temperature checks, requiring face masks and gloves, and hourly sanitation of high-contact surfaces.

As evening traffic began to decrease, we trimmed our hours. With more folks working from home, we saw an opportunity to launch our Smile Pack and Smile Pack Jrs., a dozen of half dozen Chewy Puff Donuts and a gallon of half gallon of tea.

The most impactful thing we did was join a local Facebook group — AsianGrub in the DFDub — focused on supporting local restaurants impacted by COVID-19. Through this group, we began offering delivery services to cities far outside our normal delivery radius. We solicited feedback from the group and focused on doing weekly pop-ups in different cities 30-45 minutes from our stores.

We started soliciting orders the week leading up to the pop-up and customers could pre-order and pre-pay online. The day of the pop-up, we would designate a pick-up spot, which in most cases was a gym parking lot (since gyms were closed). Customers would stay in their cars (while we were armed with masks and gloves) and we would hand them their orders or place them in the trunk. The combination of an active PR team, leveraging the Facebook group, weekend pop-ups, and quickly pivoting to online orders/curbside pick-up saved our business.

This is part of our Stories from the Front Lines series.

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