Restaurant Challenges: Overcoming Roadblocks

Sometimes business is nothing but roadblocks, whether from a strangled supply chain or from economic seesaws that make budget projections pure guesswork. And sometimes, the road to your door is truly, literally blocked.

Sachi Nakato Takahara of Nakato Japanese Restaurant in Atlanta, knows all about it – and came out ahead. She took over the family business, now entering its 51st year, and found herself stranded when a trash fire under an aging bridge in 2021 led the city to deem it unsafe, and then close the main intersection and route to her door. It led initially to a 60% drop in sales, made deliveries extra challenging and created smaller but impactful inconveniences, such as adding 20 minutes to staff commutes.

“When it first happened, we were in limbo,” Takahara says. “And this was also trying to come back from COVID.” But the business recovered before the bridge, thanks to strategies she and other business owners have employed during brutal, natural and people-made setbacks.

Communicate ASAP: Customers need to know what’s going on and how to deal with upcoming frustrations. Try social media blasts, newsletters and phone calls. “You have to tell them, ‘There is a detour, and this is exactly how to get there,’” Takahara says. “And let them know there will be extra time they need to build in to make it to the reservation.” If you make them find out on their own, be prepared for angry customers who won’t be back again.

Engage the media: Orchestrate Hospitality, a Des Moines-based company that manages multiple restaurants, hotels and food markets around the state, has three restaurants adjacent to a city park, where a string of yearly festivals creates road closures that can almost completely cut off road access for up to four days. Paul Rottenberg, Orchestrate Hospitality’s president, suggests working with local media to get away from just reporting the alarming aspect of terrible traffic, which discourages restaurant-goers, by providing those same useful tips on navigating obstructions to support local businesses.

Make some noise: “There had to be regular pressure on the city for construction accountability and cross-checks,” says Takahara. “If it was left to them, it would take three years.” If you’re not getting answers or action, let yourself be heard at city council meetings and the offices of your state and local politicians.

Gather multiple voices: “I found strength in numbers by being part of the local business alliance,” says Takahara. “It’s not just you, right?”

Laurie Thomas, general partner of Nice Ventures, which operates San Francisco’s Terzo and Rose’s Cafe restaurants, is also the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. This organization supporting businesses in all kinds of crises, such as the severe rains and flooding that caused havoc for parking and pedestrians this past winter. She counsels members to lean on every possible resource.

Restaurants suffering losses need to reach out to a broad range of civic and business groups for help in recovery, not just rely on insurance companies to come through. “There are all these different coalition groups,” Thomas says, citing not just merchant organizations, but city workforce and economic development agencies; the small business office; the mayor’s office; and travel and tourism departments.

Expect the worst right now: It’s natural to live in nothing but the moment, when managing a restaurant can seem like a daily crisis. But the pain that you didn’t plan for can happen anytime. Make building a local support network a priority in your business plan from the start. “People in our industry really support each other,” says Thomas. “It’s not a weakness to ask for help.” And that help can extend to loyal customers.

For example, Will Meeker, a self-proclaimed big fan and friend of Rintaro restaurant in San Francisco started a GoFundMe page that raised more than $185,000 after unprecedented torrential rain flooded the restaurant, closed service on New Year’s Eve and washed away its outdoor dining.

“Until this disaster, I don’t think I realized the strength of the community surrounding Rintaro,” chef/owner Sylvan Mishima Brackett wrote on the page. “And honestly, as terrible and taxing as this disaster has been, with everyone’s support, I’m more determined than ever to reopen the restaurant refreshed and more beautiful than ever.”

If you can, keep faith in the future: “To be honest, I knew we would make it through because we were able to make it through COVID,” Takahara says. “Our customers supported us then, and we knew they would make their way to us. After 50 years of many ups and downs, we have to have some confidence.”