It’s been over a year since we were forced to stay close to home, forego many of our daily activities, practice safety precautions and hope for the best. It’s been a rough year for each of us personally and for our communities – and it’s not over. Yet, there is hope on the horizon as the vaccine rollout continues and some restrictions have been eased.
We’re starting to have a little breathing room, and so it’s a good time to think deeply about the year behind us as we plan for what we all hope is a brighter future ahead.
While we were hunkering down inside our homes, businesses around us faced their own challenges. Some questioned whether they would survive at all. In this series, sponsored by meetNKY, we sit down with local business owners to ask them about the past year and the year ahead.
While we spoke with many different types of businesses, they all had one thing in common – resiliency, also known as the ability to "pivot," now a well-worn term within the business community.
Padrino: Change builds confidence
Hunter Thomas, Fort Thomas resident and owner of two successful restaurants in Milford – Padrino, a family-style Italian restaurant and pizzeria, and the upscale bistro and wine shop 20 Brix — had only recently announced plans to open a third location at 14 North Grand Avenue in Fort Thomas when the pandemic began.
The new restaurant, Padrino Fort Thomas, offers many of the same menu items as its Milford counterpart, serving homemade lasagna, manicotti, homemade meatballs and, of course, pizza. While starting out with a similar menu, Thomas said he plans to adjust the menu for Fort Thomas with input from the community.
Thomas had been taking his time, making careful plans for renovations and the move into the building, and things were well underway when the first COVID wave hit, businesses closed and everyone went into lock-down mode.
What he, his family and his staff did next brought on changes he never would have considered before and gave him a whole new outlook on his business for the future.
Facing uncertainty and scary times ahead
|Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters. At the start of the pandemic, Thomas and his family sold carry out pizzas from their home.|
"We had architectural drawings and were ready to go. But, once they announced the shut down, no one actually called me. I think they just assumed: A. I was out of business or B. it was canceled," Thomas said.
"I immediately hunkered down with my two restaurants. Obviously, there was some unpleasantness there. In one day, I had to lay off 37 people, which was tough," he said.
"We spent most of our mornings trying to figure out what to do and how to change the business, and then in the afternoon we would take phone calls and have employees come in and help them fill out unemployment. It was strange. Normally, you’re not doing that, but we were helping people just to make sure they were okay."
Thomas came up with a plan, one that carried him over throughout the darkest days. "We were talking just in case, if things didn’t go well, how could we continue to make money, pay our rent, do all the things of that nature. So my wife said, we could do frozen pizzas out of our house. We had already been doing this for neighbors, friends and family," he explained.
"So, we borrowed some freezers and started selling out of our basement. After about a month or two the thought of having people come into our house during the pandemic seemed kind of crazy so we asked if we could use the garage [at 14 North Grand] to sell the pizzas out of here so I didn’t have to sell the pizzas out of my house."
From there Thomas brought equipment from his other restaurants to stock grab-and-go salads and freshly made frozen pizzas. People who were familiar with the Milford stores or who had been eagerly awaiting the new restaurant could pick up pizzas to bake at home.
"We created a carry-out only prepackaged food model. It may not be the newest thing in the world, and I didn’t think that would actually be something that would carry over. But, it has done fairly well, piggy backing off the brick-and-mortar restaurants a bit, but we’ve had steady business every week," he said.
|Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.|
Assessing the takeaways from the experience
When asked what he has learned from the experience, Thomas said before the pandemic, when the restaurants were very busy with indoor service especially on weekends, to-go orders were considered an after-thought. But now, they are a part of the business here to stay.
Before the pandemic, the pizzeria in Milford had a decent amount of
carry out, most nights it was 10 percent of business; on Friday
something like 15-20 percent. But for the fine dining restaurant, 20
Brix, it had been less than one percent.
“When COVID hit, we had to completely redo that menu at 20 Brix. We had
some pretty elegant dishes that if you start sloshing around in a to-go
box, they are going to look and taste terrible. People are not going to
carry out scallops and monkfish cheeks! We had to change things around a
lot, especially in the beginning...For the early couple of months, 20
Brix was really burgers, steaks, chicken sandwiches. The nicest chicken
sandwich you ever had, but still, we had to limit to things that carry
While he plans to return to the fine dining menu, carry out will remain a part of all his businesses. "Now the thought in our minds is that we will always do to-go orders...We will always have in the back of our minds, how is this going to look carry out? Do we need to buy a separate vessel to carry it in? Do we need to plate it differently? It used to be the chef would think, what is creative; what is innovative; what is tasty; what’s cost effective? Now, he has to add that extra portion in — how will this look?”
Thomas believes that for some people, a portion of the population, have switched over to doing more carry out. “They will dine in far less than they ever did. That’s just a reality of this pandemic... So, if we are going to continue to prosper, we are just going to have to focus a third of our business on carry out,” he said.
An unexpected benefit — time
From the beginning, Thomas had planned a careful and steady move into his new place in Fort Thomas. The pandemic slowed that process way down, but it also gave him more time, time to take a closer look at all his operations and do some rethinking and planning.
"We were able to see what aspects of our business didn’t work. Things
that were covered up by systems already in place. There was this idea,
why did we do it this way, just because we always had? That doesn’t make
sense...We may never get back to full capacity that we were, but we’ve been
able to see how to work better and smarter, " Thomas said.
"I know people don’t want to hear this [about the pandemic], but it has been nice to have this extra time. We are not in a such hurry to build it. Little by little things have changed, and I think it’s for the better. New ideas have come into the mix, and that’s been kind of nice."
He has had the time to gather ideas, big and small, from staff and others. "We’re excited about the new location. I spoke with our kitchen managers and others, and asked them, if you had your druthers, what would really help you? They all had their own ideas... And, that’s how the idea for an extra dining room was born. Someone said, 'if we had a place to put a big group, that would be really helpful.'"
So, with that, Thomas added a party room for local sports teams. "I think every Fort Thomas sports team has approached me saying we can’t wait until we can bring our whole team here. I was looking around thinking I need more room here. If someone brings 20 kids here from the football team all at once, we are going to need more space. So, we did add a small dining room in the basement built out for kids and parties, things like that."
Plans for Padrino Fort Thomas going forward
|Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters. Padrino will be ready to go with outdoor dining and hot food to order as the weather warms up.|
"Being able to get through the uncertainty has made me more confident; just being able to get through such a terrible time... Once it opens up and is sunny again, my goodness, that’s when it’s easy. We are excited for that! "
He added, "We think that what is getting ready to happen once more people get shots and it gets warm, things are going to explode. We’ll be very busy. And, we are looking forward to that. We’re excited. It’s what we do."
If you check social media, people in the area have also been excited for the new location. "We have already gotten to know people in Fort Thomas, and we are so appreciative of everyone who’s been coming in. We know that many of the people coming now for the frozen food are the people who will be coming to the restaurant. We really appreciate that."
Thomas said support from the community has been wonderful, "I want to say thank you to everyone in Fort Thomas. Everyone has been so helpful and nice about everything. It’s been great."
PHOTO GALLERY: Phil Armstong. Fort Thomas Matters.