A Publication of WTVP

Taking on the Chains

What separates independents from the big boys? Passion

by Frank Abdnour |
The Spoted Cow logo

The Spoted Cow logoOwning an independent restaurant is a laborious task in any environment, but particularly challenging in a global pandemic. I am a former restaurant owner, and while I sold my business prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have quite a few colleagues who still own and operate local restaurants.

It’s no secret that virtually all businesses have experienced hardships during the past two years, independent restaurants being no exception. While I may be a bit biased, I believe these small businesses were able to endure the shutdowns and quarantines because of some advantages that large corporations do not have.

For starters, independent restaurant operators can be more creative and maneuver more quickly than their larger competitors. Truly successful independent operators have survived during the COVID-19 pandemic because they have been motivated by the love of what they do.

The spirit of the independent operator is truly like no other, no matter how hard things get. They’ve had to install plexiglass shields, made their menus accessible by QR code, and rearranged seating to allow for social distancing. They’ve installed pickup windows and transformed indoor restaurants into outdoor facilities. Many eateries, notably fine-dining establishments, had never had to implement carry-out or temporary outdoor seating.

Cup of Ice Cream

From transforming parking lots into sit-down service areas to running carryout business via online delivery services such as DoorDash and Uber Eats, local restaurants persevered. They were able to successfully continue business, often more quickly than larger chain restaurants, because decisions could be made quickly without having to rely on corporate approval. The small “mom-and-pop” shops that survived were able to do so because they did not dwell on the situation, but rather did what was necessary.

As we move forward in a post-pandemic world, independent restaurant owners will continue to face challenges. With the cost of goods rising and the struggle to find employees ongoing, our beloved local restaurants will have a much harder time competing with the chain restaurants. I feel, however, that our local favorites will take it in stride – the trademark of the independent restaurateur.

In a small market such as Peoria, an independent restaurant trying to stay profitable must prioritize a few key elements:

  • Sell a quality product. While it may sound cliché, it is more critical now than ever. Independents cannot compete with the chain restaurants dollar for dollar, nor should they.
  • Service must be quick and excellent. Restaurateurs must design menus that are small and efficient. Sit-down dining in casual restaurants will likely look different. Fewer seating options and more focus on carryout will continue to trend, as that’s what this generation of diners wants. They enjoy eating at home but do not want to cook.
  • Keep overhead costs as low as possible. While prices are rising, it is still important to source high-quality ingredients. Building and adhering to a budget is incredibly important.
  • Successful restaurateurs will listen to customers and make staff a priority. Competitive pay, respect and inclusion are key to employee satisfaction. Happy employees typically translate to happy customers.

Left to right: For Frank, Sydney, Donna and Noah Abdnour, the Spotted Cow was truly a family business.

I firmly believe that there is an exorbitant amount of opportunity in the restaurant field, but business owners must have a passion for it. Passion is primary reason that independent operators enjoy an advantage over large corporations. Local owners who are in the building every day can create meaningful relationships with customers, so much so that the latter feel like a part of the business. While chain restaurants may have the money to spend on large marketing campaigns, those will never replace the feeling a customer gets walking into a shop where the owner greets them by name and makes them feel like they are the most important person there.

As someone who owned and operated an independent business for close to 30 years, the best piece of advice I can offer small restaurant owners is this: Never open your own restaurant for the money. Do it for the love of it, and the money will follow.

Frank Abdnour is the former owner of The Spotted Cow restaurant and ice cream parlor.