To Save His Restaurant Empire, This Tampa Chef Shut It All Down
Ferrell Alvarez is scrambling to bring his staff back to work by building entirely new concepts. “We’re one dream, one team here,” he said.
Anxiety—it’s what’s on the menu for just about everybody in the restaurant business right now, and Ferrell Alvarez, one of the most celebrated chefs in the Tampa Bay region and also one of the most positive people you will ever meet in this perilous-on-a-good-day industry, would like to make it clear that he is also freaking out. But not entirely.
Nothing is normal, and like many restaurant owners, Alvarez and partner Ty Rodriguez, co-owners of Tampa’s Proper House Group, have been worrying—where will they be in a few weeks, if this keeps up? Their fledgling restaurant empire has grown considerably over the past couple of years, from one location, Rooster & The Till, to include a second restaurant, and two taquerias. All that work, maybe now for nothing?
On top of that, Alvarez quickly realized, along with a growing number of Americans, that this was about so much more than business. That he had a responsibility. Not only to his employees, but also to the community.
“Maintaining a gathering place that would continue to promote the virus—this was absolutely off the table,” said Alvarez. He knew they needed to close, and he wanted to do it sooner than later.
Shutting it all down, and going home—that was one option, but it just didn’t feel right. After some lightning-fast brainstorming, a decision was made. The restaurants would close, they had to, they couldn’t afford to keep the entire staff anyway, not at the moment, but he’d create an entirely new restaurant, at Rooster & The Till, and try to earn enough money to bring everyone back to work.
Thus was born Rooster Re-Dux, featuring abbreviated menus from all three concepts, for take-out and delivery. There is a $20, three-course tasting menu from Rooster & The TIll, taco platters from Gallito, Korean cheese steaks from Nebraska Mini-Mart.
First, the very hard part—sending 41 of his 50-plus employees home, but with a promise—we will scale this up, and we will call you back, as soon as we do. The remaining employees would all agree to work a set shift-fee, equal across the board, general manager to sous chef; significantly less than usual, but at least everyone was in it together.
“We’re one dream, one team here,” said Alvarez, but he knew this was stretching that concept, and even while trying to stay in cheerleader mode, he was also prepared for the worst. He couldn’t even gather the group together, given the situation, to deliver the news, so he sent out a ten-minute video, via email, detailing his plan. The reaction was overwhelming.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of positivity from the people I’d just had to lay off, people asking how they can help, can they work for free,” Alvarez recounted. “Chef, Ty, they said, we’ll do what we need to do, to make this thing happen. I was taken aback in the best way possible.”
Immediately, they set to work. Alvarez called everyone he could think of in the local press, every blogger and influencer he knew he could count on, he drew up a release, an email blast, and created new graphics, all in-house, and opened up shop, 11 in the morning to nine at night, seven days a week, hoping against hope that they’d bring enough money in, to be able to call more and more people back to work. The first day, they hit the ground running with five people.
“I thought that’s what we needed, but we already have nine people working, trying to keep up,” said Alvarez. By the end of the first shift, they were sold out completely.
Alvarez is cautiously optimistic, but it certainly appears that they’ve landed on something. Here, he offers some advice to other restaurant owners who might be feeling backed into a corner right now.
Don’t do nothing.
"This is worse than doing the wrong thing. Most restaurateurs aren’t scared, that’s why we’re in this business to begin with; it’s important to do something, do something positive, don’t be scared, think of a concept that is unique for your area, and people is going to pay attention, you’re going to capture more business, you’re going to create work for your employees."
Start by combing through your financials.
"Look at your debt, your cash on hand, and make a really educated decision based on finances, first and foremost. What is important is that the company sustains through this, and remains in business afterward. If you only stay open to pay your employees now, when the virus is done, you are also done, and they are out of a job."
Send people home.
"Put people on leave, and then bring them back as you can. I understand the pull, I feel a responsibility to my people, but you don’t want to cannibalize yourself."
Longevity is so much more important than a couple of weeks pay.
"If we employ who we can now, adding to that list as fast as we can, when this is over, we’ll have all four restaurants, and they’ll all come back, stronger than ever—this is so much more powerful than two weeks pay. If we go under, then we all have to start all over again. We all want to live through this, literally and figuratively."
See this as an opportunity to build something great.
"I’m hoping that the silver lining to all this madness is that it shakes us all and wakes us up enough to start doing the right thing by each other—you know how during hurricanes, everyone’s so nice, and three months later, that all dissolves and we all go back to being assholes? I’m hoping this jostles us—all of us—in the most positive way."