As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Eater checked in with Austin’s defining restaurants to see how the pandemic has affected business, service models, and more. Next up in this series: Michael Fojtasek, owner and executive chef of Southern restaurant Olamaie and Little Ola’s Biscuits.
Eater: How has COVID-19 pandemic affected business?
Michael Fojtasek: COVID has really put independent operators in challenging positions because we have fewer resources and lobbyists. We have begun to organize better, which is really wonderful.
Just to pick on them because they’re two blocks away, but Chick-fil-A is crushing it. I’m 100 percent confident in the quality of the product, the community engagement, and the way that we take care of our employees (we’re still paying health insurance for furloughed staff). Independent restaurants are doing it all with less resources while we watch drive-thrus have lines around the block.
What is the current service model?
Contactless curbside pickup biscuit shop. I don’t have any idea when we’re going to reopen the dining room here.
We were going to reopen the dining room on July 9. We had spent a good six weeks building systems, protocols, and training manuals about how we were going to train our team and hopefully keep everybody safe. But we saw the cases start to rise again that first weekend in July, and just said, “Okay, we don’t feel comfortable taking this on.” So we scrapped all of that work.
The idea of a biscuit shop has always been percolating in the back of my mind. My friend [North Carolina Southern chef] Ashley Christensen asked me a few years ago when I was going to open a biscuit shop. When it became abundantly clear that reopening felt unsafe, I started racking my brain, what do we do? And that’s when I said, “Okay, we’ve got a biscuit, we’re going to do this.”
We put Little Ola’s into hyperdrive and opened the biscuit shop on July 9 instead. We conceived a menu and pulled it together all within the course of about a week.
What measures are you currently implementing?
We do not allow anyone who is not wearing a mask into the building [Ed. note: customers stay in their cars for pickups, and the dining room is closed]. We are curbside and contactless, and are pretty rigid about our technique of placing the food in the car and our expectations around the guests.
In addition, we made a commitment to each other as a team to do our part to not put the rest of the team at risk. I haven’t been in a friend’s house or a restaurant since March.
What are some surprises that you’ve encountered?
We got our butts kicked on our first Saturday. We were not expecting the overwhelming response of orders, and we had a lot of people who waited far too long for their food. At the end of that first day, my general manager and I split the list and each of us wrote personal emails to customers apologizing.
One thing that’s really fascinating to me and wonderful is that Olamaie has 14,000 Instagram followers, and Little Ola’s Biscuits has somewhere around 5,000. But there are only about 115 that follow both accounts. It feels like we’re reaching more people. I’ve always wanted more diversity in so many ways at Olamaie, and it feels like we’re finally seeing some of that. Guests at Olamaie historically have not been a very diverse demographic. We are thrilled that Little Ola’s is proving to be accessible to people from many different backgrounds.
How has business been so far?
We were really fortunate. We got about six weeks of very busy. Before we opened Little Ola’s, I asked friends, like Fermín [Núñez of Mexican restaurant Suerte] and Fiore [Tedesco of Italian restaurant L’oca d’Oro], “What’s working for y’all?” Everybody had said that the initial period is very busy, but then it goes away. So after a month, I was like, “Wow, maybe, it won’t go away.” And then right around week seven, it was like, “Oh, here it is.”
We were working insane hours trying to keep up, and literally making biscuits all the time. We brought in more team in order to cover that need. And then, all of a sudden, the sales go away and you’re like, “Now I’m supposed to send these people back to furlough or, or let them go?”
Now it feels like the sales are slowly coming back, which is in line with historical sales data for this time of the year. It’s always slow in September, then, about halfway through October we see business start to come back.
Do you have any changes planned?
Little Ola’s is here to stay. When we reopen Olamaie, I’ll find another home for Little Ola’s.
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