A graduate of Red River College’s Culinary Arts Honours program, Chef Jesse Friesen has never slowed down, no matter the climate of Winnipeg’s weather or food scene.Read Bio
Around this time last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to have serious repercussions for Calgary, Alberta’s, foodservice community, #ForChefsByChefs feature chef-owners Connie DeSousa and John Jackson took a staff-first approach before even touching a takeout plan or browsing available app services.
“The first thing we did, before we did anything like curbside pick-up, was get food out to the people who needed it the most and that was our staff. We’d had so much inventory when the pandemic first took a hold of the world but we were in constant communication with all of our staff, including those we had to lay off. Through our communication tool, which is also our scheduling tool, we set up care packages for them using our inventory,” said Jackson.
To get to see their multiple businesses — CHARCUT, charbar, Chix Eggshop, Rooftop Bar Simmons and Alley Burger — open again fully in the future, the pair would have to tackle the pivot to takeout, a business stream they had never previously established for their restaurants.
“Before we first locked down, we were operating free-standing restaurants doing full-service. We didn’t use any third-party apps, we had no online [e-commerce] presence. They were sit-down experience restaurants with zero other revenue sources,” noted DeSousa.
Two major focuses for their restaurant group became retain senior leadership members, plus additional laid-off staff whenever possible, and minimize loss.
“We had to figure out a way to generate some revenue to help support maintaining our leadership team with a limited amount of cash reserve. We also had to look at, ‘if this lasts a year, what is the most we can lose every month?’ We weren’t looking at breaking even, we were looking at minimizing the losses to keep the team in place for as long as we could,” Jackson explained.
Before the shutdowns began, DeSousa and Jackson had planned to open a pizza place the following year. These plans soon became expedited by the pandemic.
“We already had a well-thought-out concept that was based on delivery and takeout so we fast-forwarded it and planned to move it into our empty charbar events kitchen. When we’d reached out to our supplier with the idea, they told us, ‘whatever you need, we’ll get it shipped out to you, worry about the costs later.’ The kindness brought tears to my eyes,” beamed DeSousa.
“We did a by-the-slice pizza pop-up first out of the window of the Simmons building, had hundreds of guests in a socially distanced lineup and sold out in an hour and a half. When we did it again the following week, we had a line-up twice as big and cooked twice as much pizza. That’s when we really knew we had something and fully launched Connie & John Pizza two weeks later,” said Jackson.
As for what the future could hold, the two remain optimistic, not only for themselves but for their fellow restaurateurs.
“As chefs, we have the ability to think on the fly thanks to our creativity combined with our business acumen. I don’t believe there are too many industries that have that same ability to create new things at the speed we can,” Jackson noted. “There’s a lot that sucks right now for our industry, but we’re keeping positive and have high spirits for now. In theory, when revenues start coming back upon reopening, it’s just a matter of time before we will all be in a better position.”
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