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Restaurant Outlook: Clifton Brown

Owner/Operator, Neighbor's Mill Bakery & Cafe

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Clifton Brown co-owns Neighbor’s Mill, a fast-casual restaurant with two Springfield stores and a network of wholesale clients for breads and baked goods.

SBJ: Recent Yelp data show a rise in new restaurants and food businesses opening in COVID-19-friendly models, like grab-and-go, food trucks or all-outdoor dining. Is this a sign of optimism in the industry?
Brown: Scrappiness means a lot of people are saying, “We can do this kind of concept, and it would be much easier to operate in a COVID world.” For a lot of us small or independent restaurant owners, those are things that get us excited – thinking about new concepts or how we can make this work. There are a number of people in the restaurant industry who are really good at solving problems.

SBJ: How do restaurants transfer their unique dining experiences to curbside orders?
Brown: That’s where the to-go packaging and the consistency in the supply chain is even more important because customers aren’t coming in for the full experience. We need to make sure that everything sings when they get home. Nailing customer service and how things are packaged, that’s going to become even more important. Those things before were like a bland vehicle just to get us to a point. Now, that vehicle has to be a Ferrari. It has to look really good in order for that experience to translate.

SBJ: Delivery apps on average charge a 30% processing fee. In an industry with margins of 3%-5%, how do small businesses stay viable?
Brown: Predatory is the best word for that. We are constantly saying no to DoorDash and Uber Eats because their percentages are sky high and margins are already paper thin. We’ve found ourselves during the pandemic making home deliveries ourselves and encouraging people to spend a certain amount so we will bring their food to them.

SBJ: A fourth of the first round of Paycheck Protection Program loans reportedly went to 1% of businesses, many of which were large restaurant chains. Where does that leave the independent restaurant community?
Brown: I know from other restaurant owners, myself included, it will certainly make us think twice about ever eating at those restaurants. Everyone’s looking for some kind of relief, so I certainly don’t blame them for wanting it. But what exactly is this doing to our small businesses where the owners actually live in Springfield, pay taxes in Springfield, and work and play in Springfield? That to me is the ultimate question I want consumers to ask themselves. I wish that those bigger restaurants would let the smaller businesses have a shot. How are we supposed to survive if we go to drink out of the fountain and it’s dry?

SBJ: The pandemic has ignited conversations around wages, paid sick leave and health insurance for restaurant workers. How do you see that discussion taking shape post-pandemic?
Brown: Going into a new presidency, that conversation is going to become even more pointed and apparent. The more those conversations happen, the more the pressure is put on ownership to make sure that conditions for workers are good. It’s been a struggle. As much as we would love to provide insurance for our employees, it would put us out of business.

SBJ: What’s your take on current consumer behavior?
Brown: I hope that there is a shift in focus on how to be a good consumer to those who are preparing your food and anyone who is providing that needed, essential service. We’ve had so many great interactions with customers this past year, but we’ve also had customers who have been very disingenuous and ugly, and it’s been frustrating. I hope 2021 brings a focus on how to be gracious.

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