Springfield, MO

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With three entities on Commercial Street, Joe Gidman closely monitors consumer trends in small business.
McKenzie Robinson | SBJ
With three entities on Commercial Street, Joe Gidman closely monitors consumer trends in small business.

Restaurant & Retail Outlook: Joe Gidman

Owner, Cafe Cusco, Van Gogh’s Eeterie and Chabom Tea & Spices

Posted online

2022 Projection: As big business tries to streamline things and do things more efficient and direct consumers to a smaller amount of products, hopefully people push back and like variety, handmade and locally owned. We will not give up on the small stores and locally owned restaurants, and we will build neighborhoods we can walk in and find things very unique to regions.

The struggle for restaurants to stay in business has been well documented these past couple of years – more than 10% of all establishments were pandemic casualties, according to the National Restaurant Association. Was closure a threat for your eateries?
Absolutely, yeah. If we hadn’t received the (Paycheck Protection Program) loans or some of the local grants, we would have absolutely been out of business. When we first closed down, like most restaurants, we were operating on 30-90 days in arrears on bills. Three months of expenses with no money coming in wipes out your bank account super fast.

Are you experiencing any rebounds or silver linings in business?
When we did reopen, we could see a very clear difference between one restaurant that was very well established and one that was very new. Van Gogh’s was not even 2 years old at that point. Brand loyalty played a big role in that. Cusco rebounded super fast. I think when people had a fear of losing their favorite place, they went overboard to protect their favorite places. The silver lining with Van Gogh’s is that when I first opened, we had high expectations in Springfield; people knew Cusco. Our first year, honestly, we were very overwhelmed with business and had gotten a lot of bad reviews. When we kind of got a fresh start in the pandemic and people were rediscovering us, it allowed us to focus a lot more on customer service and making changes to our menu and atmosphere. The setback let us hit the refresh button. I was lucky because (Cusco) was so established, I could financially carry through that. With retail at the tea shop, we had always wanted to expand our online presence and we never really had the time or money. With the shutdown and the PPP money, we were able to pay some of our staff to redevelop and build our online store and have commercials and advertising made and put (them) on Spotify, Pandora and YouTube in affluent neighborhoods around the country. Our online sales boomed.

Industry insiders say the restaurant business is on a revitalization path now. What does that mean to you? What might that look like locally?
I have mixed feelings on that. When my dreams were to open a restaurant, I envisioned a place where people sit down dining, talking to their neighbors. Going into the pandemic and almost being forced to limit your menu selection and focus on to-go orders, it’s not the restaurant I ever wanted to have. But I do see a lot of restaurants moving toward ghost kitchens, where they operate a separate brand and putting out one or two items at most. They sell a variety of the same item, different iterations. I think that’ll continue. It’s just not what I dreamed of in wanting to be a restaurateur. My worry is that people whose passion is to operate more full service, more fine dining, they may not exist the same as they did. It may be hard for restaurateurs to put their hearts into that. Personally, I hope there is another revitalization and people go back to the traditional sit-down, full-service atmosphere.

The restaurant industry took a beating in worker and supply shortages during the pandemic. How did that affect you?
We’ve never been so short on employees that we’ve had to close. If anything, we’ve had to hire more staff as we’ve gotten busier. We’ve had to increase wages. Labor and the cost of product have been the No. 1 increases. Profit margins are definitely a lot lower, but we are busier. I do feel like in a lot of ways the quality of our worker is better. With the labor shortages, you kind of get tired of people who don’t interview well, don’t show up for interviews, don’t last very long. It’s trained us to be keener when we are interviewing to try and pinpoint employees we feel will work harder and be more loyal. I think you’re a little more astute at finding a good employee.

Restaurant analysts say, historically, 1 out of every 4 sales dollars in the industry comes from travel and tourism. Does that hold true in the Springfield market?
I agree with that 100%. People definitely are traveling. A greater amount of people are choosing to drive some place to stay locally than to fly or go overseas. They’re more likely to pass through Springfield, and they’re going to want to eat. They want to find the locally owned and unique environments. Tourism and travelers are a huge backbone in all three of our businesses. And I think that will continue. It’s a domino effect. As people travel, they leave reviews. Word of mouth is on the internet these days. And that word of mouth doesn’t disappear.

What new retail shopping habits have you seen through your Chabom Tea & Spices store?
My retail store is a very niche market. We do get a lot more requests now for product not necessarily made in China. I don’t know if it’s related to COVID or the fact that, simultaneously, we’ve been in an economic cold war with China for several years. But people aren’t specifically asking for American-made products. They’re asking for stuff from Japan, India, Africa. China has been a producer and we’ve been a consumer; I feel like this has caused people to spread their thinking out, realizing we need to consume from other parts of the world evenly.


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