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Toast owner Jessica Bufford: 'I'm a fighter'

Posted: 2:12 PM, Mar 26, 2020
Updated: 2020-03-26 14:12:08-04

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Jessica and Josh Bufford own Toast and Hutch restaurants in Henrico and a Toast restaurant in Chesterfield. In response to COVID-19, they have consolidated operations out of their Toast location in the Village Shopping Center at Three Chopt Road and Patterson Avenue in Henrico.

CBS 6 created a We're Open to shine a light on small businesses in an effort to support business owners and their work forces.

In an interview with Eat It, Virginia! co-host Scott Wise, Jessica Bufford talked about what Toast is doing to serve its community and its restaurant family. A lightly-edited version of their conversation is transcribed below:

Scott Wise
I can't imagine what you guys have been going through. Let's back up a little bit. A couple weeks. beginning of March, you're seeing headlines. Was it on your radar as a business owner?

Jessica Bufford
Oh, for sure. I mean, you know, we watched the news pretty regularly try to keep what's going on.

I mean, we definitely focused a lot on the reopen, we'd only been open for about two weeks come the first of March. So we had been focused on the reopen at this location and you know, had been kind of completely all consumed with that.

Scott Wise
Remind people what happened, why you guys had to reopen.

Jessica Bufford
So on October 16, we had a fire in our dish room at our original location in the near West End at Toast. And we were closed for four months minus a day. Not that I was counting.

We reopened the weekend of Valentine's Day here. So yeah, we've been you know about two weeks into just being all consumed with getting this place back up and running and, you know, started hearing about what was possibly happening or kind of what was going on.

I mean, you know, obviously you're like, okay, well, here's another flu, right? I mean, my daughter turned two, two weeks ago and when she was born, my son couldn't come into the hospital because the flu was so bad that winter. And so we just kind of felt like, okay, this is maybe nothing, maybe it's something and but we just, we kind of, we operate on a day to day basis, like, can we serve our guests today? Can we feed them? Can we feed people today?

So that's what we kept doing. And then obviously, last Monday is when it all kind of... it was before that... it was really, I guess it was almost two weeks ago, tomorrow when we really saw a drop in customers. It was that that weekend, that was like Thursday, Friday, Saturday, when it really kind of hit home.

Scott Wise
So, as a business owner, especially one with multiple locations, how many people do you employ?

Jessica Bufford
Just under 100.

Scott Wise
Walk me through what's going on in your brain as you're trying to figure out what's happening in the world and then what's happening in your world.

Jessica Bufford
We do have almost 100 employees, but we see all those employees almost every day.

I mean, Josh and I are fairly involved and especially with the reopen at this store, like I had been in the building 14 hours a day for almost a month at that point.

And so we had to stop and think about them and also think about their safety. But also we're responsible for their livelihoods. Especially when we decided to close the dining room, and we have temporarily closed the other two stores. So this is the only store that we're operating out of right now. We had to lay some folks off.

Fortunately for us, in the past couple of days, the curbside takeout and delivery has gotten so busy that we've called a few of the employees back on. We've already been able to rehire some folks, which has been great.

We hope that continues. We're obviously a little bit nervous about when will our customers start to feel an economic impact. There's a huge push right now and all that stuff and people really trying to to support local, which is absolutely amazing, but we worry about how long is that sustainable for folks to go out to eat on a regular basis, right?

When will our customers start to feel an economic impact? We feel like every day, we're having to adapt every day, we're having to change the way that we're doing something or bring people back or change their jobs.

We've got people doing everything. Our marketing director is answering the phone and taking takeout orders every day.

Scott Wise
Let's talk about that a little more.

The decision to do take out. What exactly that entail and how has it changed since that first day?

Jessica Bufford
We've always done a pretty decent takeout business at all of our stores and probably about six or eight months ago, due to customer demand, we launched delivery at the two Toast locations.

We were using a third party for that, like UberEats, GrubHub, Doordash and so bringing those on like six or eight months ago forced us to kind of get our takeout game tight.

So we felt like this transition for us wasn't as difficult as I think it has been for a lot of like for a lot of restaurants in town that weren't super takeout heavy.

I mean, we weren't takeout heavy per say, but being on those delivery platforms had forced us to to kind of hone that in and really like tighten up that game, so that transition wasn't super difficult for us.

The hardest part from a logistics standpoint, you've got a dining room, you've got a certain number of customers you've got you know. We can seat 95 people, plus the bar in this store and so we know that our kitchen can handle at full capacity, this many orders.

Well when you're doing just takeout and delivery on Friday night, in our restaurant when it's super busy on a Friday night we do 250 covers.

We figured it out, on Friday night before 8:30 we had 400 orders come in. It's fantastic, obviously for us and it was great, but it's hard for us to learn how to throttle that business.

Do we really tell somebody, it's going to be an hour before they can come get their food. We're like, we don't do that. You know? It's like learning that stuff has been hard for us.

We want to give people hot, delicious food, so that it shows up at home and they open it up and it's like they're here. But that's hard to do, especially if you didn't write a menu.

None of us. I mean, not none, but I would say the majority of the people in this industry didn't necessarily get into it to throw food in a cardboard box right? Ambiance is a really big deal to us like the experience and the service and all that stuff.

And so it's kind of taking more of a toll on me than it is some of our staff, but after being really busy and l just feel like, we call it getting punched in the mouth, after feeling like we've gotten punched in the mouth during service, it's like, I walk out in the dining room and the lights are right, and the music is right, and you see guests eating, and you see the whole experience and that's so uplifting.

Like, that's the reason that we do it.

And so it's a little weird to be like, okay, let's, let's throw the stuff in a box in a bag and just like go, you know. But it's amazing that people are wanting, that are calling and just like continually supporting us through all of this.

I mean, it's we're so fortunate to have such great guests.

Scott Wise
You say it's taking a toll on you.

You're obviously a parent, you're a child. You have a restaurant family, how are you keeping it together?

Jessica Bufford
That is a great question, actually?

I was I was texting with your "Eat It, Virginia!" cohort Robey Martin yesterday and she asked how I was doing.

And I wrote, there may have been a couple of expletives that I won't share right now, but I was like I'm a fighter. We're not going to go down without a fight. We're not going to go down without trying to figure out how to adapt and how to at least keep some of our staff employed.

Right now, we probably got about 25 people that are, you know, regularly like coming in. I mean, they're, they're not working full time by any means. But we're just, we're communicating with the staff daily. We're updating them on like the Senate bills that are being passed and we're updating them on unemployment stuff, just that if I can't give them work right now, I at least feel and Josh feels the same way, we feel obligated to at least help them walk through this.

None of us have been through this, obviously. But if we have the ability to take in this information and try to kind of help guide our staff through this, then we're, we're morally obligated to do that for sure.

And also, we hope that this is short lived, we hope at the end of these 30 days, that maybe this changes some and we're allowed to expand, open up the other stores to do even if it's takeout or delivery or whatever.

But you know, it's hard.

It's hard not being this like big corporation where I can say, sure, I can pay everyone to work from home, like, you know, we can't, we can't do that.

I mean, and my kids, my kids are like, Mommy's going to work today. You know, they've been used to it. I've been here so much before with the reopen, but they're two and four and a half. And so obviously, their preschool closed, but I have an amazing support system, so they're there with their GiGi most days and they're, you know like, 'Mommy, we don't want Toast food anymore.'

Scott Wise
How about the dessert?

Jessica Bufford
They're like, "We want GiGi's cake."

Scott Wise
Is that your mom who makes the desserts or Josh's?

Jessica Bufford
It's mine. Yeah, it's my mom.

Scott Wise
She's still working or what's up? What's happening?

Jessica Bufford
She's coming in like once like one day a week.

Scott Wise
Come on GiGi!

Jessica Bufford
Like, raise my children, make our desserts, do all those things.

She's obviously trying to kind of stay out of the public right now too.

Scott Wise
So if people want to support Toast, can you talk to them about what kind of menu items you guys are offering these days. How do they order? What's the best way to do it?

Jessica Bufford
So we're still offering our full menu.

We felt like it was really important through all this to stay as true as possible to our concept and who we are and what we are. So as of right now, and come hell or high water, we're going to try real hard to serve the regular menu.

We're doing some specials throughout the week, like on Monday we did Kids Eat Free because this has got to take, I mean, this takes a toll on our customers as well. So if we can offer some things like that we've done, buy two sandwiches get one free kind of things for lunch. And so we're doing some of that hopefully to kind of help our guests too.

And if it keeps us moving, and it allows me to staff a little bit more and have some more people in the building and at least just like try to make ends meet for these like 30 days then, that's okay.

I mean, we've still got rent due at the other stores that aren't open right now. We're just going to do whatever we can. That's why we're selling cheap wine. We've got this inventory. We're sitting on it here. It's not doing us any good. If we can move this and try to sell it create some cash flow, hopefully help to sustain the employees, then why not?

So every day we're like, okay, what can we do today that's a little bit different, that will either motivate people to want to dine with us, or what can we do to take what we've got in the building and move it, even if it's a low price, so that our guests who were like, 'Hey, I don't want to go the grocery store,' then just get a $10 bottle of wine from us with your takeout.

Scott Wise
You said 30 days twice, which is interesting.

Jessica Bufford
just have to stay positive.

So it's like I said, every day we've got new information, right, everything. And so not less than 48 hours ago, Governor Northam stood there and he said we're doing this, this is the next 30 days.

Because really, just last week, it felt like it was a game of chicken. Not a game of chicken, that's probably not right, but it's like, what's the right thing for us to do?

Nobody's really telling us. Obviously, we want to be responsible.

We care about the health of our guests and the health of our staff.

Just have to stay positive.

But I mean, if I can run this place with four to five people in it, and still be able to at least create some income so that these 100 people have a place to come back to to work. Because the other answer is, if this is 60 or 90 days, or however long this is, I've got to do everything possible for my family and for these people, to try to have a place for them to come back to, because we don't know what it looks like on the other side of this for sure.

I am the owner of these restaurants. I want to be the owner of these restaurants for as long as I can be. And so doing whatever I can do to try to make sure that they're here for these people to come back to work and for guests to come back to, that's what I got to do.

I know it's probably not 30 days. But that's what he said, so that's what I'm going with for now. And then when when more information comes out, and when we're told, when we're given more direction, then we'll follow that direction.

Scott Wise
What is the best way for people to order food from Toast?

Jessica Bufford
So right now it is calling. We are working on online ordering, so we're hoping in the next three to four days, we can flip to online ordering.

We are working to bring some more of our staff back and start bringing delivery in house, so I can bring on some more employees and get them on to be delivery drivers.

I know there's a lot of free delivery stuff going on out there with UberEats and DoorDash and GrubHub. All those guys are still charging the restaurants the 25 to 35% fees.

So, if that is how people need to get it, then that is totally fine with us. We still have it all activated, we're still cooking that food. But we're going to try to bring delivery in house, so we can take the fees that we're paying and put those back in the pockets of our employees instead.

We're open seven days a week right now from 11 a.m. until 8:30 p.m.

I will say on Friday and Saturday nights, we may try to serve a little bit later than that. Our website is the best place to go, we're keeping that as updated as possible.

Scott Wise
How has response been from the community and the guests?

Jessica Bufford
Oh my gosh, absolutely amazing.

It's funny, you know, they'll call and say, 'You guys doing okay?'

It's like, like the first thing that a lot of people say.

Scott Wise
We're concerned about you!

Jessica Bufford
I know, and it's amazing.

They're like, "We're so glad that you're still open" and I'm like, "I'm gonna be here serving sweet potato tots until they're no sweet potato tots to be served."

But people have been amazing and supportive of our staff.

We've had a couple folks say, "Hey, I've got a cleaning company that's still busy right now, do you have any employees looking for work?"

People are just so awesome and have been very supportive and very kind.

Everybody's confused right now. You know, it's not just us, everybody feels like what are we doing? You know, sure you're working from home, but your kids are home. What are people doing with their kids? How are you getting any work done from home? So we're not the only people suffering.

I mean, small business owners are definitely taking the brunt of it at the moment, but we know that there's a lot of people that are suffering and so we keep looking at it as if we can be here to serve people hot, yummy food and bring it to their car then that's it we're gonna do.

Scott Wise
Can I put my order in now or should I call later?

Jessica Bufford
For sure you can go ahead. I'll put it on hold for you. No problem.