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Richmond restaurant owner says pandemic offered 'real opportunity' to try new things

Richmond
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Posted at 7:02 PM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 19:02:42-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- This week last year, Patrick Phelan and the staff at Longoven in Scotts Addition had zero idea about the challenges they would face. The fine-dining establishment was one of the first restaurants in Richmond to close its doors when news of a novel coronavirus spreading in Virginia surfaced.

“I mean, I maybe thought we’d be closed for two months. We really just didn’t know anything,” Phelan, a co-owner at Longoven said Wednesday, almost a year to the day they shut down for the first time.

The year of COVID-19 has been a constant shuffle of reinvention and recalibration on almost a weekly basis for businesses across all industries in Central Virginia and beyond. Even months into constant social distancing, mask requirements, and limited in-door seating, Phelan said it is hard to truly reflect on what this time meant his business past keeping their doors open and employees on the payroll.

“I think COVID will be, hopefully, like a root canal. You remember it being painful, but it’s hard to go back and really remember it happening,” he said. “Every week, just sat down and said: OK, what do we have up our sleeve this week at people might want to eat or drink? And just kept going.”

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Patrick Phelan, a co-owner at Longoven

Professor Robert Kelley with the VCU School of Business said no matter the business model, the pandemic has laid bare in a very real way a key business principle.

“There’s a Darwinian theory of economic survival. Darwin always said it’s not the strongest who survive, it’s not the smartest, it’s the most adaptive to change,” Kelley said. “It’s been very different per industry, but fundamentally it’s about being able to adapt to change.”

Certain industries, like construction and design, have performed well throughout the pandemic, Kelley said. He also pointed to companies that were positioned for online ordering and delivery, on the largest possible scale: a business like Amazon, prior to the pandemic.

The question moving forward, according to Kelley, is which consumer behaviors will stick around even once life returns to some semblance of “normal.” BOPIS (buy online pickup in store), curbside and front door delivery options in new industries, and the “cloud kitchen” concept have all grown in popularity out of necessity over the past year.

The Great Recession led to the creation of companies like AirBnB and Uber, and Kelley expects a similar level of innovation when economic prospects eventually turn around for more Americans.

“That’s the million-dollar question right now: what behavior will become embedded in our repertoire of sorts, and what behavior will we revert back to the way we were? Companies are trying to figure that out right now,” Kelley said. “It seems like when we go through this period of pain and we go down in the valley, that’s when us, as a nation, as a society, our creative juices start flowing.”

Kelley specializes in strategic management and organizational culture, two topics he said have seen massive change over the past year. Kelley is now advising business to develop a short-term strategic plan along with the traditional multi-year strategic plan.

“Normally, you’re looking out three to five years, and you might recalibrate every year,” he said. “Part of me feels like it’s [now] short- and long-term thinking. Short term is 12-18 months. Long term is maybe even eight years out: six, seven, eight years, particularly if you’re going to have to have to reposition your business model in a big way.”

Businesses cannot lose sight of developing a culture that is supportive of their employees, Kelley said, despite the challenges of connecting virtually: “You can do strategy remotely like this, but navigating culture and doing culture work remotely, I think, is very difficult.”

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Longoven

For Phelan, the pandemic has honed his appreciation for the people that help make the restaurant tick, especially with the fluctuating cash flow of the past year.

“For me, I just scaled everything down. I saw how many people we were doing on the patio, we hired as many people as we needed, and we took care of that small team,” Phelan said. “Equitability and our well-being and the fulfillment that matters in this restaurant has got to be in that staff meeting each week, as much as the bottom line.”

Online ordering, menus through QR codes on smartphones, and other new ways of connecting with customers are trends Phelan said will likely stick in the restaurant industry as a whole and definitely at Longoven. Without diminishing the difficulties of the past year, he said the pandemic has opened up new ways of operating they might not have considered otherwise.

“When you’re running a business, your kind of like riding on a bike, and you rarely get the chance to step off and tinker with it. COVID basically blew the bike into pieces,” he said. “A real opportunity to stop and consider how we wanted this bike to go down the street.”

Longoven closed for the winter, except for several special events around holidays, but will reopen for reservations on their new patio March 19.