Bellefield Restaurant pivots to face COVID-19 challenge


Bellefield Restaurant pivots to face COVID-19 challenge


Sunday, May 17, 2020

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Since the beginning of Jamaica's coronavirus crisis the Bellefield Restaurant and Bar, located on the Bellefield Great House property in Montego Bay, has executed an impressive business pivot that has captured the attention of local consumers. The restaurant has kept its core business but now also sells farm produce, dry goods, meat and other food supplies directly to customers.

This change began in March after the Government declared that, as part of the country's COVID-19 partial lockdown, restaurants would be limited to providing takeout and delivery services only. Robbie Joseph Jr, the 30-year-old managing director and one of the owners of the Bellefield restaurant, was preoccupied but refused to be daunted by the financial gravity of the situation.

He knew, however, that being limited to takeout and delivery would be a massive financial blow to the organisation, and at the beginning of the lockdown he was forced to lay off his staff. But instead of accepting this new reality for the company he immediately set about creating an alternative one.

He called a management meeting following the Government's announcement.

“We need to decide a shift now before it's too late,” he told his team.

While other restaurants began aggressively promoting takeout services Joseph Jr was thinking outside the box. His other restaurant, Ol' Joe, which was already an over-the-counter quick-service restaurant in Montego Bay, began offering kerbside delivery, and Bellefield also started pushing takeout meals. But he knew this would not be enough to successfully withstand weeks or even months of lockdown.

“If I am a consumer knowing that I will potentially lose my job or have less of an income, what would influence my spend?” he asked in the meeting. “What would be the contributing factors to me making a decision on how to spend my money?”

The managing director points out that a restaurant is not a necessity-based commodity and that when people have disposable income it is better to eat out than prepare a meal. But when a crisis like COVID-19 happens and there is a contraction in the flow of money, he believes the basic necessities become the focus.

“I said, OK, let us break down what we do to the bare essentials,” he explained. “We started with the raw materials we use in the restaurant business. We called up different suppliers and I knew that most of them would have difficulty moving products because of the collapse of the tourism industry.”

These companies now had a mass of products whose traditional buyers had virtually disappeared overnight. Many of their products had an expiration date and the clock was ticking. The companies were naturally eager to negotiate with anyone who was willing to buy.

Bellefield began acquiring meats, farm produce, dry goods, eggs and packaged snacks from suppliers and farmers all over the island and creating a variety of food bundles for its customers. Some of these suppliers were selling bundles themselves, but based on their limited range of products some bundles were not ideally suited to the customer, either missing items they needed or containing items that were not wanted.

“It comes down to essentials and how far something can stretch, so when we work out bundles we work out bundles based on something we would use, not necessarily from the point of view as a distributor or a manufacturing entity trying to move excess,” the restaurateur explained. “When we put together a dry goods bundle we try to put as many different things, from rice and flour and sugar and oats and canned goods, so that we know that when you have that it can last you for at least a couple different meals.

“It can interchange with things, so if you buy a dry goods bundle and you buy one of the meat bundles, at least you know you can create different meals with two of the bundles for a couple days. And everything in there can be used for some purpose.”

Customers were immediately drawn to the new products and the phone has been ringing every single day at Bellefield since the start of the project, according to Joseph Jr.

“Customers want to know about the bundles that they've seen in our flyers somewhere,” he said in reference to the calls. “They want to know if [the bundles are] ongoing.”

The initial response came from the clients who were accustomed to dining at the restaurant who now had a critical need for these new products because of the ongoing crisis. Also, the restaurant was delivering the goods directly to customers' cars when they arrived on property and this proved attractive in the face of social distancing measures, which were ongoing.

The news spread fast through word of mouth and social media and soon there were lines of cars on the property each day with customers from various parts of the north coast city.

And the incoming telephone calls were not just from customers but from more suppliers eagerly seeking an outlet for their products. Negotiations have been ongoing with distributors and farmers all over the island who want to move their goods.

One company reached out to Bellefield informing them that it had an excess of cream cheese and certain dairy products. Bellefield, not forgetting its core restaurant business, created a cheesecake special which generated orders for days.

Whatever the product, if there is a viable way to move it to market in some form, it attempts to do it.

“Every day somebody approaches us with something,” Joseph Jr revealed. “For example, we recently spoke to a farmer with honey, so we have to see how best we can integrate it with something and work it so that the customer gets the most value out of the whole transaction.”

Having a growing variety of suppliers means that new, higher-quality bundles can be created to satisfy various nutritional needs.

“We started with Best Dressed Chicken and I said, OK, let us start with chicken which we know from experience with Ol' Joe and catering is 70 per cent of your market,” the young entrepreneur related. “The majority of the time 70 per cent of the market will eat chicken or chicken-based products more than any other product.”

“I was in dialogue with the farmers at the same time because I was trying to find complementing packages so if you have your meat and you have the farm produce it kind of works hand in hand,” he continued.

Since executing its pivot in the marketplace Bellefield has been able to reemploy 50 per cent of the staff that it was forced to lay off at the beginning of the lockdown in March. They are currently not at their full salaries and the intention is to get them up to their pre-coronavirus salaries before bringing back more of the staff.

“For me, it is not about profit right now, it is really and truly about paying expenses, giving some people employment and trying to bring back as many as possible and to keep the wheels turning,” Joseph Jr stated. “It is important to keep the wheels of the company turning. If you stop now there may never be a way back.”

The managing director also believes that what Bellefield is doing sends a strong, positive message not just to employees but to customers and the wider community.

“It is more important to be relevant right now and to be providing some sort of value to your customers so that they can say you have adjusted to meet us in our most crucial times rather than trying to take every dollar from us,” he said. “So most of our mark-ups are way below wholesale markets, way below supermarkets.”

The changes that have been made at Bellefield are not short-term shifts. Joseph Jr believes that the new services and products will continue to be appreciated in the post-coronavirus reality.

“Nobody can know that something like a coronavirus can't happen again, so it wouldn't make sense to create a whole new revenue stream or market and then drop it based on things seeming like they will go back to normal,” he pointed out, adding that the new products and services will still remain convenient “if you remain consistent with your prices being attractive and the quality of what you are selling and if you constantly innovate and ask, 'Are there things we can add to this whole experience?'”

To that end, Bellefield has started building a farmers' market on the property where an old horse stable is located. Customers will be able to come in and choose the produce they want in the quantity they want. The decision stemmed from the realisation that even though the bundles have been successful, a lot of people still want to see the products that they are purchasing beforehand and they want to choose specific quantities.

The market will be specially constructed with drive-up and drive-through kerbside concepts taking into consideration social distancing as the new norm.

In the meantime, the company continues to improve the variety and range of its bundles and is talking to supply partners about creating a soup bundle.

The Bellefield team is also looking at creating frozen and pre-seasoned meals from some of the products.

“We have to convert these products,” Joseph Jr insisted. “If you can't move them as is, you have to put them into another form that makes it more appealing and easier to work with.”

From the restaurant operations which continue with takeout service to the growing food bundle operation and future farmers' market, Bellefield's tale has been one of radical adaptation to the COVID-19 crisis. It has gone from restaurant to a combination of market, wholesale and supermarket.

“Every day is a constant reinvention because every day something changes,” Joseph Jr revealed. “You have to be constantly reinventing yourself to be relevant and to offer something people see as a necessity and not just a want.

“You can't reach everybody because you have to sort out what makes sense financially, but if you pay attention people are telling you what they want.”

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