SC Biz News is speaking with small businesses and community leaders about the impact of the new coronavirus on business and industry, and how this is changing how they operate.
Contact Melinda Waldrop, [email protected], with any questions or ideas.
The new coronavirus outbreak may have pushed back Robbie Robinson’s already deliberate plans to turn his popular barbecue food truck into a brick-and-mortar location, but he doesn’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.
A CPA when he’s not peddling smoked brisket, pulled pork or chicken wings from his rolling City Limits Barbeque operation, Robinson had been approaching his goal of a sit-down restaurant with caution well before the COVID-19 crisis.
“I’ve done a significant amount of planning, and one of the concerns I’ve had over the last two years has been the momentum of the economy and the market in general,” said Robinson, a Lexington native whose food truck and 1,000-gallon smoker draw long lines when they appear at area establishments. “From my experience, markets are cyclical. We don’t know when they’re going to cycle, but we know that they’re cyclical. So despite how great the economy has been, I’ve had in the back of my mind some concern that I need to make sure that if we go brick-and-mortar, I am sufficiently prepared for some type of market downturn.”
While coronavirus concerns are “more you got punched in the gut and now you’re out of breath versus just a little breather, I’m looking at it as this a trough in the market,” Robinson said. “I’m glad that I’m not ahead of schedule and currently a brick-and-mortar and suffering through this at the moment. I’m looking to come out of this, on the other side of this turmoil, and I feel that I’ll be in much better position than all the brick-and-mortars that had to go through this, from a capital perspective.”
Robinson said he and his already slim food truck staff have not had to make many logistical changes in light of the coronavirus outbreak and the disruption it has caused, including an order by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster issued Tuesday shutting down sit-down dining. He feels for friends in that industry, including a chef buddy whose Augusta restaurant held its grand opening on March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and offers them business advice on his Instagram.
“In my real world, I deal with a lot of risk assessment, business risk assessment, and so I’m acutely aware of many things in the economy,” Robinson said. “I’m looking at it at a granular level and trying to figure out how an industry proceeds but also how do I individually proceed.”
For now, it’s business as usual for Robinson’s food truck — kind of. He plans to go ahead with a scheduled service this weekend, though he will only be accepting online preorders instead of allowing customers to place orders at the food truck window.
“It helps with inventory control, because we don’t know when our next service would be, so we need to tightly control what inventory we have on hand,” Robinson said. “Also online ordering — it’s going to limit one piece of the human interaction, that transaction of either handing over a credit card or swiping a card or, worse, exchanging cash. It’s going to reduce that point of contact.”
Robinson also plans to trim down his menu to help operations proceed faster and more efficiently, and “we’re going to be doing a significant amount of cleaning throughout the process,” he said. “If I’m a customer and I don’t see that visible action taking place, I would have a little bit of concern or trepidation about patronizing that place.”
While Robinson doesn’t expect any declarations shutting down to-go businesses such as food trucks, he is closely monitoring daily developments.
“The way that our business works, we’ll work two to three days before we even have a service,” he said. “Heaven forbid, something comes down Friday night and they say we can’t operate. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle at that point.”
But while his food truck is still serving, Robinson hopes to provide a side of comfort to his customers.
‘We don’t know how far out in the future the other side of this is. … There’s going to be a handful of us places that can provide a sense of normalcy, because we will be operating very similarly to the way we have been operating versus, say, one of the fine dining restaurants,” he said. “If they offer to-go, that’s not their same dining experience.
“I think that we will be able to provide a sense of normalcy, at least for our existing customers.”l