These are unprecedented and challenging times for restaurants in Texas and around the country. Amid such huge revenue losses, even hand sanitizer and to-go containers have become overwhelming expenses. Some barbecue joints have understandably chosen to close (hopefully) temporarily, but there are some bright spots out there. In hopes of offering useful advice to those who are struggling mightily, and to keep you updated on what places across the state are doing, over the next few weeks we’ll share stories from barbecue joint owners who have found ways to keep their businesses afloat and their communities nourished in a daily segment called Barbecue Strategy.
On March 16, Russell Roegels sent the first of what have become his daily email communications with customers. He and his wife, Misty, who run Roegels Barbecue Co., in Houston, were nervous. Hopeful that measures to stifle coronavirus transmissions would last just a couple of weeks, he wrote: “The next fifteen days will be the most stressful of the restaurant industry’s life.” Today marks the fifteenth day, of course. I ask him why he started the emails. “It was basically fear,” Russell says candidly. “This could sink us.”
Russell asked customers for patience as his staff converted their operation from primarily serving dine-in customers to preparing every order for takeout. They opened their phone lines and email for orders, and set up barbecue family packs that could be ordered through an online system. The latter is a key piece of his strategy: “Put together a fair-priced family meal,” he urges other restaurant owners. They’re easier to pack up than a la carte orders, and they take far less time to order if using the phone.
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When they cooked too much barbecue at the beginning, Russell chilled the leftovers as whole cuts and shrink-wrapped them to sell at a discount. “It flew out the door,” he said. Stuffed baked potatoes weren’t as popular, so he dropped them from the menu. As for smoked chicken, he hasn’t been able to keep up. “I’ve sold more chicken in the past week and a half than I’ve sold in the last two months together,” Russell says. As for the rest of the meats, his numbers have stayed pretty much the same as the previous month. He’s equally embarrassed and amazed when he tells me, “We haven’t dropped a bit.” The restaurant had fewer customers, but the orders were large enough to even out the revenue. He was preparing to smoke 25 briskets for his Friday service when we spoke Thursday. This week they’re running a smoked burger special on Wednesday and preparing for smoked prime rib dinners on Sunday.
Russell and Misty credit the emails with saving their business. Other forms of social media have been helpful, but “I get so many comments and replies to the emails that say, ‘Keep them coming,'” Russell says. He thinks the response is in part because of the personal tone of his messages. His suggestion to other restaurants: “Don’t just throw a menu out there and say, ‘This is what we got.’” Be honest and share your struggles with customers, he urges.
They talked about closing up shop but didn’t want to shut the restaurant down and leave his staff jobless. At the same time, he and Misty understand how important it is to keep his staff and the customers healthy. They installed a tall plexiglass-glass barrier between the ordering line and the cutting block. Tape on the floor marks a six-foot distance between customers in line, and hand sanitizer stations have been installed at the start and the end of the ordering line. Curbside pickup is also available.
As Roegels Barbecue has seen continued success, the owners want to share the wealth. They considered offering free meals at the restaurant, but Russell notes, “If I start giving away food here and it draws a big crowd, it defeats the whole purpose of this thing.” Instead, they’re focusing on first responders. Russell observed that police and firefighters often get all the attention as first responders, so Roegels Barbecue is focusing on hospital workers. “My mom was a nurse, so I know how hard they work,” he tells me. They delivered 140 meals to Methodist Hospital in Houston last week, and plan to feed 200 more both this week and next at Memorial Hermann hospital.
The business has put up some money for the meal donation effort, but it’s also asking customers to chip in through the daily email by purchasing gift cards. The gift card form will ask for a recipient name and email. If you’d like to donate, type in “hospital” and use the email address [email protected] for the recipient. Russell wants everyone to understand he isn’t sharing the news about the restaurant’s current success to gloat. He just wants to help others weather the storm, and adds that, “I believe in karma, you know? Do good to others, and good things will come back one you, and I think it has.”