HOUSTON — When times get hard, or when sudden life changes happen, it is common practice for people to decide it is time to reinvent themselves, and when it comes to business, things are no different.
Many would agree there are no tougher times today than the current global pandemic, which has forced businesses around the world to shutter their doors for good.
They say only the strong survive, but nowadays, is it the strong…and creative?
Married couple John and Shon Cruise are the owners of Phil & Derek’s Restaurant & Jazz Lounge in Midtown, and the popular eatery was no exception to the one-two punch felt around the world when COVID-19 crept in, and changed life as we know it, and possibly forever.
The Cruises, who took over the restaurant Super Bowl weekend 2017, went from raking in nightly dollars, to counting change and wondering how to survive.
“At the height of the business, we were doing about $85,000 to $100,000 a week in gross revenue. We had 55 employees and we were seating between 2,000 and 2,500 customers per month,” John Cruise explained. “But when the pandemic hit, we dropped down to about $1,500 per month in revenue, and we furloughed 50 employees – keeping only three people — and we realized early on that this probably was going to be long-term. We had to figure out how to reinvent ourselves or we were going to go the way of many other small businesses of filing bankruptcy and/or eventually closing down.”
Q: SO, WHAT WAS THE FIRST STEP?
A: We realized that people were becoming germophobes so we needed to determine what was going to be the new standard of service as it related to making people feel comfortable and letting them know they could come in, enjoy our products and services and not leave sick. We studied and saw what we needed to change ASAP.
The first thing they needed to change was one of our main attractions.
We were known for our Southern Cajun-Creole inspired buffet, which was the first thing we had to get rid of for health and safety reasons, but we still had a revenue issue.
When the pandemic hit, we had just made a large order of food from one of our vendors, so we were sitting on a restaurant full of food with nobody to sell it to, so we decided to cook it up, have folks come in to volunteer their time and help give the food away. We gave the food to first responders and people in the community who were hardest hit by the pandemic.
Q: HOW DID YOU HELP THE COMMUNITY DESPITE SUFFERING FINANCIAL LOSS OF YOUR OWN?
A: We launched an online campaign for people to support us in our effort to feed the community and they did just that. We were able to raise around $15,000. We even had people just driving up to the restaurant and putting hundred-dollar bills in our hand to keep the effort going.
We ended up feeding at least 800 families. The news media we received from that one act exposed us to a whole new crowd and put us back to the point of when we re-opened, even at limited occupancy, we had an hour wait for people wanting to come in and patronize us. We are actually turning away more people than we are seating.
Q: HAVE YOU REBOUNDED FINANCIALLY?
A: Yes. Although we were making more revenue pre-COVID, our margins were smaller. We are making less money now, but are actually keeping more of it. One of the ways is because of our decision to end our buffet. We had chicken, fish, ribs, and other high-protein quality items and it was a crap shoot at the end of every weekend to see what the profit was, but now every item that comes out of the kitchen has a fixed cost attached to it, which also has a fixed profit margin to it.
Q: WHAT ELSE ARE YOU DOING TO ATTRACT NEW PATRONS?
A: My wife and I realized that, now, more people want to sit outside for their dining experience so we just built a 1,500 square foot deck on the side of our patio — it’s elevated about two feet — so you can look out over the street. It has a full bar, covered shade to block out the sun and the rain, and plenty of cooling fans.
Our business was also known for our live entertainment — blues, jazz, R&B — so we’ve brought back our live music every Friday and Saturday.
We have also created the “Speak Easy Comedy Lounge,” featuring some of our funniest local and national comedians. The lounge would normally have seated about 90 people. But due to COVID, we have decided to only sell 40 tickets per show to make certain that people are social distanced and safe.
For instance, the weekend of Sept. 18 – 20, Christopher “Kid” Reid of 90s rap duo Kid ‘n Play, performed three shows on Friday and Saturday, and hosted a “party on the patio” celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the release of “House Party,” the movie which made him a household name. The movie was also shown for patrons while “Kid” safely interacted with the crowd.
Q: WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM COVID?
A: I consider myself to be a very good entrepreneur and I had a very good business mentor, Donathan Rafique Waliyyuddin, who shared with me that, “you must be able to overcome any and all obstacles regardless of circumstance. It’s all in how you choose to approach it.”
Some of your biggest opportunities come in the wake of what we see as a big disaster. I recognize and respect the disaster, but I also knew this would be a great opportunity to do some things in your business, relationship, and personal life that you did not have the opportunity to do before. But if you are only focused on the tragedy and fear of loss, then you will overlook the opportunity of what could be every single time.
This was an opportunity for us to pivot, clean up our menu, better train our staff and to become stronger in the community by meeting its needs and be better restauranteurs. It was also a personal opportunity for me to pay attention and spend time with younger members of my family whom I was, previously, too busy to spend time with. The youth came out to work and help with the restaurant and it provided me the time to recover, keep things running and share my business knowledge and mentoring with them.
Q: WHAT MORE SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT PHIL & DEREK’S?
Phil & Derek’s is known as a place where you can come in, eat great food, hear great music, and forget your worries and have a good time. We cannot do it in the same numbers as before, but we are still here, right where you need us to be.
The health and safety of our community comes first. We are social distancing. We temperature check our customers and employees, and everyone in the restaurant must wear masks, unless they are eating. We also have a professional company clean and sanitize routinely, in addition to our cleaning throughout the day. More great news. We are back up to about 30 employees now, and all growing together.
Q: ANY WORDS OF WISDOM TO SHARE?
A: The pain of growth and change sometimes involves the loss of income, your so-called security, and some things that you probably needed to get away from. This is not going to be the last tragedy that you experience in your lifetime, there will be another one. Is that next one going to rock you off your foundation, or are you going to find a way to change, grow and inspire.
Phil & Derek’s Restaurant & Jazz Lounge is located at 1701 Webster Street…..Houston, TX 77003.