In business, change is inevitable. But the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a level of change that businesses couldn’t foresee or plan for. Our #SmallBusinessRedefined series showcases small businesses that have found ways to reimagine their business through new opportunities – whether it’s through a new product, a new market, or a new way to fulfill. Learn how these Canadian businesses have pivoted to adapt, innovate and thrive in a changing and uncertain environment.
Since 1999, Martine St-Jean and Thierry Burat have been co-owners of the Le Prieuré, a restaurant specializing in traditional gourmet French cuisine. During the turmoil of rolling pandemic lockdowns, they were able to offer their customers exquisite culinary experiences by maintaining their high standards and a constant, comforting presence.
The restaurant business has been among the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic and ensuing periods of lockdown, which forced the closure of dining rooms across the province of Quebec in 2020 and 2021. Like many restaurant owners, Martine and Thierry, who had been running Le Prieuré for over twenty years, had to find creative ways to manage through a new and difficult reality.
See how this popular restaurant in Assomption, Quebec overcame the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Reducing prices, not quality
Even before the government’s official lockdown announcement, Martine and Thierry sensed their world might change. Early in the pandemic, they began thinking about alternative approaches to running their restaurant. They were determined to keep the business going, even with dining room doors closed to the public.
They quickly settled on the solution of offering take-out meals. Since Le Prieuré typically offers three-course table d’hôte meals, the idea of switching the dining room menus to Ready to Eat options seemed conceivable. And while at first this might sound like a simple pivot, it becomes more complicated when you consider the standards of an exacting chef and his partner who will settle for nothing short of excellence. And, the pair knew this move would require an adaptation – if not a complete transformation – of their offering if it was going to work.
“I didn’t sleep for 48 hours. I just kept thinking and thinking,” says Thierry.
Fortunately, that bout of insomnia paid off, with the idea of a signature “Ready to Eat” format that upheld the standards Le Prieuré’s customers had come to expect, while offering competitive prices at the same time.
In fact, making lower-priced take-out dishes provided an opportunity to increase the number of “seatings” and thereby serve exponentially more customers than they could have with the limited number of tables in their restaurant.
It’s an alternative that proved its worth more than once, as the couple resorted to the take-out format again from January to June 2021 during a second phase of provincial lockdowns.
A splash of social media and a pinch of human touch
When it came to taking orders, Martine and Thierry combined the convenience and reach of social media with a traditional human approach. During the first lockdown, the restauranteurs were active on social media. “Our Facebook page had lots of visits and when I posted the day’s menu at 11:00 a.m., we were almost always sold out at 11:30 a.m.,” says Martine. During the second lockdown in 2021, they were able to sustain their success and even boost their reach thanks to word of mouth.
But she adds that while they communicated in part through virtual forums, she always made it a point to take customers’ orders over the phone. “Speaking directly with people, adding a more human touch, was very important to us. Especially in a time of so much uncertainty.”
Return to indoor dining
“Reopening the dining room on June 2, 2021 was amazing!” says Martine. “When the easing of the lockdown measures was announced, we could sense our customers were keen to come back. And we were really looking forward to it too,” she says.
In spite of the success of their Ready to Eat format, Martine and Thierry never intended to maintain the concept while their dining room was operating, even though indoor business declined a bit due to physical distancing requirements and a choice to focus on fewer guests. “Our dining room can normally seat 40 people. But we made the decision to limit capacity to 26 and do less, but do better.” explains Martine, who is delighted to see her regulars again – and to meet new faces too.
“The Ready to Eat format was a great alternative under extreme circumstances. But it’s not our niche. Maybe in another life?” she laughs happily, obviously fulfilled by what life has to offer today.
Tips for other business owners dealing with uncertainty
Martine and Thierry’s ability to not only stay the course, but also expand their customer base during a lockdown, is the result of many success factors. Here are a few tips they can share with other business owners.
• Stay true to yourself. Don’t misrepresent yourself or lose sight of your goal as a business and business owner. This is especially important if you operate in a competitive sector such as the restaurant business.
• Don’t panic or spread yourself too thin. Remain calm, decide on a course of action and focus as much as possible on that one plan. Whenever possible, take a step back to assess the situation – be sure to allow some time to take care of yourself to avoid burnout.
• Stay close to your customers. Keep them informed through social media, but also remember to maintain a human touch. A good old-fashioned phone call is still a great way to reach out.
• Create a sense of family. Maintaining a constant presence in the lives of your customers – especially during difficult times – will build lasting ties and inspire loyalty.
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