Opening restaurants during challenging times

Sometimes it’s better to go forward instead of waiting for conditions to improve.

Opening new restaurants during inflation, labor shortages and supply-chain disruptions—not to mention a global pandemic—might seem like a questionable strategy, but for some the timing turned out to be perfect. Overcoming challenges can make a business stronger, more adaptable and resilient.

That’s what executives at V&E Restaurant Group found as the company opened four of its 19 restaurants during the COVID-19 crisis. Company leaders say they never considered delaying any of these grand openings.

“Expansion plans were no strangers to our organization by the end of 2019,” says Matías Pesce, CEO of the Miami-based company. “Postponing was not an option.”

Slow growth, then fast growth 

Vida & Estilo (Life and Style in Spanish) Restaurant Group opened its first location, Oh! Mexico Restaurant, in 1997 on Miami Beach. The restaurant attracts visitors and locals looking for authentic Mexican fare in an area better known for Cuban cuisine. The company expanded slowly at first, and over the years added concepts including Havana 1957, which offers Cuban Cuisine and the experience and glamor of Cuba in the 1950s. Today there are five locations of Havana 1957 in Miami.

The company continued growing in Miami, adding Mercato della Pescheria, La Cerveceria de Barrio, Barsecco and others. V&E also opened locations of Mercato della Pescheria & Café Americano in Las Vegas. When 2020 dawned, the restaurant group had plans to open four more restaurants. Then the pandemic forced the temporary closure of all concepts, and the delay of the planned openings of these new establishments.

Finding a bright spot 

Undeterred, V&E opted to remain focused on the task of opening the new units. The team worked closely with general contractors, maintained close contact with permitting and other city functions, and improved communication with landlords.

One positive result of the disruption was that good locations became available due to closures by other brands. Armed with strong financials, V&E jumped at these opportunities. “We have no longterm debt and are self-financed so not being leveraged allowed us to navigate through that period much better than if we were,” says Chief Financial Officer Albert Llodra. “We were confident that it was a moment to take advantage of available locations and invest in infrastructure upgrades in a moment that it cost us less money to do so.”

Adapting to new issues

Today the industry faces different challenges, such as labor issues. Many workers have exited the food service industry, so V&E focuses on being the employer of choice. “With the tight labor market, we need to create stronger brand awareness to bring great talent onboard,” Pesce says. “We want the workers who love this industry and remained to know we are the better option for them.”

The group offers a career path for employees so they know they can start as a dishwasher and work their way up to management. “We reinforce a culture of continuous improvement throughout the whole company to better meet the challenges that may arise,” Pesce says.

Price inflation and supply constraints

One way to succeed in the face of today’s obstacles is to rely on data analysis. Each department within the V&E corporate structure produces resources that are internally exchanged and analyzed. That makes for deliberate, thoughtful decision-making, a crucial element in times of crisis.

“No matter how many restaurants you have opened, every opening should be considered from zero,” Pesce says. “You want to go as fast as you can, but you need to go step by step.” The common goal, he says, is to advance V&E Restaurant Group’s concepts and brands and to retain staff.

The strategy worked, and since 2020 V&E has opened several successful restaurants. Marabu Coal Fired Cuban Cuisine is open at Brickell City Center, and PaperFish Sushi Bar is now located on the site of a previous nightclub. Café Americano, featuring American classic fare with a Latin twist, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner every day and now has two locations in Miami and two in Las Vegas. Also newly opened are two locations of Cortadito Coffee House, a cozy coffeeshop and bakery, an avant-garde coffee shop ventanita style with food stations. 

Pesce says the team’s vision and adaptability enables V&E Restaurant Group to continue its success. “The willingness of doing it better may never stop, but you need to adapt and revisit everything,” he says. “We’re still learning. Like a breathing document, every day there is a new thing to learn.”

V&E Restaurant Group is still expanding, with plans to open six more operations this year in Miami: Oh! Mexico Taco Shop on Ocean Drive, News Café on Ocean Drive, Cafe Americano Diner at Brickell City Center, Paperfish Sushi Bar on Espanola Way and two Cortadito Coffee House locations in Miami.