As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jhoanny Perez.
Jhoanny is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic that teaches other immigrants the step by step formula to open their dream restaurants in order to create generational wealth and security for their families.
In 2012, Jhoanny and her family brought their dream to life. They built three 7-figure restaurant businesses in New York City Tin Marin Restaurant, Tilila Casa Publica & Cocina and Canave Cocina & Bar within nine years, each restaurant was completely built from the ground up. Since then, they have been featured in various media outlets for their success in accomplishing the American Dream as Latina immigrants. Some of these features include the New York Times, New York Post, The Riverdale Press, Riverdale Press #2, Edible Bronx Magazine, NYC CBS Local, Urban Matter and on The Patch.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Owning my own restaurant was not the original plan for me and my family. Prior to opening, I worked at McDonald’s as a shift manager when my family and I came up with the idea of purchasing a McDonalds franchise. To our surprise, we were unqualified to own a franchise because we failed to meet one of the necessary requirements: owning an existing business for two years.
Next, we tried purchasing an existing bar from a friend, who backed out at the last minute. This was a blessing in disguise because it led us to finding an empty space and renovating it into a restaurant which would soon become our own.
From this, our first restaurant, Tín Marin Restaurant, later created two more concepts: Tilila Casa Cocina & Bar and Canave Cocina & Bar all located in NYC (two in the Bronx and one in Inwood Manhattan).
When the pandemic hit and the restaurant industry started struggling, I decided to turn my nine years of expertise into something that would significantly help food entrepreneurs. I wanted something unique that would honor my mother’s legacy and hard work. As a result, I created an online coaching program to mentor upcoming restaurant owners with techniques to pivot and reinvent their businesses to remain open during the pandemic.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I must confess that when you enter the restaurant industry one has many tribulations that may cause them to give up their dream.
During my fast food management years, I made the funny mistake of crying hysterically when I scored a 69 on my first food safety exam. I studied so hard, even more than a friend that told me they passed without even studying at all. I cried so bad because my goal was to become a store manager and supervise stores. Weeks later, I retook the test and scored high 90’s. Looking back, this is funny now, because I had no idea that later in life, this test would help me manage three of our own independent restaurants, while my family and I created our own restaurant legacy.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
The book that changed my life was Banker To The Poor by Muhammad Yunus. Yunus as a professor began to notice the poverty that existed among others and how traditional banks don’t lend to the poor. And those who were able to get a loan to buy goods to sell in their business had to pay such high interest and fees that they made almost no profit.
This reminded me of the inequality within our own communities and the resources that our people lack in order to start their dream food business. I decided to search deeper and realized that the field is dominated by white men. Only 6% of women become top chefs or restaurant owners. Yunus’ book sparked a fire within me. Now, I proudly help women of color navigate funding loops to obtain necessary funding for their dream restaurant businesses.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our vision when we started our first restaurant was to create an atmosphere where staff and customers felt welcomed and happy. A place where we could create our own rules and work alongside our staff to ensure quality service and overall staff satisfaction.
We value the community’s input. Every time we planned to open a business in a neighborhood while renovating we involved locals walking by to join us for a glass of wine or beer. We would then introduce ourselves, tell them what we were doing, and ask for feedback of what they thought was missing, and could be changed. We made them a part of the process, in return, we gained friendships even before the business opened.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
At our restaurants, we believe, “A happy team is a productive team”. We spend time bonding with our staff outside of work. For example, part of the staff recently travelled to Mexico together. We ensured that our staff was fed, provided one free meal and one drink and sometimes we even cook family dinners as well as spend holidays together through our staff parties.
We make sure to listen to our staff, help them buss tables, take out food, and make them feel a part of the family.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As a family we experienced emotional shifts and uncertainty during the pandemic in 2020. A large part of this included limiting our in person reunions, birthdays, work, while also worrying about those that had to show up at work regardless of the infection rates. It was tough not knowing what was really happening and when things were going to get better and business would go back to normal.
Initially, we took home business related worries which affected our mental health. We soon decided to shift our focus and tune into the positive things that were happening daily. Thanking God everyday for life, breath, and customers that were still supporting our businesses, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
At the beginning of the pandemic, we faced the fear of the unknown. First, we were forced to close dining indoors, and only service takeout and delivery… until further notice. This caused staff to be put on hold… until further notice.
As a family and business owners we worried, but realized we could make lemonade out of the lemons the pandemic was throwing at us:
- We rotated bartenders, waiters and cooks to give each person 1–2 days.
- We helped folks apply for aid, and unemployment if they were not being rotated at the restaurants.
- We had local bands who played for us pre-pandemic go live on our Instagram and offer virtual concerts for our customers.
- We quickly pivoted to outdoor dining with money we set aside in our rainy day fund.
- We had thank you messages and positivity written on our windows by customers to help motivate staff.
- We constructed our winter outdoor dining so people could come try our warm seating during the winter months.
Essentially, just like many people, we faced a lot of challenges throughout the pandemic, but communication, hard work, and a supportive team made it all worthwhile. As a result, we now know how to thrive in a pandemic economy.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
We worry everyday for our family, our staff and our patrons and the community we do business in so this question is very important to discuss. We have provided support to those near us in the following ways:
- Be a listener: Sometimes, people just need to vent, they want company and someone to lend a listening ear. It only takes 5 minutes of your day to lend a listening ear to someone. We all have to stay sane during this recovery process and offering a few words of encouragement to a person can go a long way. Make them feel heard, empathize with them and support any way you can.
- Get involved: even from home there are so many opportunities to help others as a way to kill time and feel connected to your community. I signed up a couple times to call seniors just to ask them how they were, provide positivity and ask them if there was anything they needed in terms of: food, transportation, masks, aid, and access to services such as mental health and the pharmacy.
- Call your family members: Throw virtual parties and call one another. Sometimes we are just waiting around for others to make the first move. Be an advocate and be the connector in your family. When your family feels connected they are able stay positive, feel supported and ask for help if needed.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The post COVID economy has opportunities for everyone to shift their mentality and evolve. We now have to think out of the box because these difficult times are forcing those who hid their creativity for way too long. Here’s what I anticipate in the post COVID economy:
- Expanding our reach and audience globally because of the new virtual resources and technology.
- More individuals starting businesses: grants, education, SBA loans and more.
- Multiple business concepts in a single space.
- Preparation for the business boom coming: flux of individuals traveling, dining out and spending more money now that things are going back to normal.
- Food entrepreneurs wowing their customers with quality products and packaging about their unique cuisine using unique virtual methods to grasp the customer’s money and appetite.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
The COVID pandemic has significantly made us all stronger, and caused us to have more appreciation for the little things we usually take for granted in life.For instance, we learned the importance of spending time with family, slowing down and just being present. Those of us who lost jobs, wages and loved ones learned how strong and resilient we really are. And hence we learned the importance of family health, financial planning and having a side hustle so we don’t rely on that one job we were laid off of.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Learning is an art that should be used every single day. As business owners we think that there is nothing else to learn and we make the excuse of being too busy to attend educational events and do networking.
We plan to do the following regardless of a pandemic or not:
1. Attend events where you can learn about new technology and innovation that restaurants and food entrepreneurs are working on and reinventing. Clubhouse is a great place for this joint hospitality, restaurant and food themed clubs.
2. Listen to podcasts that teach marketing and sales secrets that restaurants and businesses can use.
3. Expanding: looking for innovative ways to expand rather than close down. Food will always be in demand; you just might need to change how you offer it.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I encourage others to listen to their customer base and constantly ask for feedback.
Renvision their business model: plan meetings and or retreats to remind yourself and staff what you do and why you do it.
Bond with your team: offer outings and unique perks, higher pay, and promotion opportunities especially now that the food industry is experiencing staff shortages.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If there is anything I have learned in life is this, Never Ever give up. It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop. There is no failure except in no longer trying. My mother and grandmother tried and passed their wealth of experience to me in the midst of suffering. I took this and went on to build generational wealth with my family. Wealth that will be further passed down.
I focus on this on a daily basis: not giving up. How? By doing what makes me uncomfortable. Why? Because you need to push yourself and focus on doing regardless of the result.
Regardless of what you may think, doing the thing that scares you actually gets you out of your comfort zone:
- Start now with whatever you have. Take action even if it’s a messy action.
- Show up on social media, people want to see your face, personality, your lifestyle and who you are as a person.
- Video content is what converts: it increases trust, likability, and how much people know the person behind the brand.
- Network, go on virtual coffee dates with people, get to know them and see if there is an opportunity for collaboration.
- Build an email list, provide a freebie or call and research your target audience as much as possible. Get on calls with them and listen to what your ideal customer is struggling with.
How can our readers further follow your work?