Lockdown Economy US in an Avocado Toast Bar with Sofia Pinzon
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Sriyansh Hetamsaria
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview hosted by Julian Infante, we meet Sofia Pinzon. She is the founder of TOASTY, the first-ever avocado toast bar, located in the Marina District in San Francisco, tells us about her story of opening a business away from her natal country Colombia and how she and her team have tackled the lockdown. Sofia mentioned that because of the lack of space in her venue communication with the customer was difficult and this makes the whole Toasty experience harder to deliver. Because the low number of walk-in customers Toasty had to find new ways for finding people that could buy their products by reinventing their way of doing business and consistency through their operational time they were able to survive this pandemic. Another important factor that Sofia underlined in the interview was how important was to expand their delivery ratio as she sees the importance of delivery right now.
How is the situation in San Francisco right now?
Sofia: Everything is relatively back to the “new normal”. Iona restaurants have been operating throughout the pandemic, but probably the last two months, we got to build-out outdoor patios, so people can sit down and dine and just last week, they opened indoor dining with some restrictions. Also, retail is open again.
Fortunately, San Francisco had a really strict lockdown. So the cases didn’t really go up that much, so I think the situation is more or less under control for now.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how did you manage to open a restaurant in San Francisco?
Sofia: I’m Sofia. I’m originally from Colombia. I was living in China for six years where I studied event management and then, I did an MBA in hospitality in Les Roches, Switzerland.
Then I decided to work in my field which is hospitality and I came up with this idea of opening a place because I’m really passionate about creating experiences. So that’s how I ended up in San Francisco, opening the first-ever avocado toast bar, called “Toasty” and right now, we only have a location, but we’re hopefully expanding into other cities in California or hopefully, the world in the near future.
Why San Francisco? What came to your mind to figure out that San Francisco was the proper place to open or to have this new venture for you?
Sofia: The location is kind of by chance. I moved here because my sisters lived here. I didn’t really have an idea on what to do and this came along. So it wasn’t really planned like ‘Hey! I want to go to San Francisco and start a restaurant there’. It just kind of happened and I feel California is a place where people are really health-conscious, they’re into healthy eating. So it was like a match made in heaven.
Has everything fulfilled your expectations?
Sofia: I guess so. Everything has been good, business-wise and we’ve been really successful. We would have had a second shop by now if the situation was normal, but because of the pandemic, everything is in standby for now, so that’s been the only thing that hasn’t really been fulfilled.
The pandemic took us all by surprise but when it comes to hospitality businesses, did you have to change a lot your business practices because of this new situation or how was it for you?
Sofia: In terms of the way the store operates, not really. We just couldn’t have customers come-in at first. Still, we don’t let anyone in because our shop is really small. It’s really hard to keep that social distance within the store.
But, operations wise, I think it really gave us a break to become more efficient- caught costs that were unnecessary- which you don’t realize otherwise because you’re normally really busy.
Our biggest hit has been catering because catering accounts for about 70% of our business and we cater to a lot of the tech companies around here, so that was the biggest hit for us. Now, we’re only retail, instead of doing catering.
Were you thinking about the catering before the pandemic or after the pandemic?
Sofia: Before. So we did like a big breakfast and launched four companies and now, all those companies are shut down. So of course, there’s no business there and that has been like the biggest struggle for us- catering revenue.
We are just trying to reinvent our operations a little, figuring out ways to make it more contactless or operating without the customers coming inside the door.
Have you been able to attract new customers or what is your communication strategy right now?
Sofia: We’ve definitely attracted more local business. We had a few regulars but we also had a lot of tourism because we are kind of popular on Instagram, so we get tourists from Europe. But right now, there’s no tourism in San Francisco, of course. So people have been walking around the neighbourhood more and we get to meet our local customers more.
How are you getting to know that customers are more now, considering the social distancing issue? What strategy are you applying to reach those consumers or the clients that you had before? How are you doing that right now?
Sofia: One of our biggest strengths was that we never really shut down and probably, around 80% of the business in our neighbourhood shut down. But we stayed open and that has attracted people who went outside looking for a coffee or a quick bite. So that consistency really has kept the people coming and creating new relationships with people in the neighbourhood.
Even though people don’t come inside, we still have the window and I feel like people are looking for that social interaction and since people are spending more time at home when they go to places to buy a coffee, they want to talk to you more because they’re missing that social interaction at the office or just like in-person with their friends.
What would be the next step for you as a business since the situation is not going to change anytime soon, apparently? How would you prospect or how you foresee the situation for Toasty?
Sofia: I don’t like it, especially here, since all of the companies are mostly tech companies, they’re really designed to work from home. So a lot of the companies already announced that employees don’t have to come back for the next year, so the catering business is cancelled till then.
1. We’ve been trying to tap into more private types of events- if someone is having a birthday party or a baby shower- doing a little more like customized items for them.
2. We do a lot of deliveries through the apps but the delivery range is probably five miles around from our store, so I’m thinking about the possibility of talking to other restaurants and asking them if we can take a space of their kitchen and then we do only deliveries from there and we could have delivered to other areas that are not close to our location.
That sounds amazing! Actually, that’s a very good idea for the ones that you have right now.
When it comes to the supplier, for example, because everybody knows that a restaurant needs supplies, has something happened regarding that aspect?
Sofia: Definitely. I’ve seen issues in the supply chain. For example, if a company that makes cups, if it’s shut down, then there’s not gonna be cups.
The biggest and most challenging thing has been to find gloves. As restaurants, we always use gloves and now everyone wants to buy gloves so it’s being hard and it’s also really expensive. We used to pay $3 for a glob,a box of 100 gloves and now the same box is $14. So it’s insane- the spike in the price.
Because of this, have you raised prices on the menu or the prices have remained the same?
Sofia: No, the prices have remained the same. We’re just trying to cut costs in other different things but definitely, that’s being like the main one just like gloves. Now, masks are more accessible and cheaper than at the beginning. I remember paying $60 for a box of masks, now it’s $13. So now, there’s way more offer but gloves have definitely been an issue.
When the pandemic just started, I felt like the world collapsed. I’d go to my supplier and there was no food- ‘Oh sorry! There are no vegetables today’, ‘Oh sorry! There’s no meat today’- so I would have to go to regular supermarkets to buy stuff because the suppliers didn’t have things available.
And I guess, the situation has changed already. Everything is more disposed, you can reach everything right now and that the situation is not like at the beginning, right?
Sofia: Yeah. It’s much better but also, things are taking a little longer to be delivered. I don’t know if you’ve noticed yourself. When you order something online, it takes a little longer than usual. So the suppliers also have the same issue, so sometimes, some things that are always in stock, maybe they’re out of stock for one or two days, until they reach the facility.
So definitely, that has not been an issue because we try to plan in advance but let’s say, if you were to run out of something that you need right now, that could be an issue.
What about the environment in San Francisco in the hospitality business? Have you gathered up a group of restaurant founders together to figure out this situation together or that hasn’t been done yet? Do you plan to do it?
Sofia: Yeah. I think it would be interesting to do something like that, kind of a support group and bounce ideas off each other.
The industry here that is the most affected is definitely well hospitality, of course. But, like hotels, because there are tons of events and conferences and everything happening right now, there’s no tourism, especially Downtown San Francisco.
I forgot to mention that we’re located in a residential neighbourhood. So it’s a good situation because people are at home. They’re out there where they live. So people come to our place but a lot of restaurants in Downtown have been hit even harder because nobody’s going to work and nobody lives in Downtown.
I know that people try to focus a little bit on the negative aspects that this pandemic has brought to businesses and to the world but what could be something positive other than the things that you have already mentioned about this whole pandemic that you have realized that you wouldn’t have probably realized that easy if this pandemic was not here today?
Sofia: One thing that I’m really thankful for and realize is that food businesses are definitely crisis-proof because people still need to eat. So that’s definitely something that I’m thankful for. It’s an industry that despite anything, people will still look for food. Even if they cannot go for a trip or they lose their job, they still find pleasure in going for a cup of coffee and I’m happy that we can bring that joy to people’s lives.
Personally, as a business owner, I was extremely busy all the time. We had catering orders all the time and I was running around talking to clients. It also gave me time to sit down, breathe, look at my business and work on our core business which is like running the shop. So, it’s been a good time to optimize our operations. As I mentioned before, we caught unnecessary costs we were having that I wouldn’t have realized otherwise. So I think it’s been a good time to sit back and rethink things a little more.
Do you run the shop? How many people do you need to run the shop? Do you need more people now than you used to need or do you need fewer people- maybe more chefs or fewer people on the floor? How is it working for the restaurant?
Sofia: Our store is really small, but has a very efficient system. So normally I have around six people between full time and part-time because we do the catering and we’re a little busier at this store of course because people can also come inside.
But right now, we’re down to three employees and me. So definitely, we had to cut down a little on the labour cost for sure.
What is the situation with the government now? Are they giving you any aid? Are you receiving any help from the United States of government? How is it working for you guys?
Sofia: Not anymore. They’ve been a little flexible with it — about sales tax and permits- they’re delaying the payment of these fees till next year.
They did have some emergency loans for businesses, so we did receive some money at the start when we were hit the hardest. That obviously helped us survive and pay our payroll and it’s money that’s forgiven- we don’t have to pay it back- because it was basically to keep restaurants open and also to make sure that fewer people lost their jobs.
But right now, there’s no help or anything at this point.
Well, I really hope the situation gets better. I guess it will only get better after this point. I have to thank you a lot Sofia for being the first guest that we have in this new series of lockdown economies Latin Americans abroad and hope to see you soon and hope that I can go to your restaurant very soon.
Sofia: Yeah or I hope that we can open one in Paris really soon.
That would be fantastic! I’m sure, people will love it here. As you said, the avocado industry is growing a lot and more people are adding avocado to their meals, so it would be a fantastic idea.
About the Guest
Sofia Pinzon is the founder of Toasty. She is a native Colombian who always loved avocados and believes that we eat with our eyes. She always dreamed about an all-things-avocado cafe, serving healthy and tasty bites that are almost too pretty to ear (and totally ‘gram-worthy). Their promise is simple: healthy food, great coffee & awesome service!