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How The “Flex Casual” Sausage Gets Made

Andre McCain opened HalfSmoke in Washington DC’s Shaw neighborhood in 2015, using the city’s iconic smoked sausage dish as the focal point for a restaurant with waitstaff and a full bar, but arranged with an assembly-line open kitchen.

Prior to the restaurant industry, I worked in New York doing real estate and investment banking for about seven years. When I left private equity, I went to work at Sweetgreen. I had no prior experience in restaurants aside from working at ESPN Zone in college. I opened the first New York store for Sweetgreen, and then I also worked at Pret a Manger, then McDonald’s as a way to learn the business.

I considered starting businesses in several industries prior to ultimately choosing the restaurant industry. But restaurants were most attractive to me because I could not only leverage the experience I had in real estate in terms of site selection—I could also create a scalable business with national growth potential. I loved the idea that if a restaurant brand is successful, it can be around for decades and decades.

Learning the business from the ground up was something I enjoyed. Whether you’re an owner or a dishwasher, you’re probably going to be doing the same thing at many points in time. Getting used to that and understanding that was good for me.

I started to see a swath of highly successful, fast-casual concepts, such as Chipotle, Sweetgreen, Cava. When I looked at the most-consumed foods, sausages would be in the top five. But aside from a few regional brands, there was no dominant player. I thought I could use the sausage and leverage the assembly-line model to showcase the flexibility and versatility of sausage across multiple platforms, which in our case was a bun, bowl, salad, and flatbread.

A landlord will say, “You know, I want to have a pizza concept and a burger concept and a chicken concept.” And then when they lease those spaces, there’s usually exclusive rights or noncompetes, or the landlord may not want two burger places. Part of the appeal was finding a dining concept that could go into prime locations without any issues in terms of the real estate.

We opened October 16, 2015, with a fast-casual food service model. But we also had a full bar. This was our attempt at creating a new category which we call “flex casual.” You can have the same affordability as a typical fast-casual restaurant. But you can also dine in and order alcoholic beverages, benefitting from an experience that’s closer to what you typically associate with a full-service restaurant.

What we found was the opposite of what you would see at a typical fast-casual. Over 90 percent of our customers were dining in, and they expressed a lot of desire for higher-touch service. We were not as heavy on lunch as on nights and weekends.

We were full service up until March 16th, when we had to terminate on-premise dining due to the pandemic lockdown. Thankfully we had a decent amount of experience with online delivery and takeout—although prior to the pandemic, it only accounted for maybe 2 percent of our sales. We looked at every step of the process. We positioned our marketing efforts to target customers online, and we created a bunch of marketing campaigns on the online platforms. We created a virtual brand that we operate out of HalfSmoke called Butter Me Up, which is a breakfast concept operating from 8am to 3pm. It allowed us to utilize the space more consistently and efficiently, operating at a time when we would not have been open otherwise.

And we were also able to retain more of our staff because we have more for them to do, and we could give them more hours, which also allowed us to continue to recruit good staff. From an operations standpoint, the closure was less disruptive to our staffing than it otherwise could have been. We opened outside in June and inside in July. Typically, we have 140 inside and 70 outside, but due to COVID occupancy constraints, we’re at about 40 seats inside and 30 outside.

Originally, COVID had a devastating, cataclysmic impact. Our sales in March turned out to be very good. Then for the month of April, we did about $5,000 in total sales, which would be equivalent to a slow Tuesday for us. We had to furlough over 40 employees. We were fortunate enough to get the SBA and PPE loans and a few other grants to stay afloat while ramping back up.

Now the online business is about 50 percent of our overall revenue, and our customers have returned to dining inside and outside. And Butter Me Up has done exceptionally well. It has really exceeded our wildest expectations.

Because of the size of our restaurant, we’re fortunate to still have enough capacity to sustain the dining experience. That’s one of our key value propositions, which is a fun, very casual place to socialize and hang out with family. We were able to maintain enough seats to make the financial situation work even in a limited capacity, which is much harder the smaller your restaurant is.

We dedicated a third of the space as a to-go restaurant within the restaurant. Delivery drivers are your new customers. You’re actually ranked and rated by the drivers, which really impacts your visibility on online platforms. We wanted to clear the pickup area and have it be very easy for the drivers and also for customers in the neighborhood who wanted to come pick up orders. We looked at all of our food packaging to make sure it was tamper-proof and maintained the same level of quality that customers otherwise got in the restaurant.

And from there, we started to see good traction online. We shifted our focus back to re-opening the restaurant inside and outside, which meant not only addressing the floorplan, but creating COVID health procedures for cleaning and social distancing, and making sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep our employees customers safe. We rehired all the staff that we let go, and now we’re back up to about 65 employees. That took some retraining to get everyone used to the COVID environment. We’ve had to react, in some cases, on a daily or weekly basis to changes in the rules and regulations for how restaurants should operate.

In Baltimore, we’re opening in the Can Company in Canton, in the former Alma Cocina space early December. And in Rockville, we’re opening in Rockville Town Square in January 2020. The Baltimore location will have, at full occupancy, 100 seats inside and 40 outside, and Rockville will have 160 seats inside and 30 outside. Both of these are large, mixed-use retail destinations where the landlord felt strongly that having HalfSmoke would enhance the neighborhood and the project. We charted our way toward the goal of having 20 or so stores in the DMV area over the next five years.

COVID has taught us just how significant restaurants are—not only for the economy, but for the community. I think we’ll see more of an appreciation for the restaurant business. We certainly have seen that at HalfSmoke. Our customers wanted us to survive because they really view us as an essential service, an essential part of the community. Our sales year over year are actually up over 50 percent.

Hopefully at some point we’ll be able to safely resume full capacity, once we take control of the coronavirus. I think when that happens, we’ll see even more traffic as there’s still a large portion of consumers who are not comfortable going to restaurants yet. That certainly limits the customer base.

We’ll also continue other concepts, whether it’s partnerships with local chefs or adding menu items online. We’ll continue to expand and meet customers where they are, especially as we go into the winter months. It’s already usually a pretty slow time for restaurants. And this winter season is going to be one of a kind. We’re trying to stay ahead of what is likely to happen.

The restaurant industry has to reckon with a lot of social issues—some that should’ve been confronted much sooner than 2020. As a Black-owned business, which we’re very proud of, we’re equally proud that our customer base is very diverse. I have young and old and people of all different races. I think one of the most important things we can all do in terms of social justice is to try and spend more time with each other, and relate to each other better. I can’t think of many better places to do that than restaurants. We really try to be a beacon of positivity and hope.