Nick Liberato, who you might recognize from Netflix’s Restaurants on the Edge, and Mike Dalewitz, who is no stranger to the East End, were already getting ready to launch 618 Hospitality Group when the pandemic hit – making the group’s mission of providing restaurants with the right tools to perform, prosper, and profit even more vital.
In addition to helping eateries navigate operating during COVID-19, the business restructuring and turnaround experts also recently debuted cueLess, revolutionary restaurant industry technology that makes curbside and pickup business more efficient by predicting customer arrival time and providing automatic real-time adjustments of each customer’s ETA.
We caught up with Liberato and Dalewitz about the Netflix hit, how the pandemic will change our dining habits and much more.
I have to admit Restaurants on the Edge was one of the first things my family and I binged during the start of the pandemic. Did you have a favorite location?
NL: It’s probably a toss up between Slovenia and Austria for me. Because, one, I think Austria just for the time of the year that we were there, between snowcapped mountains, the flowers and the Austrian culture. It was just such a really great time to be there. We had a blast, all of us. And Slovenia, because it was never on my bucket list of places to go to, and when we got there in Ljubljana – between the beaches, the mountains, and city, it just had so much to offer. On top of just being an amazing city with so much talent.
If there is a third season, is there an area that you’d like to explore?
NL: Yeah, I think we would love to focus on the Southern Hemisphere for sure. Places like Australia, South Africa, South America. We had such a great response, especially from South America – places like Venezuela and Brazil, but only when the weather’s nice, of course.
Could you guys speak a bit about the 618 Hospitality Group?
MD: Nick and I had fortuitously met, actually, through a local friend, and we were discussing starting a hospitality business together. I had just exited my company in the legal industry, and I was well-known in that industry as sort of a technology innovator entrepreneur, turn around specialist for creating alternatives and financial models and integrating it back into the legal industry. Beforehand, many moons ago, I was an entertainment manager and was also in hospitality and nightlife promotion and brand marketing. It was one of those areas where I just wanted to get back into. Nick was looking to get back to the East Coast where he grew up. We kind of connected and said, hey, let’s launch this hospitality group together. I think it’s a great partnership. That was towards mid-February, our first meeting, and obviously, a few weeks later, we have COVID-19. And we said, you know what? Restaurants on the Edge is all about restaurant turn around. Nick has a great, stellar career in finding those diamonds in the rough and making it profitable. We said, why don’t we combine everything you’ve done, and I could look at new financial models and integrate technology and we can have something that no one’s really had in this area, especially at this time of need – with our own sort of pizzazz with it. So, we decided to do a different kind of hospitality group that was more purpose driven.
The restaurant industry has been devastated by the pandemic. Will it be able to recover?
NL: I think there’s always a positive benefit out of anything that happens negatively. You know, I think talking with restaurants over the past ten years, never during that time was I dealing with anything unprecedented or a pandemic for that matter. The restaurant business is always crazy, everyday you walked into it regardless. But you need to adjust and adapt to the times and just understand how you need to maneuver. Otherwise, you’re just going to be a fish out of water.
The restrictions are pretty clear, or at least they become clear and then turn into something else. But as long as you have an outdoor area to eat in, a liquor license, and a solid takeaway model already implemented in your business, you’ll be able to get yourself through this – because there is light at the end of the tunnel. This thing’s not going to last forever and it’s going to unfortunately take out a lot of businesses during this time. There will be some that can do it on their own, and there will be others that will kind of need their hand held – or at least from six feet away by Mike, myself and 618. Knowing how to rebrand themselves and just be able to stay kind of consistent and relevant during these times.
MD: I also think the other side to it is the financial side to it and the legal side to it. People do what they do and know what they know and we come in at a different angle, looking at the industry as what any distressed asset would look like. You have to restructure, you have to go to new providers, do different financial models that are more predictable on your cost coming in and cost coming out – so you know what you’re doing. Renegotiate the terms of your lease, renegotiate vendor contracts, look at alternative credit lines and restructure. There’s a whole side of this that has a great sophistication and as Nick said, liquor licenses are going to be key. So, if you don’t have capital, have a group like us come in to help out with capital means and obtain liquor licenses and implement them – or creating these new strategic models. We at 618 understand that not everyone has a lot of money right now and everyone’s scared and there’s a lot of unpredictability. That’s why a lot of our models, which usually would be a retain model, are more of a joint venture. We’re helping them out to give them sort of coaching and education and new life and strategy not just to survive, but to thrive in even the worst of economic climate.
NL: To elaborate on that, knowing how to, I hate to say ‘”dumbing your menu down,” but really breaking it down to what can your restaurant work with outside of your main menu or the ultimate dining experience that you’re giving. We’ve seen some of the top restaurants in the world serving cheeseburgers. So again, you have to do what you can to keep your brand relevant. Otherwise, you’re going to kind of disappear. It’s probably the most important time to have a voice and a vision on social media right now, because that’s really what everyone’s driving through.
Is that the advice that you would give to restaurants at the moment?
NL: Give the best guest experience you possibly can, stay within all the restrictions – be safe with masks. Make them feel comfortable, whether it’s just curbside pickup or dining inside or outside dining, whatever is allowed. Create takeaway cocktails, do whatever you can to generate revenue and not leave money on the table.
Don’t be silent. If you want your business to survive, you have to stay true to what your brand is, and be able to deliver for the guests. If you’re having a hard time doing that, it’s a really good time to call people like us, Mike and myself, that will be able to help restructure your business to be more profitable and find the holes in it that will allow you to get through this tough time.
MD: I think also the idea of customer engagement. Be safe, be smart, keep your people understanding that you’re doing everything you possibly can to make them feel comfortable in your restaurant. Treat your workers extra, extra special, and that customer engagement… Engage with them on social media, engage with them out there, do outreach, now’s your time to be creative and rebrand. If you’re having trouble with that, services like us can help out with that too. Now’s the time to try things differently. Not everything travels well, you’re better off pairing down your menu, having stuff well executed, well delivered, well traveled. Every restaurant now, because of carry out and delivery and everything else, a lot of them are getting judged – even great restaurants – on their experience with that. There’s a lot of reliance on third parties like DoorDash and Grubhub and Uber Eats, and trying to get your food when they’re carrying five orders might not be so reflective on you as a restaurant or your to-go.
What geographical area does your business serve?
MD: We have two goals, we have our main geographical kind of Tri-State area, and that’s sort of where we can come in and really spend some time with the restaurant and helping our strategy and turn around under our sort of “silver lining playbook” – as we call it to help. Fix what’s needed and improve in areas necessary. And then we have our virtual model, which is literally nationwide, global where we can come in, and again, giving them the tools that they need to really succeed in this environment.
NL: And we’ve had businesses clearly filtering through the exposure of Restaurants on the Edge. I’ve had restaurants reach out from all over the world, from Istanbul to South America – in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo – a number of different places, Mexico. I have a lot of great connections in the business as well as all the places that I’ve already consulted on. Mike, with his background, and my background, it’s not our first rodeo. It’s about going into these different cultures or different environments, whether it’s domestically or international, and helping them be a better business.
MD: Truthfully another area I’d like to see, just because my family has a home in the Hamptons and I spend my time out there in Wainscott. For me, I have a history there. I used to be part of the nightlife scene over there with Star Room and Resort back in the day, doing the white parties and then running a lot of the events. Doing a lot of charity oriented events as well – like the Southampton Fresh Air Picnic. The Hamptons is my second home.
NL: And I was in Montauk once to surf.
Do you think that the pandemic will change our dining habits?
NL: 100 percent. I think it’s going to take a while, there’s going to be a number of different people that are going to be going about this in different ways. A lot of people have been kind of in shock from this. How many people are actually going to be going out and dining again? It’s just going to come in different stages. So, of course, people are going to be questionable the moment that maybe there’s a vaccine and all of a sudden restaurants don’t have masks anymore.
MD: This is going to be a decimated industry, to an extent. We’re here to help as many people as we can. But, this is going to be a three plus years sort of comeback thing and the dining habits, sure. There’s the effect of more carry out and take out I think will happen over the next lifetime. I think this is something that’s going to have an imprint for a while. Delivery, finding better curbside pickup and take out is an area of focus I think needs to improve a lot – from a customer experience.
I think we will have our roaring 20s in a few years. I think it’s been put on hold. When this is all over, I think it’s going to put an imprint on some people. I think restaurants might redefine how they do things.
NL: Think of how much more of a luxury going out to eat is going to be now when people can sit down, relax, not have to cook at their homes. People just have to stick with it, stay in the game, and stay on focus with what they do best: creating the best guest experience they can and that is what will keep your customers, your guests,
Is there anything else you guys would like to add?
MD: Negativity never leads to positive results. Keep a positive mindset, let go of the fact that you have to do this alone.
For more information about 618 Hospitality Group, visit 618hospitality.com.