Tommy Tardie | [SpotOn Restaurant Recovery Series] Pivoting a Fine Dining Restaurant with Gift Boxes, Virtual Classes, and More

John Corcoran 10:32

Yeah, you mentioned a moment ago that you love the immediacy of creating a dish and then seeing people’s responses that must have been something that you missed during the period of time of the pandemic. So let’s go to that point now. So take me back to February March 2020. Start, you know, it’s obvious it’s gathering on the news, you’re starting to see that this might be a big thing that affects you, what are you thinking?

Tommy Tardie 11:00

I tell you, John, in the beginning, I was in denial. I thought, now this isn’t going to happen. This is crazy. We’re going to be fine. We can get through this. You know, at the time there was , you know, there was a lot of chatter about the entire country of Italy closing down, and everybody just couldn’t believe it. Like how can a country close down. Come on. And I was in denial for a while and I thought it was going to pass. And then if you know, it’s as we know, isn’t it? We got an announcement, I think it was like on a Saturday, and they said that, you know, all businesses are going to have to close, which was our, I think on a Tuesday. And it was, you know, I think I think myself and a lot of people, we were just in shock. We didn’t have time to react, it was so quick, we didn’t really have time to think it was just, you know, it’s, it sounds a little redundant, but, you know, everybody was like, we just can’t believe this is actually happening. But, you know, when the dust settled in we, you know, I talked to my bookkeeper, and I said, you know, we have to lay people off and they, you know, they, we had to write these letters to formalize it. I think the reality started settling in and, you know, being an entrepreneur, you know, these are my, these are my businesses that I don’t have another revenue center. I mean, this is, this is it. So it was a lot of, you know, late nights just kind of contemplating, what are we going to do and how is this you know, how are we going to get through this but the problem was the uncertainty there was no answers no one had answers. And that’s what was probably the most challenging thing for me because I’m okay if we’re gonna have a bad month and I know you know, we’re in the middle of something that you know, historically you know, maybe summertime we have bad months it’s people leave town and we know that when we brace for it and we just get through it but the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen it was just was very very you know, it was a lot of pressure Yeah, a lot of pressure to deal with and being the you know, the president of the company and you know, the owner of IT people were looking to me for direction if people are looking to me for kind of guidance and sometimes comfort and you know, trying to stay positive during those times went inside you know, frankly I was kind of crumbling but you know, keeping a smile on my face and being like Yeah, we got this Don’t worry we’re gonna get through this and your job secure and was was really really challenging.

John Corcoran 13:58

Yeah, what did you do or try or experiment with to generate revenue and to remain Top of Mind with your customers? I understand you tried virtual classes. That was one of the gift boxes you tried.

Tommy Tardie 14:11

Sure. One of our one of the things we became known for both locations is you mentioned earlier we do have this massive spirits collection. The Flatiron Room has over 1000 different whiskey independent bottles. And then Flatiron Room has equally or Fine and Rare has equal number of bottles that spin Miss gal to cognacs to armagnacs to rums, one of the things that people turn to us for were on site whiskey classes where people would come in and they would have spirit education classes. It was a fun thing that a lot of corporations did for either their clients or their staff as a team building. And that has been a nice healthy revenue center for us. When the pandemic hit, all of our revenue shut down. I had a friend of mine who said, Hey, Tommy, can you? Can you organize one of the tastings that you do? But can we do it virtually? And at the time, you know, I was like, I don’t know, if we can do it. And you know, as my friend, I’m going to do it for you. So we assembled a little makeshift kit, and we sent it out to about 40 people with a link to a zoom call. And we did it. And it was, it was amazing. I mean, usually, whiskey classes will last around 45 minutes to an hour, this class lasted two hours, not because I was talking, but because people that were on that screen wanted to engage with their friends, they were so happy to be in an environment where they were drinking, even though they weren’t, you know, physically with somebody, you know, they were looking at the friends and they were they were having that kind of office banter. And I’ll tell you after that, he asked for another one. And then somebody asked for another one. And it just did, then it just took off. And we were doing in the heat of the pandemic, we were doing two to three easy a week, two places all over the United States. It was great. And I loved it for many reasons. One, it gave me a reason to rehire some of my team. And also, it just gave some normalcy to our business again, you know, we were kind of back in even though it was virtually.

John Corcoran 16:36

Yeah, talk about some of the other things you attempted. So gift boxes, yeah, tried and failed the delivery.

Tommy Tardie 16:43

Gift boxes, let’s talk about the good first. Sure, if boxes were something we did, and we’re still selling them now there, if you don’t want to meet online, we developed these little boxes that have just a fun little kit that you could have your own virtual tasting, you would conduct it yourself. So we did a lot of those. And I was and I was really I was you know, too for feeling pretty good about my revenue. Then I said, You know what, let’s go for takeout. Let’s do delivery. And you know, we failed miserably. We invested 1000s of dollars in takeout containers and packaging. And it didn’t work. It didn’t work. Well, you know, in the back of my mind, I thought I never really believed in fine dining takeout, inexpressibly for our place. If any of your listeners have been to my place, you know, it’s really about the experience there. I mean, don’t get me wrong, our food is excellent. But really, you know, you’re stepping back in time when you come through our doors. And, you know, you’re certainly paying for that. And that’s, you know, that’s part of the experience, our experience doesn’t translate so well to plastic takeout containers. We did sell some, we did sell some takeout. But I can honestly tell you, if I were to look at the sales list of the people we sold to, they were probably all friends of mine.

John Corcoran 18:23

Okay, they were doing me favors. Now, one thing you did that not every restaurant did is you have a database of your customers. And you also had some social media presence. There are a lot of restaurants that hadn’t collected email addresses or phone numbers so that they could text customers. There are other restaurants that don’t have any social media presence. So talk a little bit about the weather that was a lifeline or what impact that had for you.

Tommy Tardie 18:50

Um, marketing is my thing. I love marketing and I think you know, staying in touch with your audience is super important. You know, making sure that Top of Mind was important. An email blast is one way of just basically saying hey, listen, we’re in this together. You know, we can’t wait to be back to serve you. But social media was really really key for us. So we stayed online with social media and we just kept trying to communicate with our audience because we felt when they did kind of flip the switch and they allowed people to come back people were going to go back to the places that they’ve been interacting with and you know, during the pandemic, let’s face it, most people were in front of their computers. You know, a lot of them were on social media or Netflix. So we wanted to maintain a relationship with people. And so when we reopened, we could say hey, you know, we’re, you’ve been active with us now come see us in person. Yeah.

John Corcoran 20:00

And while we’re on the topic of the kind of tools that you’re utilizing, did you have to, like, pivot and spin up a website or re overhaul your website, be able to accept payments? You know, how did all that go?

Tommy Tardie 20:16

It was bad, it was bad. We, you know, we had to do that when I, when I tried my, my, my takeout service, we did create an e-commerce website, or I don’t know, he was basically a site where you could order everything online. So we put a lot of time and money into that. And we learned it, it was new, you know, it’s a new structure that we had to learn. And it was just, you know, unfortunately, it just didn’t work. It didn’t work. You know, I think the places that benefited were the people that had the infrastructure already in place. And we are doing takeout out, they did great. I don’t have I’m happy that somebody got the business. But for us, we just didn’t have the infrastructure. People didn’t never really associated us with takeout and delivery. So it didn’t, we didn’t gain any traction. And we kind of threw in the towel and said, All right, we know that our virtual tastings and our gift boxes are working. Let’s really up the ante and develop those more. So that’s what we did.

John Corcoran 21:22

In talking about the climate towards the hospitality and restaurant industry today in New York City. You know, for example, there’s the evolution of outdoor dining, which we’ve all seen, I think, in lots of different cities, where a lot of restaurants had no outdoor dining or very little and all of a sudden had to expand some going under the sidewalk, some going and taking over whole parking spaces. So what was that transition? Like? How was it working with the city in order to make that happen?

Tommy Tardie 21:54

Sure. Sure. Well, you know, the answer to your first question, like, what’s the status of? What’s the climate right now? Personally, I’m super bullish on hospitality. You know, we’ve been in this game for a long time, and I am comfortable saying like July and August, we never get inquiries for corporate events very, very infrequently. Once in a while, we’ll get a seasonal event planner that comes in and puts some holes on dates in December, because they know, but usually, we get very few inquiries. Now. We’re getting a ton of inquiries for events that are in the fall. So again, I’m super, super bullish. You know, there’s been a lot of casualties in the industry. And, you know, unfortunately, a lot of them are the ones that just didn’t have the traction. They were new businesses that didn’t really have any traction yet. And those got hit the hardest. Because, you know, frankly, one of the reasons why we made it. First of all, we’ve been around for a while and we had a built-in audience. But we also have something called a bottle key. So if you come to either of our venues, you’ll see an entire wall, filled with 1000s of bottles. And all of those bottles are owned by customers. And so we store people’s bottles in our lockers. And for me, that was a huge win.

John Corcoran 23:22

When did you start doing that?

Tommy Tardie 23:25

We started it right when we opened 10 years ago. Yeah.

John Corcoran 23:29

He used to see that like in cigar bars and stuff where people would do that sort of thing. And I have a question about that. How did you determine that that was going to be a good use of real estate? I mean, real estate in New York, so expensive, right? You’re paying a lot. But how did you know that a bit of a roll of the dice was going to be good because, you know, someone could put their bottle there and not come in for a year?

Tommy Tardie 23:53

Yes, yes, John, you’re correct. It was a total gamble. You’re bringing up some memories. I know. Sorry. I got the idea. No, no, it was it’s it’s comical because when we first opened, I didn’t you know, I I am I had a vision. I had a vision that this entire wall that I allocated would one day be filled with customer bottles. You know, that was a little short sighted. Because you know, we didn’t have any customers. We certainly didn’t have any bottles. big empty wall originally empty wall and we were scrambling for empty bottles. They just need to fill up because it was like this big eyesore and we’re filling. I remember Glenfiddich came in and they said we have a bunch of dummy bottles and I was like before they even finish this it will take them they said how many I said all of them. But I was I was I remember the first day we opened we sold two bottles and I was blown away. I was like you This could work, this really works. So we started, we started filling that up. But you know, for me, I looked at the bottles. It is, you know, it is real estate, but it’s also a decoration in it, we designed it with the bottles as a fixture of the architecture. So the bottles really and if you’ve entered if you’re a spirits drinker, but whiskey bottles, I think are beautiful. And if you apply them, they kind of create this ambient kind of amber glow. Kind of a burnt sienna. And it just looks phenomenal. In my mind, again, I was like, you know, two years ahead of myself I was but fortunately, it all worked out, it all worked out. And now when people do buy bottles with us, it’s, it’s the biggest compliment I can get. Because I know that they’ve made a commitment to us to say Listen, I really like your place. And I’m going to come back again and again. So it’s still a huge, huge thrill when we sell them and we sell, you know, we now have the opposite problem where we have more bottles than we do space. So we’ve actually created lockers. In our managers office where we store the excess bottles, those bottles that people haven’t come back for in a year.

John Corcoran 26:22

Okay, got it. Yeah, we touched briefly on the idea of outdoor dining, which a lot of restaurants spend a lot of money on. And then it was kind of heartbreaking. I live in San Francisco to go go by and see some of these restaurants that spent a lot of money on building outdoor dining. And then, you know, in Fall 2020, we had another spike and COVID. And all of a sudden they couldn’t even use these areas that they spent 10s of $1,000 on. So looking back on that was, you know, would you do anything differently as far as outdoor dining is concerned?

Tommy Tardie 26:56

Well, I think I was in the same boat with a lot of people, everybody. The chatter was how long is this gonna last? How long? Are they gonna allow us to have it? And it was because of that, that people were a little reluctant to put money into it, right? Because like, you know, money is super tight right now? And are we going to invest it into something that the city may take away from us next week? You know, there wasn’t a lot of communication. And there, there certainly weren’t any definitive dates being given out. So what I’ve witnessed here in New York City was there was a bit of an evolution. The first incarnation of, of outdoor dining was was he was very, very rudimentary it was, I mean, I remember going to some places, and they would be, you know, they’d be like a lawn chair, in one corner, they’d be an orange cone in the center, and they would be maybe a stanchion, you know, and maybe a small pot to kind of section off an area, you know, and frankly, people were happy. They’re like, hey, great, I’m getting some. This is a bit of a normalcy. And then the next round was people would build the gates that went around it, like kind of the, almost like a fence. And at that point, the city got involved. And I’m sure they did in San Francisco as well. They said, Look, we understand you guys are going through a tough time right now. And we want to be accommodating, but we have to keep it safe. You know? Because, you know, people sitting in the street eating Yeah, next year. Yeah, we’re in San Francisco traffic. They don’t, they don’t get along. So well. Yeah. So they created some rules that we had to follow. And, you know, we followed that like everybody else. And then the next incarnation, they said, Alright, let’s put a platform down. So people aren’t actually physically standing on the road, we’ll make a floor. Then we did that. And then right after that would have been a good time to be into the portable tent industry. Because everybody bought the portable tents. It was, you couldn’t you couldn’t walk, you know, 20 feet without seeing one of those white? Yeah, portable party tents, which we did, too. We bought eight of them. And then, you know, that took us through most of the summer. And then, you know, people it started raining. And then that’s when the big pivot started. People said, I think the governor, the governor, told us that this is going to be permanent, this is going to be a permanent thing, and they’re not going to be charging us. And that’s when a lot of other people decided, Okay, let’s do this. Right. And, you know, and frankly, that’s when the joke started of people having outdoor, indoor-outdoor restaurants. You know, basically, you were eating outside but it was like you’re eating it in other restaurants, right? Right. Some of them were a little better or worse than others. But for me, when we, when we decided to do the one for Fine and Rare, it was important that we kind of stuck to creating something that was an extension of our brand. So, you know, if you go to our outdoor dining area now, it really I’m comfortable saying it really is. It’s very much an extension of our brand. I mean, you feel like you’re somewhat in a part of Fine and Rare.

John Corcoran 30:31

Yeah, it can’t be something that you just kind of slap together. And it’s only you, you are fortunate, there are some restaurants that due to physical constraints, they hadn’t even anticipated they just don’t have the outside space. Yes to them in order to put it but sounds like you were fortunate enough that you had that space to put the to use

Tommy Tardie 30:48

My restaurant Fine and Rare, where we were able to do that. The Flatiron Room, unfortunately, directly in front of our building is a no standing zone. So we couldn’t. Yeah, we unfortunately couldn’t do it there. So that took a little hit on us. But uh.

John Corcoran 31:06

Yeah, well, what about I want to ask you, if you as you look back, is there anything that you would have done differently? For example? I mean, you have two locations? Would you have? Maybe it’s hard with the fine dining format. But would you have, in retrospect, now hindsight being 2020 had a delivery component to your business? Or if you know, you know, have a quick serve element to your business or a takeout element to your business? if, if, you know, if you could have gone back two years from now and changed what you did.

Tommy Tardie 31:43

Now, there are things I would do differently. But that’s not one of them. I think what I would have done differently is not tried it. That’s probably what I would have done. It’s just, you know, I really, I enjoy eating out, I eat out a lot. If I’m going to have delivery, I don’t order fine dining. I don’t, you know, I think fine dining and you know, some, it’s really meant to be played in a certain way. I’m a big believer, you know, the first bites with the eyes, the second bites with the nose, the third bites with your, your mouth, I think that’s part of the thing you’re paying for. I mean, chefs are artists, especially, you know, chefs and fine dining restaurants, and they create something that is as visually appealing as it is, you know, appetizing? So I don’t believe it works. So well. You know, if we had the infrastructure, sure, I would have done that. But it’s just something that we’ve never done that I wasn’t familiar with. And like, like anything, right? I mean, once you learn something, you realize that, wow, there’s a lot more to it than I expected and us, you know, just kind of tapping or tone that that blue water made me realize, like, wow, this is it’s another business, you know, I mean, getting it right. You know, making sure that the temperature that is that you’re bringing things out at needs to be, you gotta anticipate, like, you know, how long it’s going to take to get there. So there’s a lot of factors that go involved, I would have probably, you know, had had I do over again, I would have probably invested more in our marketing and design of the virtual tastings. 

John Corcoran 33:37

Very cool. All right, last question. So we’re a big fan of gratitude over here and being expressing your gratitude to others, and particularly others who’ve been helpful throughout your career or through your business. Yeah, as you look around, maybe at peers and contemporaries or others who have supported you along the way mentors, that sort of thing. Who do you respect? Who do you admire? Interesting thing and that could be other restaurant tours. Who else are you grateful to? I know your management team, who are you grateful to as you look to the future today?

Tommy Tardie 34:15

Ah, you know, I think, um, I, I’m certainly grateful for my management team. I always look at the people that work for me. I’m grateful that we’ve been successful in a really challenging, challenging industry. And when people ask me, you know, well, what do you do, what do you give your success to and what do you know, what do you know, what, what made you successful and I, and I tell them, it’s not like we have a beautiful venue. If you ever come here, you’ll see it. It’s a really stunning venue, but frankly, anybody can, you know, write a check and make a beautiful venue. You know, you hired Right design team, you found the right space and you have a beautiful space. Then we have a huge whiskey collection, we have a huge spirits collection in general. But frankly, anybody can get that collection. You know, it’s not it’s not rocket science, you know, you have to write a check, and you have to spend some legwork trying to find these rare bottles, but anybody can do it. What they can’t do is the formula of hospitality. And I’m only one person, I’m the owner, but I’m only one person and I have a vision and I want to see it executed. But I can’t do it myself. I can’t greet every guest, I certainly can’t wait tables, you know, my hospitality experience. It’s really the people that work here. My, my, my colleagues are the ones that there are, there are ambassadors, you know, during this entire ordeal, you know, we tried to get people back on the books as quickly as possible. And I’m happy to say as much as you know, there’s a lot of industry-shortened jobs there, and we have almost all of our team back. And these guys are the rock stars behind our operation. They’re the ones that put a smile on their face, that are representing our brand and are delivering this, this, this service. And this level of excellent hospitality that people keep coming back for. It’s so easy right now to be disgruntled and to be angry at the universe. But the people that come in and have to serve other people during this time are really just, you know, they’re tremendous. And I have the utmost respect for them. I see him every day doing it. And I’m just like, you know, I hope they know and I you know, I certainly tell them, but that they’re they’re really the they’re the ones that have have contributed so much to making this successful.

John Corcoran 36:53

Tommy, thank you so much for coming and sharing your story here today. He has been so heroic, all the different efforts to keep this part of our economy alive. And so we really appreciate that we appreciate all that you do. The Flatiron Room and Fine and Rare are the names of your restaurants. Where can people go to check them out and to learn more about your venues?

Tommy Tardie 37:17

Where can you go? Go to and The Flatiron Room is located on 26th Street between Broadway and six in Manhattan, and then Fine and Rare is on 37th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenue, about an 11 minute walk from The Flatiron Room. So you know come check us out but honestly, wherever you are, go visit your neighborhood places the places that you’ve never been to visit them you know the places that just open that really need some traction, go visit them doesn’t matter where you go, just go out you know, spend some money you know, support the people because that’s that’s really the small businesses are what make our city Great. So, you know, just love.

John Corcoran 38:03

Awesome, Tommy, thanks so much.

Outro 38:06

Thank you for listening to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast with John Corcoran. Find out more at and while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast.