This week we talked to Marc Glosserman, Founder and CEO of Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York City and Washington, DC. Hill Country, a multi-year and award winning participant at Brisket King, has stayed open for takeout and delivery throughout the pandemic, and has expanded their retail offerings nationwide since March. Marc talks about the issues they’ve faced with dine-in service, their mail order delivery business and why he’s hopeful for the future of the restaurant industry. You can support Hill Country by ordering takeout or delivery, eating at the restaurant when allowed, ordering home delivery from Goldbely or ordering meal kits through Baldor. As told to Sarah Strong, this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Food Karma: Did you fully close your restaurants?
Marc Glosserman: We did sort of a combination of closing and staying open. Going into Covid, we had actually just closed a restaurant in Brooklyn, so we had three restaurants: our New York flagship, our Washington, DC flagship and then Hill Country Chicken, which is our fried chicken and pie fast casual joint in Madison Square Park. We temporarily closed Hill Country Chicken, but we kept the other restaurants open for take out and delivery, essentially anything that we were allowed to do, that we weren’t restricted from, we stayed open for.
It’s been challenging for all restaurants everywhere. The positive for us is that we had a strong takeout business and we had a very strong delivery business already, so it wasn’t like we had to pivot so much to get that going. In fact, we saw that business grow pretty significantly, particularly in the first couple months of the shutdown when people couldn’t eat out.
Negatively, we’ve got these large restaurants. Our takeout and delivery business was maybe 10% of our overall business pre-Covid, but the bulk of our business is group dining, it’s the bar, it’s live music, it’s private events and catering, so all of that went away overnight and really none of it, with the exception of 25% dine-in, has come back or came back at any point. We saw our delivery business probably triple, but it didn’t come anywhere close to making up for the loss in business. We’ve probably been doing close to 30% of the sales we would normally do, in certain cases even lower than that 25-30%.
Like many of our restaurant peers, we were forced to lay people off. We had to lay off about 85% of our team, but we were fortunate in that we were able to preserve our core senior team who are all now wearing multiple hats. Their roles have expanded into not just managing the restaurants but running operational positions that normally they would be supervising, but everyone’s pitching in in a different way just to make it through. That’s the challenge, the pain, and then the silver linings of being able to pivot because we had delivery and pick up in place, we never had to close completely.
What we’ve really focused on, in addition to keeping our team employed and keeping the lights on and keeping Hill Country going and providing the delivery and pickup, is what else can we do as a producer of barbecue to get our offerings in people’s homes. We set up part of our store as a market where we had everything from sundries to packaged food goods and batched cocktails. We launched national mail-order with Goldbely. We launched a partnership with Baldor where they’re distributing barbecue boxes, which are really like barbecue meal kits, for at home. They are distributed as far east as the Hamptons, as far north as Boston and as far south as the Washington, DC area. We’ve really focused on retail, e-commerce and other offerings outside of the four walls of the restaurant to develop these new business lines, which take time to grow, but that’s because the restaurants have more or less been moth balls during this time. Again, trying to find silver linings has enabled us and forced us to focus on these other parts of the business, which we really hadn’t spent much time on before.
FK: Do takeout cocktails at all make up for your bar business?
MG:The takeout cocktail has been kind of a thing that people will add on to their delivery basket or add it to their meal kit. I think it had it’s moment when we were initially authorized to be able to do cocktails, it was a novelty and we saw a big bump. We’re still doing batched cocktails for delivery, and we continue to try to keep the cocktails fresh and new and provide new, different menu items. It’s something that I think is going to survive and have a legacy beyond Covid, to the extent that we’re still able to deliver cocktails, but you’re comparing that to what normally would account for anywhere from 25-33% of our overall business, so not having our bar makes a huge impact.
FK: Did you have outdoor and, when allowed, indoor dining?
MG: We did outdoor dining over the summer, and as soon as 25% was allowed we opened up indoors. We had a tough circumstance with our outdoor dining on 26th Street by our Manhattan flagship because our landlord had been planning to do a major sidewalk renovation. Knowing that this was going to happen, we didn’t establish a major outdoor presence and make the investment because we knew we were going to have to take it down. There was a ten week project that was just completed in Manhattan to replace the sidewalk, so we have not really been able to have outdoor seating up until now. Our plan is to establish a significant outdoor plan hopefully around March.
FK: What was the situation in DC?
MG: DC allowed outdoor dining, but it hasn’t been as generous in terms of what’s been allowed on the street. Unfortunately, we were not able to do outdoor dining there because of the zoning and how our sidewalk works, but we opened for dine in as soon as we were able to. They had closed down indoor dining, and it just reopened again. Within five minutes of opening, we had about thirty people come in.
FK: What have you learned about your business during the pandemic?
MG: First and foremost, we’re blessed with a great team of super dedicated, incredibly resilient people who were determined from day one to keep the restaurants open and do whatever it took. They’ve shown that, as cliche as it sounds, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I have no doubt that coming out of this we’re going to have a stronger team, a more dedicated team, really ready and energized to get back to normal and build our business back.
We’ve really looked at ourselves for a long time as just a restaurant operator and we’ve been forced to think about Hill Country differently. Yeah, we’re restaurants first and foremost, but we also produce a lot of food and there are other applications for getting that food to our guests and to our fans in innovative ways that we hadn’t thought of before including mail order and meal kits and in retail. That’s a whole area of our business that we are just beginning to tap into and figure out the opportunity there.
We’ve also gained an incredible appreciation for our guests and how supportive they’ve been through all of this, not only their continued patronage, whether it’s through delivery or pickup, but also the outpouring of support on social media and email, which has been great and we really appreciate.
FK: Were you on Goldbely before?
MG: We were not. We were doing some mail order, but we didn’t really have an official kind of mail order presence. Over the years we had shipped product at various times, but now we’ve set up a whole operation for it.
FK: Has it been a fruitful endeavor?
MG: It has been. We have a pretty steady, consistent business, and then we get bumps for holidays. In December, we had a big spike in orders. We’re gearing up for the Super Bowl. We’ve got a number of specials that we’re promoting for the big game. It’s been a good source of additional business for us, and again, it’s the type of thing that takes time to build, but it has been not only a way for us to generate additional sales during Covid, but also a way for us to extend our brand and stay relevant.
FK: Are you optimistic for the future of the industry?
MG: I actually am really optimistic and I’m sincerely optimistic. While I would never have wished this on Hill Country or on any restaurant or our industry, it’s been awful, when you ask most people what they want to do when this thing ends, people want to do one of two things: they want to travel and they want to go to a restaurant. I think there’s so much pent up demand for it, and we’re going to feel back to normal when we’re all eating at restaurants regularly again. I just don’t see that going away. I think the future for dine-in is going to be really positive over the next few years.
One of the hardest things that we’ve had to contend with in our industry has been all of these rising costs. I think that this is an opportunity for a reset, particularly in real estate, because there’s going to be a lot of empty space as a result of what’s happened and all of the retail and businesses and restaurants that have unfortunately had to close. How quickly people go back to work downtown and how many days they are in the offices is also going to have a big impact on our business, particularly in our lunch business.
Same thing with tourism, how quickly does tourism come back? Are business throwing events? I think there’s going to be a real push to have the lifecycle events, a lot of stuff that’s been on hold. I question what’s going to happen with corporate events, if there’s going to be the same demand for corporate events, particularly with people working remotely. I’m raising as many questions as have answers but I think in general I feel good about the future of our business, particularly what we do because it caters specifically to group dining, catering, live events, live music, a bar scene, these are all the things that people are really hungry for.
As a business owner, as hard as this has been, I’m looking forward to our business getting back to normal, but as a resident of New York, I cannot wait to go back to eat out at my favorite restaurants. I think if that’s the feeling that most people have, that’s got to be a really good thing for the future of restaurants.