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Q&A with Emily Hyland on Adapting Her Restaurants during COVID-19

The co-founder of Emmy Squared and Emily talks pivoting her business during COVID-19, putting employees first and getting creative with their offerings.

a group of people sitting at a table with a plate of food

As we all have come to know, it’s been a year unlike any other in modern history. Despite being gutted economically, restaurants, their owners and essential workers, have found ways to persevere. 

We spoke with restaurant owner and industry leader Emily Hyland on navigating her restaurants through the pandemic. She’s the Co-Founder and Partner of beloved restaurants, Emmy Squared and Emily, with locations throughout the New York City area, D.C., Philadelphia, Nashville, and most recently, Louisville.

Emily Hyland, Co-Founder and Partner of Emmy Squared and Emily

Emily Hyland, Co-Founder and Partner of Emmy Squared and Emily

With the emphasis on online ordering over the last 6+ months, how have you adjusted your business due to COVID-19? What has worked well or what hasn’t?

It's been about simplifying — really narrowing down the scope of what people are interested in ordering and making some items that were only available for dine-in now easily available for to-go. That was one of the first adjustments we made there. But really, our model has become about efficiency and being able to safely execute [service] for employees at the restaurant and getting the food quickly into the hands of couriers and into the hands of guests.

You bring up a point that's obviously very top of mind. In regards to safety for your workers, how have you handled concerns? As a business leader, how do you support your teams?

In regards to safety, it’s really just about training the staff to be disciplined and wear their masks in the appropriate way. Our leadership team has no tolerance for people who don’t. It’s about wearing masks appropriately, wearing gloves, washing your hands religiously, disinfecting, etc. It’s about taking the extra time to be diligent — not only for the restaurant community — but for yourself and your family. 

I've learned a lot from my business partner and our CEO, Howard Greenstone — a lifelong restaurateur. During this time, he has led as a calm and steady guide for the organization. He reinforced the importance of being at the helm with clarity even during times of freneticism and uncertainty, like back in March when we had to shut down for a few weeks and figure out the path to reopening. 

It was all about embracing the employees and being able to keep as many people paid and employed so that on the other side of this, as humans, they have jobs. We focused on doing everything we could to keep our management team in place during the uncertainty of the early pandemic period. That made it a lot easier to reopen. It’s reiterated for me one of my founding values, which is really about being very people-oriented and trying to lead with compassion. 

Yeah. That's so important, too — meeting employees with compassion and empathy. They want to be there for you in the way you want to be there for them. As you adjusted and simplified your menu, are there things that worked better than others?

We're very blessed that we sell pizza as our primary source of food. I feel really grateful because that already is a food that people — especially in New York — associate with delivery or takeaway. So there was less having to pivot like so many fine-dining restaurants have had to do.

It was more about being creative. For example, a lot of our consumer base in New York was out on Long Island for the summer. So we asked ourselves, how do we logistically get burger kits out there for people on the weekends who are safely socially distancing and barbecuing outdoors? How do we develop an affordable  “family meal” promotion on Friday nights that guests will be excited about? It was an awesome way to let people into our community and offer foods that make them feel really good. So it's been more of a strategic evolution around that. 

At BentoBox, we’ve seen a lot of restaurants offering meal kits as a unique and interactive way of providing guests the on-premise experience at home. With the Hamptons, do you have plans to continue some of those efforts?

Not the things like The Hamptons delivery but the nice thing is that we're really interested in hearing ideas from our managers and the teams on the ground. As things come up, we'll test them out. That’s actually how The Hamptons trips came to be. It was a suggestion from someone and it was a real hit.

Emmy Squared Detroit-style pizza to-go

Emmy Squared Detroit-style pizza to-go

To continue on the theme of creative offerings, tell us a little about how virtual pizza making classes has helped your business during this time.

That is my favorite thing I'm doing right now. I miss being able to walk around and touch tables in the dining room, getting to interact with guests and build excitement around what we offer and make the experience really fun. Pizza is supposed to be fun. So we're leading those once a month online and those are open to the public. We also hold corporate classes, which have been a huge success. 

It's very hands-on. You literally put your hands on the dough. You cook a pizza in real-time that you get to eat while sipping on your cocktail. We utilize these classes to promote our new honey purveyor, Zach and Zoe Honey, which is a small, black-owned family apiary making delicious raw honey in New Jersey. We do trivia prizes and giveaways, it’s really fun. 

Check out upcoming Virtual Pizza Making Classes here

Left to Right: Signature pizza and virtual pizza making kit plus cookbook

Left to Right: Signature pizza and virtual pizza making kit plus cookbook

While COVID-19 has greatly affected restaurants, not all of them have been affected the same. What has it been like in each of your markets?

It certainly varies state-to-state. For instance, Nashville has been very different from New York from the get-go. We have a gigantic patio at one of our restaurants in Nashville. So that lends itself to easier outdoor dining than a restaurant in New York that has less physical space for it. For our restaurant in Philadelphia, we're trying to build momentum as a fixture in the community. This time has really allowed us to establish relationships with the people who live in that neighborhood. 

New York has such small pockets of concentrated communities. I feel really glad that we are — at our heart again — a neighborhood restaurant in the neighborhoods we're in. And it reflects for the guests who are continuing to come in, dine and feel that sense of belonging to the neighborhood. 

As it's space-dependent, depending on your market, I'm sure you're starting to think about plans for when it gets colder.

I think we have to lend ourselves to flexibility. Right? As humans, we're learning what it means to adapt in this time. And I don't think that is any different in any business that we're in. Being able to pivot and adjust the space for everybody’s safety. My original restaurant in Clinton Hill, we're so tiny there, that even though we can have some indoor occupancy, we're opting to stick with the outdoor tables for now and reevaluate as it does get colder. At other restaurants, we have a much bigger footprint indoors so that we can really be socially distant with the tables.

A signature dish from one of the restaurants

A signature dish from one of the restaurants

You had mentioned that your primary product is pizza which has always been a takeout operation or easy to transport. Are there any best practices that you would like to share with other restaurants?

I think in terms of maximizing takeout, it's all about efficiency. It's about a really clear procedure for expediting. Whoever is running the kitchen is the linchpin between the food coming out and the guests receiving the food and that person really has to have a system like an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), a step-by-step process in place. It’s about having a process that works, is written down so team members are all on the same page about who's doing what and how it fits into a larger whole of functionality.

As you continue to grow and scale and focus on online ordering, how do you maintain your brand image?

That's always a really interesting question, because when I opened the original Emily and then the first Emmy Squared — both in Brooklyn near my home — I was there at the door hosting every single day and doing everything I could. That's what helps build community: being there and being the example of best practices and being a strong leader and creating a sense of core values in action. 

And so what we're trying to do — and I don't think there's necessarily a science to it — is really just lean into the qualitative spirit of the community that we have built. It's less about top-down now and more about the really great teams of people that are all in different states across the country. It’s about being your genuine self and not bullshitting. We try to do that with our ingredients and the care that goes into the food and the way in which we interact with guests. We actually really do care and that's important to me.

It’s hard to imagine opening a business during a pandemic, but you recently just opened up the Louisville location. What has it been like opening a new restaurant during this contentious time?

This project [Louisville location] was in the works and already under construction [before the pandemic]. We made the choice to open slowly by doing takeout. It's not like any other restaurant opening I've ever done. Normally I fly down and participate in orientation and I'm there for the first days of service. Instead, our COO is down there and our chef has been transplanted down there, running the show. But just like every other organization, we're learning to adapt to new modalities like Zoom and Google Meet.

Emily Hyland, Co-Founder and Partner of Emmy Squared and Emily Pizza

Emily Hyland, Co-Founder and Partner of Emmy Squared and Emily Pizza

What would you say to somebody who has one location or one concept and they’re thinking about opening a second?

This is actually an advantageous time to perhaps negotiate with landlords for brick and mortar locations. I feel like landlords with empty spaces are going to be incentivized to work out deals. I think patience is really important. 

The other thing I tell all new business owners, too, is to spend the money on a lawyer to do the proper paperwork for your company the first time around because that's a lesson I learned the hard way. It’s important to have proper agreements and contracts and someone who's a professional reading those documents.

What can we expect from you next?

Right now we're just really trying to think of all the creative ways to stay afloat during this time and maximize our ability to keep people employed, keep guests fed, and keep the momentum going. We’re optimistic and hopeful that there will be a post-vaccine world and that we can evolve on the other side of this and continue to grow.

What have you learned over the past few months?

It's been really nice to look at the value of community and being in contact with people, even if only through a screen. For me, being able to build yoga teaching out of my home and be able to have that offering has been really grounding for me — not only in that [yoga] world — but also my work in the restaurant group. 

And though my employees are busy they are always welcome guests in my classes, which is an offering  I'm hoping to build up more with them. Also, we just started an Emmy Squared book club; with the reach of Zoom, this budding offering is easily available to all of our team members.

Be sure to visit the websites for Emmy Squared or Emily, and while you’re there sign up for a virtual pizza making class or pre-order Family Meal, directly on the website. If you’re in the area, drop by for a bite or order takeout. As always, if you’re interested in learning how BentoBox can help your restaurant with a new website, online ordering or ecommerce tools, get in touch with a specialist for a free online demo.

Let's chat.

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