Opening their own restaurant in January 2018 was a longtime dream come true for Jamie and Niw Rattanapamonsook. Suspending in-person dining in the spring of 2020 due to COVID-19 put that dream — and the future of their tiny Thai Street Market — in doubt.
Sure, Jamie Rattanapamonsook had heard that social media marketing could bolster takeout orders. But how to do it?
"I felt overwhelmed," said the mother of three home-schooled children. "I'm just not a tech kind of person."
Through the St. Paul Restaurant Resiliency Program, more than 50 small and struggling restaurants were paired with tech-savvy consultants to improve everything from marketing and online ordering to website design and networking with other restaurants. Jamie Rattanapamonsook learned how to create months of social media posts and use technology to automatically update their social media.
"The biggest result is just me feeling that a little of my time is freed up," she said.
The program has been through two phases since the pandemic began and kicked off a third this week, said Jonathan Banks, president and CEO of NCXT, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm that designed and is implementing the project. The goal was to help prepare restaurants to do business during the pandemic. They found some "really good opportunities" for improvement, Banks said.
A survey of participants found:
• 90% are independent or family owned and 48% are minority owned.
• 94% lost revenue because of COVID.
• 56% did not offer delivery service; 65% offered curbside pickup.
"We found there are many who need help getting just to a certain level where they all need to be," Banks said. "Some you cannot find online."
This fall and winter, consultants hope to continue using technology to help struggling restaurants — especially those that are "historically disadvantaged" or located in corridors that suffered from the social unrest of the past year-plus. Companies such as Land O'Lakes and U.S. Foods are partners, Banks said.
A number of business people have volunteered and about a dozen young people through the city's Right Track internship program have gained real-world experience through marketing, data analytics and one-on-one interviews with owners to help assess their most pressing needs.
Ramsey County helped provide funding for the interns, said Ling Becker, director of Workforce Solutions and executive director of the Ramsey County Workforce Innovation Board. In addition, the county has added restaurant openings to it online job listing site.
"We all have to sort of roll up our sleeves and do our best in supporting these businesses right now," said Becker, who is a member of the steering committee for Full Stack, which was launched in 2017 to promote innovation, attract tech entrepreneurs and market the city to tech-based companies. "What we do for these projects is we're investing in people."
Mary Rick, director of Business Development at St. Paul's Department of Planning and Economic Development, also serves on Full Stack's steering committee and works to connect local businesses with innovators. The decision was made soon after COVID hit that St. Paul's small restaurant owners urgently needed just that kind of help.
"We knew when [the pandemic] started we need to do something for technology for brick-and-mortar businesses," she said. "We had to figure out ways to support restaurants that had relied on foot traffic."
NCXT has found corporate partners to step up and provide cost-free help, Rick said. The city's financial investment has been less than $100,000 through Full Stack, she said.
"We're really excited to be building on this past work," Rick said of the Resiliency Program's latest phase. "And we hope that the restaurants will be more resilient. It's not just a one-time shot. Obviously, patterns are changing."
On a recent weeknight at Thai Street Market, a young woman was darting from table to table in a small but crowded dining room. At the same time, she kept up with a steady stream of calls for takeout orders.
"Our business has gradually increased" since working with the resiliency program, Jamie Rattanapamonsook said. Banks played a key role in helping her set up the restaurant's social media site.
"I have no background in business. It is hard to talk to people who are businessy," she said. "Now we have another way to attract customers, instead of relying completely on word of mouth."