Small Business Shoutout: Steve's Hot Dogs
Once the pandemic was declared, I started reaching out to various business owners to see if they wanted to share their story. The story you and I don't know, but we should know. Being a business owner is stressful in itself, but then you have to shut down (in some way or another) because of a pandemic ... stress is understatement. I wanted to give these business owners a voice. The general public needs to know the inner workings of a small business. My hope is after reading some of the thoughts and stories from these business owners, a little more compassion will be had by everyone on the outside looking in.
Every Friday, I plan to feature a small business in a "Small Business Shoutout" feature. This Friday belongs to Steve's Hot Dogs.
A Leap of Faith in the Time of COVID: Investing in a Restaurant
By: Danni Eickenhorst
In January of this year, my friend Steve Ewing reached out to me and told me that he was going to have to close his restaurant Steve’s Hot Dogs in Tower Grove. The restaurant was our family’s favorite and one that I’d been lucky enough to be involved with on and off for years. Although we hadn’t worked together recently, I’d worked with Steve to help him with marketing on and off for years. I had no idea things had gotten so bad. Knowing that he needed some help, I immediately agreed to jump in and help him craft the closing announcement - a press release, a few social media posts and a farewell video.
As I sat up late one night pulling together photos to create his farewell video for the announcement, it struck me that there was SO MUCH MAGIC in the restaurant he’d created. He’d built a real community of fans and foodies who’d rallied around his location on The Hill and he’d successfully rallied people around opening a second location in Tower Grove - funded by a crowdfunding campaign. He’d won tons of national accolades for the food itself, and as I looked back at photos and social posts with his audience, it was clear to me that many people were as attached to this hot dog shop as I was. There were so many common faces from event to event, and I was overcome with sadness thinking about having to share this news.
As I was editing the video, I texted Steve and said, “But do you have to close it?”
I am a marketing and business consultant who’s married to a very entrepreneurial accountant. Together, our minds immediately started churning through possibilities and solutions. How can we save this restaurant?
When we initially approached Steve about saving the shop, he really didn’t think it could be done. He’d been struggling for so long with feast or famine business that I’m sure it must have felt insurmountable. So, instead of pushing him to consider staying open, we respected his choice and shifted gears into closing mode. We moved forward with the announcement of the impending closure. We announced the closure on a Sunday night - and told people we’d be open for one more week to give them a chance to have their favorite hot dogs one more time. We’d end our run with a concert by Steve next door at the Tick Tock Tavern.
Within an hour, reporters were calling Steve for the scoop. By Monday morning, the story was in every media outlet in town. When the shop opened on Monday, the lines were already out the door - and the week’s sales quickly became a record-breaking. Steve and his team were so busy in fact that they had to close the shop periodically most days to restock food, smoke dogs and prepare for the next wave of business. The food was selling faster than the staff could make it.
A Leap of Faith
By the end of the week, Steve had a different perspective. He’d seen people come through the shop that he hadn’t seen in years - and it was really the kids that made an impression on him. So many kids (mine included) had come through the shop over the years and enjoyed Steve’s Hot Dogs as a family treat after a trip to the zoo. In a way, he’d watched them grow. He became motivated to keep the restaurant open as much for these kids as for himself.
As an incredibly emotional week drew to a close I received a text message that said, “Let’s partner to try and save it.” I don’t know that I’ve received a text in my life that’s made me as happy as that message did.
After he shut the doors to the shop for good, we sat down and had a long talk and decided we should regroup and find a way to reopen the shop.
For the next several weeks, we did a post mortem of the business. What worked? What didn’t? My husband Marcus reviewed the financials. I analyzed the marketing and sales data. We were lucky enough to keep Joe Zeable, the Kitchen Manager, engaged throughout the process and he helped us revamp our menu a bit, and redesign the kitchen to be more efficient. We had a plan and we were certain we could make it work. We decided to make changes immediately, but to relaunch as soon as possible - and to keep continuously working to improve our business practices over time. Events and live music were a critical part of our plan to turn the business around.
Relaunching Just in Time
Looking back, I’m so thankful that we moved so fast. Investing in anything - especially a restaurant - and moving quickly can give you heartburn, and we were all nervous initially, but as we started working together, everything seemed to fall into place beautifully. I was working through technology improvements, Joe was perfecting our menu, Steve was helping us navigate licensing and permits, and Marcus was getting everything in line financially - and it was all working so well, it seemed like it was meant to be. If we’d have waited even just a few weeks, I can’t say that the reopening would have happened at all with what was to come with COVID-19 and its impact on restaurants.
On February 26, 2020 we reopened our doors after being closed for the better part of a month. Those first three weeks were a whirlwind. Business was strong - and we just hoped that we could hold onto the momentum. I had two trips planned during that time - one to California for work and one to Hawaii for pleasure - and Steve was more than capable of helming the shop while I was gone. It felt like a really crazy moment to launch anything, when I wouldn’t really be there to help out - but we knew we’d figure it out. My husband and kids worked at the shop when I was gone to a conference. I helped remotely with technology and marketing while I traveled, and Steve made the shop sing.
When You Plan, God Laughs.
In March, I was on a long-planned family trip to Hawaii - one that started out fine and quickly became terrifying as we watched COVID ravage the mainland from afar. I got a call from Steve that the city of St. Louis was mandating that we close our dining room and shift to carryout and delivery only. Very quickly I had to pull together the technology to support cashless online ordering - and I had to launch delivery services like GrubHub, DoorDash and Postmates. These were things that were on a longer-term list of priorities for our business and suddenly they were at the forefront.
Once we were home and self-quarantined, we kept rolling with the changes - finding ways to protect our employees, to protect our customers, and to keep generating enough business to keep people employed through this crisis. While we adapted, people seemed to take note of how hard we were trying to rise to the occasion. We were absolutely overwhelmed by the number of people who made a point to seek us out and support us, given all that we’d been through in recent weeks.
An Essential Neighborhood Service
By late March, we were a bit humbled to realize that we’d gone from a fun neighborhood hot dog joint to an essential neighborhood service. When people weren’t able to get out or were too scared to navigate a grocery store, they’d come and get their meals from our shop. We started providing meals to programs that fed school children who were no longer getting school lunches. We began offering family packs so that people could stock up on multiple days of meals for their families with one quick stop.
During the initial shutdown, we were very short-staffed. We had some employees who were scared to work - and we’d lost others when we’d shut down the shop. Realizing how much our community had come to need the shop, the Ewing family worked hard to make sure that shop was there. Steve’s wife Beth and his daughter Madeline began working side by side with Steve each day to run the shop.
In April, two customers reached out and asked us if they could purchase a family pack for a family in need. They saw the struggle in the community and wanted to help out. These small acts of generosity led us to launch a new program #FeedThePeople - where we provide meals to first responders and people in need within our community with a no questions asked policy. Through our online ordering, people are able to purchase a family pack on our website and when people reach out because they are in need, we’re able to give them a meal with no questions asked. We’ve helped people dealing with layoffs, terminal illness, domestic violence and more.
From April through the end of June, we’d given away more than 900 meals. The program allowed our team to have a way to give back in a time of great anxiety and sadness, and it helped us pay back some of the generosity that the community has shown to us. The program has been one of the unexpected blessings to come out of COVID for our business. We hope to continue the program for as long as our doors are open.
Feast or Famine
Since our reopening, we’ve had record-breaking days in our business and days where our team has had very little work to do. As we talk to our friends in the restaurant industry around town, they are seeing the same thing. It has been difficult to predict what business will look like from one week to the next, but we keep pivoting and shifting, and our loyal customers keep coming out to support their favorite hot dog joint. It has been heartwarming to see the way that the community has taken a sense of ownership and pride in ensuring that this little “restaurant that could” continues to stick around.
From March until early July, we didn’t allow a single customer into our dining room. We did carryout, curbside and delivery orders only. Most customers were understanding and knew that we were simply trying to look out for the health of our staff and customers. Others pushed back - and in time, even those that had been understanding seemed to grow weary of our limited way of doing business. They wanted to be able to walk up and place an order without pulling out their phones. They wanted to come in from the heat to place an order, rather than sitting in the hot sun waiting for their food. Honestly, we couldn’t blame them.
Earlier this month, we moved into the next phase of our business - one that is allowing us to begin to be more welcoming and accommodating to our customers. I imagine that this latest phase will be our way of doing business for some time to come. We ask people to distance themselves, but we allow them to walk part way into our restaurant to order and pick up food. With the current layout, we’re able to be welcoming to our customers while also protecting and distancing our employees.
These last few months have been challenging for sure, but the opportunity to work with our team to resurrect something so beloved has been a huge blessing for our family. To an outsider, investing in a restaurant right before COVID may seem like a crazy move or a stroke of bad luck, but it has given us a new family in our staff and customers - and something fun to look forward to each day, especially on days that are otherwise full of fear and anxiety. At the very least, it’s been a fun distraction - but at times it has been much more - something that has restored our faith in community and people.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I’m a HUGE fan of Steve’s music. I have been since I was 15 years old. When I first moved here and started school at Belleville West, the music of The Urge was something that bonded me to my new friends. There were house parties, all ages shows at Mississippi Nights, and road trips to the Golden Dragon in Carbondale. 15 year old me would be so stoked to see where I’m at now.
Imagine my delight and surprise to grow up and find out what an amazing human being my favorite rock star is too.
He’s an incredible family man, a positive force in the community, and an ideal partner for my husband and I, as we run the day to day business. There have been moments throughout this process where I’ve taken a look at the process we’ve just been through and think about how Steve has handled our merger into the business with such positivity and grace. Because of the nature of the relaunch, we immediately had to jump into the business, take ahold of it and start making big changes and important decisions on the fly. For most, that would be difficult to endure - handing over some of their business control and trusting that things would work out. There was never a moment where I saw his ego bruised - or where he pushed back. Instead, he doubled down on his faith in us, and shared his vision and wisdom from the years of working the restaurant. At every step of the way, this has felt like a seamless transition from a one-man show to a full partnership business.
In short, I highly recommend investing in a company with your favorite rock star. :)
Small Acts That Make a Big Impact for Local Restaurants
Visit Regularly. Don’t save a visit to your favorite restaurant for a special occasion. Make a point to visit them weekly, monthly or quarterly - whatever you can.
Have Them Cater For You. Even in this time of social distancing, there are opportunities for catering. Catering is something that can really sustain a restaurant. Order individually-wrapped sack lunches for the office or send meals to delivery workers or first responders to say thank you for their hard work.
Buy Gift Cards. Send an e-gift card to a friend or family member to brighten their day, or pick one up for yourself for future use.
Pick Up a T-Shirt or Swag. Most restaurants have merchandise available in their shops or through their website. Commit to picking up a few as you can - give them as gifts or wear them with pride. Your purchases will be meaningful to the businesses you support.
LOCATION & CONTACT
3457 MAGNOLIA AVENUE, ST. LOUIS, MO 63118 4:00 PM - 8:00 PM MON-FRI 11:00 AM - 8:00 PM SAT 11:00 AM - 8:00 PM SUN
Past "Small Business Shoutout"recipients: