We were recently asked by Jill Devine to contribute our story of relaunching Steve's Hot Dogs in the age of COVID. Danni Eickenhorst shared her full story on Jill's website. Below are some highlights. Read the full story here.
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.