Proof Incubator Supports Entrepreneurs Through the Pandemic

Michael Robinson, Co-Founder of Proof Bar & Incubator

When my business partners and I set out to open Proof Incubator last year, we were never expecting a full-on pandemic as part of our business model. We quickly anticipated the dramatic and lasting impact the pandemic would have not only on our business, but on the food and beverage industry as a whole. We set out to build a specialty food and beverage resource center that rapidly evolved into a dynamic and crucial program to support companies in the food and beverage space amidst a global pandemic — not just in Chattanooga, but across the state and the Southeast region. 

While Proof operates a brick-and-mortar space for rotating restaurant concepts from local chefs, the key component of our offerings is our programming. Faced with daunting health regulations, new guidelines, closures and depths of uncertainty, restaurant operators were dealt a blow when the pandemic brought operations to a screeching halt last March. We quickly tapped into our team’s expertise and leaped into action on what we had anticipated as our phase two expansion as a business — we accelerated from just a business incubator to a complete support system. 

Restaurant Recovery Across the State

With the support of business partners and support organizations, Proof rolled out a four-week Restaurant Recovery program last summer. Sponsored by community partners, operators face no costs and gain access to the crucial and timely help they need to navigate these unchartered waters. We provide a weekly curriculum that guides operators through all components of business, from managing supply chain issues and cash flow to pricing out menus and health code updates. Operators get one-on-one coaching with our team members, who bring a collective 100 years of experience in these industries to the table. 

As we’ve seen through our multiple cohorts in Chattanooga and East Tennessee, the curriculum changes depending on new demands for these operators. Long before the pandemic, Proof’s goal was always to provide support for small business owners. It’s estimated 95% of companies could be considered small businesses with less than $1M in revenue. Companies like these face different challenges than corporations and may lack the ability to change course quickly and stabilize operations. That’s where we come in. Our goal is to provide value and help businesses survive and thrive in these challenging times.

While we’ve always planned for the expansion of our programming, the pandemic put Proof in a unique spot to grow quickly. Since our March 2020 opening, we’ve held courses in Chattanooga, Knoxville, the Tri-Cities area, Cookeville, and courses are customized to each market’s particular needs and challenges. In February 2021, we will launch another Knoxville course and plan to add North Georgia, Alabama, and Central and West Tennessee offerings to our lineup by Q2. This expansion wouldn’t be possible without vital ecosystem-building organizations, like Small Business Development Centers and Chambers of Commerce, that coordinate, sponsor and help guide our offerings to the companies in their markets.

In an industry that’s notoriously challenging, the pandemic has crippled many food and beverage operators in all sectors. Almost overnight, these operators were faced with huge disruptions to their processes, and many have adapted. Through our recovery course, we guide operators at all stages of business to take a closer look under the hood, and depending on their needs, we connect them with innovative resources, solutions and changes that can stabilize and grow their business.  

Consumer Goods Accelerator Still Thrives

Not all businesses are experiencing losses — we’ve seen operators in cohorts determining how to maintain dramatic growth during the pandemic, either in meal prep services or consumer goods, and we continue to help these businesses plan for the future. Consumer goods product development remains one of our core offerings. This industry has experienced massive disruption in the last five years, and Proof runs these programs, in addition to Restaurant Recovery, to help smaller companies scale their reach, navigate distribution channels and optimize their online offerings. 

When the Proof team isn’t coaching, we’re streamlining our systems and platforms to provide more value to operators. We aim to build and maintain strong relationships with operators and partners across the region. We want to fully deliver on our promise to add value — including the recovery program and Consumer Goods Accelerator. 

Proof was created well before the pandemic; operators in the food and beverage industry have long needed resources beyond one-off entrepreneurship seminars. Each piece of our program was designed with operators in mind. While we can’t be certain when the chaos of the pandemic will fade, Proof will continue to provide valuable offerings to support the ongoing needs of food and beverage operators.

Michael Robinson, co-founder of Proof, brings nearly two decades of experience immersed in the food and beverage industry. After growing and selling several successful food ventures, Robinson shifted his focus to consumer goods products. Today, he develops programs and curriculum for early-stage consumer goods and food and beverage companies. Read more about Proof and its offerings here.

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