AMY CLARKE, FREELANCE MARKETING STORYTELLER
As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, we'll profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
“Tremont is bigger than anyone here. It’s bigger than me,” says Dustin Choate, owner of the Tremont Tavern located in North Chattanooga. “It’s its own entity and everyone understands they are doing their part and they are contributing to the perpetuation of this organic entity called Tremont.”
Choate believes that will carry the neighborhood bar and restaurant through these difficult times.
“It’s a big challenge and we don't take it lightly,” Choate says. “We obviously want our business to survive, at the same time, we don't want to put any of our employees or any of our guests in a situation that is not a good situation. We have been very proactive on the safety side of things.”
For Choate, it’s not just one restaurant he is worried about, but three. He is part owner of the popular Feed Table and Tavern with Miguel Morales on the Southside in Chattanooga and the Parkway Pourhouse with Morales and George Lewallen on Riverfront Parkway near downtown Chattanooga.
“My partners and I anticipated that a shutdown would be coming,” Choate says. “We went ahead and proactively laid off our employees temporarily so that they could apply for unemployment benefits.”
With all three restaurants shut down in the height of the lockdown, the partners applied for PPP loans and then got to work figuring out next steps.
“That was a lifesaver,” Choate says. “We have been able to utilize those to stay afloat.”
Immediately, Parkway started to-go orders.
“It turned out to be really beneficial for the business. We had only been open a year-and-a-half. And as one of the few people at the time doing to-go business, a lot of people were able to experience Parkway that maybe had not in the past. Once we reopened at the Parkway and brought back staff, it brought in a lot of new people, so business has really been good there.”
Feed did the same, but also used the lockdown to knock out projects and do some deep cleaning.
“We reopened there with everything spread out, social distancing and safety measures in place,” Choate says. “We are not back at full business like we were doing before but we are pretty close. People feel safe going to Feed and Parkway because of how proactive we have been on the safety front. Both places, we are doing great sales, sustainable sales.”
For the Tremont Tavern, a much smaller restaurant space, it’s been more challenging. While a robust to-go business is helping to keep the Tavern afloat, Choate has had to pivot several times even postponing a set reopening date due to the recent virus surge. He has used the time for a major kitchen renovation and to lay out a more long term sustainable and safe plan.
“Who knows how long this thing will play out, how long we will be in survival mode?”
Armed now with additional help from the Sprouts program through the City of Chattanooga, Choate is moving forward with plans for more outside seating, turning four street parking spaces along Tremont Street into table tops for customers.
“We are enclosing that space to make around 30 seats out there which will be a huge help. We are ordering misting fans to keep things cool. Our focus now is to have the extra outdoor seating through August, and then when the humidity starts to drop, I feel good about us returning to the inside with social distancing, opening up the garage door … the windows … setting up fans and basically bringing the outdoors inside.”
With extended PPP loans, public funded newly formed nonprofits to help employees, higher hazard pay for those on the job and lots of safety measures, Choate and his partners are feeling pretty good right now.
“As long as this thing doesn’t take a turn for the worse, and things get shut down again, we are sitting in a very good place at the Feed and the Parkway,” Choate says. “And, at Tremont, we have a good plan in place there as well.”
Like many Chattanooga businesses, owners compare their pandemic challenges to those they faced during the last recession. Choate remembers it well. He was new in the restaurant industry. Overextended and with limited financial resources when the recession hit, he lost the Market Street Tavern and almost lost the Tremont Tavern.
“I was able to turn things around at the Tavern. The Great Recession was a tough time. We were very, very close to closing. It was literally a day to day process. We took revenues from one day to purchase product for the next day and we did that for months.”
Fast forward 14 years, Choate now has more financial resources and a stronger network of professional partnerships to help him navigate the business side of the pandemic, but that’s not the only challenge.
“This time has been very difficult individually for people to go into quarantine. There is not a clear end in sight and so it's causing people to have mental health problems. It's causing people to resort to alcohol and drugs and so we are navigating that part. It’s always been a difficulty in the restaurant industry and now it's just exacerbated to the nth degree.”
Choate’s best advice now? Stay calm and take counsel in people who know more than you.
“I think that is really important,” he says. “I listen to my employees and their insights because they also know the day-to-day operations. I spend a lot of time listening and then leading.”
That’s how Choate leads now that he is his own boss. With a masters in social work and stints in the world of nonprofit and pharmaceutical sales, Choate got into the restaurant business because he wanted to call his own shots.
“I really hated the whole corporate thing. When I moved here, Tremont was a Greek restaurant. They closed down and it sat empty for over a year. I live right up the street and I drove by it every day and at that point in time, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and even though I had been working in the restaurant industry since I was 16 up until the time I graduated, I never seriously considered it as a profession.”
But Choate felt the pull to that spot on Tremont Street in North Chattanooga.
“I just had a crazy idea in my head about this craft beer bar for this neighborhood. At that time no one was really doing craft beer in Chattanooga.”
It was 2006. His plan was to open a bar, serve great beer and be his own boss. But then he learned he was required by law to also sell food.
“Honestly, I really didn't want to do it,” he says. “I was alway a bartender, I didn't know anything about running a kitchen. Once I committed to it, I found good people who know more about that than I do. BJ Hightower is our chef and he is still with me today.”
Choate's approach: do things the right way and the success will follow. Tremont opened as a nonsmoking tavern and showcased local music with a weekly open mic night.
“I am pretty blown away by it, like I said, it all started with just wanting to be my own person. It’s grown and evolved from that by just doing what I love. It was the beer. It was the neighborhood. It was the community here, the music. I have been very fortunate to have people find themselves at Tremont, coming in and enjoying the family here.”
I help companies find the stories that show the heart behind their brands and ultimately connect them to the people that matter the most for their business growth and success.