To thrive in the modern world, Cali BBQ had to become a digital restaurant.
“We learned early on that nobody gave a shit about us,” Cali BBQ owner Shawn Walchef says bluntly on a June 2020 visit to The Cantore Show podcast. “We learned that if we wanted to get people to care about us, we had to advertise, we had to do marketing and we had to do traditional marketing.”
“Now, during Coronavirus, we understand that we’re a digital restaurant.”
Shawn Walchef was a guest on the Chris Cantore podcast to discuss his upbringing in San Diego, the history of his family restaurant, and Cali BBQ’s tremendous pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For some, the start is a familiar story.
“We opened up a business in 2008 during the last recession in a place that any real estate expert or any restaurant expert would tell you is a terrible location,” Shawn says of the humble beginnings of the family owned restaurant.
“Looking back, it was the greatest gift that we weren’t busy,” Shawn notes. “That we struggled like hell to keep the doors open, to make payroll, to pay the bills.”
As the world changed, so did the marketing tools.
“We had to get on Yelp,” says Shawn. “We had to get on Facebook, and once Instagram came out, we had to get on that. We started doing all these things because we weren’t busy and because we needed to pay in all of our bills. We learned so much in 12 years that’s really helped us.”
Shawn would say it’s helped them now more than ever as Cali BBQ continues its digital evolution and expansion.
Digital Hospitality with Online Ordering
What does a digital restaurant look like?
“(Cali BBQ) is selling things through our website first and then they’re going out for pickup and for delivery,” Shawn Walchef told Chris Cantore on the podcast guest appearance, recorded in Cantore’s surf hut/podcast studio in June 2020.
“Social media is really a gift,” says Shawn Walchef of using social media for restaurant marketing.
“Digital media is a gift. This phone that every single person has in their pocket, it’s a gift that unlocks so much endless opportunity if you choose to use it in the right way.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been felt by all people and by all industries. Some would say it’s the restaurant and service industries that have been hit the hardest.
Shawn knows this firsthand. He also knows that it’s an opportunity to pivot.
Quick Service Restaurant
“The full-service restaurant model is broken,” Shawn states on The Cantore Show. “The labor cost is too high to provide the type of hospitality that our brand wants. So, if you wanted to get a five-star Yelp experience, you’d have to pay a significant amount in labor, which we do. And we were OK doing that.”
“But in order to be profitable, in order to be able to build a sustainable business, something has to change, which is why there’s quick service restaurants.”
What exactly is a quick service restaurant?
“Places like Tender Greens where there’s no servers or bartenders,” Shawn explains. “You just go through the line and you get to get your food. The idea is that people still want great food and they want it delivered in a way that’s Uber right now, that’s Amazon Prime.”
“So, we can’t discriminate where they’re getting the food. We just have to have it available to them.”
Shawn and the Cali BBQ staff have transformed the brick-and-mortar sports bar into a digital to-go restaurant that began operating strictly in the pick-up and delivery spaces.
Changes in operation and local regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic have allowed Cali BBQ to sell alcohol to-go among other regulatory relief.
“During the coronavirus, it’s given us the ability to do a lot of things internally that we have wanted to do, but this just gave us the reason to do it,” Shawn says.
“During coronavirus, we’re able to just close off the breakfast part of the day and now just focus on what do we do best: barbecue.”
So, how has focusing on BBQ and becoming an online fast-service restaurant gone for Shawn and Cali BBQ?
“We have never been more confident in opening up more units,” Shawn shares. “They will not be the same, but in the next two years we plan on opening five smaller Cali BBQs. We will have actual physical locations; they’ll just be much smaller.”
How can Cali BBQ be expanding at a time when many restaurants are going under? The solution in this era is one Shawn has been leaning into for quite some time.
“It’s proven what we knew all along,” Shawn said on The Cantore Show.
“Digital Hospitality is what’s going to be the solution for all brands and businesses moving forward.”
Humble beginnings, inspiring days ahead, the Walchef family and the entire Cali BBQ team are blazing the trail of what restaurants will look like in the future and how to serve in all conditions, on all platforms.
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