Madison Originals helps ramp up restaurants

Feature Take Five David Clark Sally V1 Panel
Photo by Siege Food Photography

Despite some recent hiccups — see Johnson & Johnson vaccine — we’re moving closer to normal, whatever it will look like post-pandemic. That means indoor restaurant dining, albeit limited, will ramp up this summer, and a local collective stands ready to serve this cause.

In this Take Five interview, we spoke to David Clark-Sally, director of Madison Originals, a collective of locally owned and operated Madison restaurants and like-minded businesses. The organization helps it 40-plus member restaurants with marketing, social events, and community involvement, and Clark-Sally, also a local business consultant, is making a special appeal to restaurant patrons.

Did Madison Originals sustain a lot of membership losses during the pandemic?

“Unfortunately, we did lose a few. If you’re looking at it from a percentage perspective, we sustained a great deal of membership. However, my mind went straight to unfortunately because we did lose some folks, and even if it was only a handful, it’s still really devastating, not just to our organization, but more so to the larger Madison community because we lost some really great ones whether that was because of closures or because they could not financially sustain membership anymore because they are scraping to get by. I feel that we were very fortunate as an organization to maintain most of our membership, but we really felt, just in terms of the organization but more importantly the community, the loss of the few that we did lose this past year. It was really tough, obviously.”

What can you do for member restaurants that have managed to survive the pandemic and hope to be able to start the rebuilding process as capacity limits are lifted?

Beth Skogen Photography

David Clark-Sally (Photo by Beth Skogen Photography)

“First and foremost, what we want to do as an organization is to help elevate what restaurants are already doing. So, if they are working on a reopening plan or if they are hosting an event or if they are rolling out a new special, we want to, as an organization, always be uplifting and pushing out to our audience, and helping them in whatever way possible, get that information out. I want us to be a champion of what’s happening and helping to push that forward.

“Secondarily, and this is sort of a tenet of our organization, is to help create strategic opportunities for folks, especially now that the weather is warming up and people are getting vaccinated. We did a couple of pop-up events in the fall, and we’re very interested in exploring those types of things again. A couple of benefits to those types of things is that as an organization we can pool our resources and work together, but also visibility is important when you do those types of events, as are brand recognition and the financial implications of doing an event like that, where hopefully members are walking away with a decent sum of money. So, we’d like to get back into doing those types of things as the weather warms. It was very much a kind of survival game during the winter, and I don’t think that [another pop-up event] was as much on people’s radar.

“But then, what we also try to do is leverage the connections that we have within the organization. Again, we have very longstanding relationships with some really great folks who are members of the organization, whether that be NBC-15 or Destination Madison. So, what we like to do as well, in terms of helping folks with their reopening and as the weather is getting nicer, is to take some of those relationships and leverage those for our members’ benefit. We have opportunities for our members to have regular spots on NBC-15. We’re working with Destination Madison to help make sure there is great visibility for our restaurants, and they are wonderful, longstanding partners.”

You mentioned pop-up events. At the moment, what other kinds of events are possible?

“You know, that’s a really good question and one I wish I had a definitive answer for. The great thing about Madison Originals, and also the challenging thing, is there are a lot of different members with different perspectives. We’re also a nonprofit organization that is run by a board, so that is an ongoing conversation that I’m having with the board, but I don’t have a definitive answer at the moment about what else we could be doing. The one thing that I’m constantly circulating and trying to be open to is hearing those ideas from folks. A lot of times, we don’t necessarily know what people need or what people want. We can certainly forecast, and we can certainly plan things, but it really is wonderful when we have members who say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this, or we’d like to do this. Can you help?’ And that always goes really well.

“To be honest, Madison Originals has not historically, and I’ve only been with the organization since the fall, but from my understanding, Madison Originals historically has not been a big event organization in terms of holding our own events, but the pandemic has really forced everyone to be creative. And so, we did two pop-ups in the fall within a very short time of each other. They were held really close together and right before it started to get super chilly, and they were held in common areas. So, for example, we did do one at Quivey’s Grove, which is one of our members, but everyone who participated came to Quivey’s Grove. We did do one at Garver Feed Mill, which is not one of our members, but we had participating members come to Garver.

“The idea for those kinds of things, at least what had worked well for us in both of those instances, is we had a common space where we had four or five member restaurants come and sort of pop up with their tents or their trucks or whatever and that kind of worked nicely. It was kind of a mini-Taste of Madison in an interesting sort of way. Not to step on any toes, but I think it went well. We certainly didn’t know what we didn’t know. Everybody is at a point where they are just trying things to see if they work. So, that’s something we did in the fall to help a little bit. They did OK. It remains to be seen whether that’s something that we want to revisit this spring or summer.”

Not that we expect this to happen given the protection offered by the vaccines, but if the current public order (50% capacity for indoor gatherings) remains in effect for the duration of 2021, is that sustainable for restaurants?

“It is more sustainable than where we were at last year. We are going into a time where not only is the weather getting nicer, but people are getting a little more comfortable, which is, I suppose, good and bad. We don’t want cases to surge. I don’t know that I can say that’s definitively sustainable, and I think that’s probably a question for each individual owner, but I implore people to keep supporting local restaurants. I know the public has done that. Last year, we saw so many amazing Go Fund Me campaigns for restaurants that were asking for support to make it through the winter just to pay their rent.

“I do think it is sustainable if people continue to show up. Is it going to be hard? Yes, 100%. We still don’t know how long it’s going to take for some of these places to recover, but if people continue to show up in whatever capacity they are comfortable with, we can continue to fight. But it’s also dependent on people not getting comfortable enough to forget that these places are still recovering and will be for some time.

“And so, just because it’s getting nice outside, or you feel maybe things are starting to get better, don’t forget about your favorite local places because that’s when things are going to start to get gnarly again. So, keep fighting and keep supporting your local restaurants. The great thing about our Madison Originals members is whether or not you are comfortable dining in or even on a patio, there are always ways to support with gift cards. With most of our restaurants, you can buy gift cards from them. We, as an organization, sell gift cards at a discounted rate for our restaurants on our website. That is a great way to support them, whether you use it now or you buy it and save it for a time you are comfortable using it, or you buy it and give it as a gift. Those are all really acceptable and helpful ways to support local restaurants, even if you’re not entirely comfortable eating there yet. Most of our members are also doing takeout or curbside pickup. You can always get something and take it home. But on your question of sustainability, it depends upon the public’s continued support because it’s been amazing but it’s not over yet.”

You mentioned gift cards, which leads into our next question. You might have answered this above, but from the restaurant perspective, could you speak to the role gift cards have played in their survivability during the pandemic?

“Again, I say all of this with the caveat that I am not a restauranteur. I work with a lot of these folks, but I’m not in the trenches like they are. But from our organization’s vantage point, the gift cards have been absolutely huge, especially because there was a time just a few months ago when barely anybody was allowed in. Those [allowable] capacities are growing, which is phenomenal. We’re at 50% — I think it’s 25% for taverns — but regardless of that, the gift cards, that’s money that is sort of earmarked for these restaurants regardless of whether it’s used now or later or how that all plays out. I saw over the holidays such a surge for Madison Originals gift cards, people giving them as gifts, and that’s a very practical and relatively simple way to help restaurants. If you’re unsure or uncomfortable or if you want to encourage someone else to do give a gift, it’s incredibly valuable to continue to not just support by going, which is also great, but depending on your comfort level, gift cards are also a really, really practical option that flows right back to them. In our case as an organization, it also helps us to continue to do our part to support our members as well.”

“In terms of other ways that restaurants really need help right now … they are starting to make different choices about how often and when and where they are open. With that comes an interesting challenge in that a lot of these places don’t have the staff to pull that off right now because of how everything landed with the pandemic. Everybody scaled way back out of necessity. A large percentage of our membership is hiring and in desperate need of additional staff to meet the demand of additional capacity, outdoor dining, and all of the above. It’s a really exciting thing that the tide is starting to change, but now they are facing a new issue.

“So, if folks are looking for jobs, or know of people who are looking for jobs, please consider restaurants. We’re trying to work on how we can do something to centralize where the needs are — just a central location where there are a lot of needs and where you can come in one place, but for now, folks who are looking for jobs or know people who are looking for jobs, send them to our website and check out our membership. So many of them are hiring right now, either on their website or on their social media, and in order for them to continue to move forward with the reopenings that are starting to unfold, they need help staff wise. It’s a really interesting and good problem to have, but the truth of the matter is that right now, they are scrambling and trying to prepare for what’s coming next.”

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