In the March 2021 issue of Honolulu Magazine, I wrote about what is happening at restaurants as we ease out of a pandemic-ruled world. Chefs and restaurateurs such as Ed Kenney, Robynne Mai‘i and D.K. Kodama shared stories of survival and how the experience is reshaping their businesses as they move forward. Due to space restrictions, not everyone I interviewed made it into the story. So I’m publishing outtakes and start with Christopher Sy, owner-baker-chef of Breadshop, that boutique of impeccable crusty loaves, buttery brioche and pretty pastries in Ka‘imuki.
A friend who was a keto acolyte broke his strict regimen under pandemic-induced stress and found comfort in Breadshop’s baked goods that have their own a cult following. It made me wonder if the bakery was experiencing a COVID-19 silver lining with record sales. When I called Sy in January, I was surprised to learn his sales had actually declined about 12 percent from the previous year, while his expenses were up.
Still, “I consider us incredibly fortunate,” he explained. “Basically, we had to make some fairly dramatic changes to our business model—more specifically the service model—when all this started.”
As a bakery with no dine-in service, Breadshop was allowed to remain open, and at the start of the pandemic, Sy, who came from the haute cuisine world, looked at what restaurants were doing. He saw that many, from Honolulu to New York—especially the places he most respected—were shutting down entirely due to the lack of information on the risk factors at the time.
On a regular day, Breadshop has 100 transactions—sometimes 200 on weekends. Often people were standing in line for up to 20 minutes. Then one Saturday in early March 2020, when the bakery was running a little behind, he looked out the window and saw about 30 people outside.
“As the person who is making the things that people are coming for, I felt a responsibility,” said Sy. “I came to the conclusion that as long as we’re open, people are going to come here. I don’t want to be responsible for an outbreak because people want a loaf of bread. So I decided to shut down and ride this out. At best we could have gone two or three weeks before we ran out of money. But what am I going to do? So I talked to staff and they were like, there’s no flour [available in supermarkets], bread is a comfort food and foundational thing. As far as they were concerned, they felt we should stay open. This is something people will want to eat.”
His supportive staff got Sy’s “gears turning.” A mentee of famed Alinea chef Grant Achatz in Chicago, Sy saw how his former boss and his business partner Nick Kokonas had made a 90 degree turn to a takeout model, selling everything online and distributed via contactless pickup, while also introducing protocols for employee safety.
“They moved so quickly,” said Sy. “I thought maybe we could do that. If we can get rid of that line, and contain us, then I would feel comfortable for the staff, myself, the community.”
So he closed Breadshop for a week, shopped around for a platform, and settled on Tock (the one Kokonas founded in 2014 as a reservations platform and updated for takeout during the pandemic), “and we haven’t looked back.” (Kokonas sold Tock to Square Space in March.)
“We did it on a weekend, and I was quarantining so I wasn’t in the shop. I owe so much of the success to what we were able to do to the staff.”
During the second lockdown that started at the end of August, Sy closed Breadshop again for a couple days to reassess what he and his staff were doing.
“We were open five days a week and we condensed it to three days and have same sales. We had a core group of five people that worked together and a second group, so that in case of an outbreak we wouldn’t have to shut down completely. It’s proactive stuff. I’m a control freak, and without a plan like that I didn’t feel comfortable. We refined protocols.”
After a couple of weeks on the new schedule, Sy looked at the numbers and realized his math wasn’t quite right and increased opening hours to four days. He was pleased to find that the bakery was essentially doing the same amount of business as it did when it was open five days a week.
“So we’re operating more efficiently,” said Sy, who is especially proud that the changes allowed him to retain all his staff. “I consider us incredibly lucky.”
Pre-pandemic, Sy said Breadshop’s inventory control was “make 300 of something, put it on the shelf, and when it’s gone there’s no more.” Now with the operation moved online, “people know exactly what we have.”
For Sy, the most important aspect of his business model shift is separating the sales component of the experience, which is purely transactional, from the service aspect.
“The customer is no longer standing at a counter with 20 people behind them who also want good service. Now we can spend an hour answering a customer’s email. Because we have everyone’s info, we can get feedback. Before people only emailed us with a complaint. Now we can see feedback—people saying thank you and you’re doing a great job. And there’s the one complaint, so we can put it into context.”
People have asked Sy when he will stop online ordering and go back to walk-in service. “My response is we’re not going back. This is the way we’re doing things.” Sy said that the
vast majority of his customers appreciate the convenience, efficiency and safety of the new system.
“No matter what system you build, you will have flaws, and that’s fine, there’s a human component to it. That’s why we have people, otherwise it would just be a vending machine.”
For Sy, the reset has been a long time coming. “There are so many things not great about the way this industry operated,” he said. “Not just regarding customer service. There are so many things about the way things came to be. For me, particularly given my personality, this is a chance to fix a lot of those problems and build a better way of doing things. [The new online system] is more fair, it can be more convenient and efficient. And I think a lot of the resistance is that’s the way people were used to doing things. A friend of mine says they still get a lot of phone orders. That’s because you allow the option, because people are going to do what they’re used to. We all needed to learn that we had to stand In line. This is a similar thing.”
But food-related businesses run by conscientious, ethical people who are in it for the craft (not the tourist dollars), are ultimately about community. And Sy learned that the concept of community—a word we throw around a lot in these uber-branded and performative times—is a two-way street.
“What really got us through and keeps me going has been the support of the community,” he said. “I didn’t expect the number of people to show up when we first announced we were closing. That was humbling. And when we reopened, it was gratifying to see how willing people were to try out this new business model, because it was drastically different than what we were doing before. We have people that come multiple times a week. It’s been truly humbling and inspiring. I had no idea how valuable we were to the community.”