It’s a brand new year, full of promise and potential for us and for posterity. It’s a time to reflect on the past year and plan ahead for the year to come. As we all settle into our own resolutions, to-do lists, and to-don’t lists, businesses are doing the same. In this series, Hindsight 2023, we talk with some of Downtown Fort Wayne’s industry leaders and experts, and ask them for their reflections on 2023 and their goals for the new year.
For our final edition, we looked for insights from bars and restaurants. Ask any restaurateur and they’ll tell you it’s always been tough in this industry. But during and after the pandemic, food and hospitality businesses found it nearly impossible to survive. Some tried pop-up igloos, others tried cutting the number of seats available (and their profits) in half. Sure, pivoting to heavy delivery helped some, but often the apps that made it possible cut deeply into those profits. And when it comes to bars and specialty shops, delivery isn’t always feasible. Have you ever tried ordering a cold beer, cocktail, or an ice cream cone for delivery?
So in many cases, establishments were forced to close. Others changed ownership or management. And those that made it through did it with ingenuity, financial sacrifice, hard work, and massive amounts of dedication. We talked to three local businesses who made it through.
Here’s a look at what’s happening in the food and hospitality sector — with insights from Nawa, Pint & Slice, and Sweets on Main!
Dan Lin, General Manager at Nawa
Molly: What changes have you seen in your industry over the last year?
Dan: Where to start? There are so many! It’s crazy to think that the COVID pandemic started almost four years ago. What helped many businesses get through that difficult time was the ability to quickly adopt new technologies. The first couple years saw a lot of trials and errors, but we learned over the last year what’s here to stay and what’s not. The QR code menu was a big thing in 2020 and 2021, but in the last year, we learned that people still prefer a tangible menu — something they can hold. While that technology is still available at Nawa, we’ve reverted to giving out a physical menu to every guest who dines with us.
One thing that is here to stay is simpler payment, like the ability to pay with phones and tap-and-pay with credit cards. While these technologies existed before COVID, it wasn’t until the pandemic that they were more widely adopted. Last year, we upgraded all our point-of-sale terminals and tablets so that putting in orders and taking payments could be more seamless.
Takeout and delivery are also here to stay, and technologies that streamline these services shouldn’t be overlooked. Even for restaurants whose revenue comes mostly from dine-in services, participation in delivery apps like UberEats and DoorDash—and local companies like Waiter on the Way—is almost a necessary evil at this point. The restaurant industry is known for having low profit margins, and third-party delivery services like these eat up 30% of profits from restaurants. For sit-down restaurants especially, profit from these apps is pretty negligible. But I look at these platforms as a way to attract new customers and potentially convert them into dine-in customers, rather than another avenue for additional profit.
Molly: I appreciate your insights. As for Nawa specifically, what worked well for you in 2023?
Dan: The restaurant industry is also known for having high turnover rates, and it got especially bad during COVID years. That’s not to say we’re currently immune from turnover, but staffing for our front of the house (FOH) department is currently the best we’ve had. One of the things that has worked well in finding new staff is our guaranteed $15/hr minimum pay for FOH staff.
Another thing that has worked well—something we’ll continue to do—is cross training our staff and encouraging them to learn multiple skills. Many of the high school students who have worked at Nawa have continued to do so after they graduate. Through word of mouth, many of them also brought their friends to work here. Cross training our staff ensures that we have multiple people who can do the same job, and by encouraging them to learn other skills, we incentivize them to stay and apply for higher paying jobs within the company.
Molly: Those are solid strategies. People feeling useful and appreciated are evidently super important for employee attraction and retention. It sounds like things have been going great at Nawa! Were there any hard lessons you learned in 2023?
Dan: 2023 was not unlike any other year in terms of challenges. One of the hardest things we had to do was adjust our menu prices. Changes in the cost of goods were wild during the first half of 2023. Egg prices at one point were five times what they were pre-COVID. For whatever irrational reasons, I thought prices would return to their pre-pandemic level, and we held off on changing our menu prices for as long as we could. Costs eventually did stabilize, but never to their pre-pandemic levels. We made small incremental changes to minimize the impact on our customers.
Molly: Based on everyone I’ve talked with, the cost of doing business has gone up across the board. You handled it well. So looking ahead, what are your aspirations for Nawa in 2024?
Dan: One of the goals we’ve discussed is to revisit some of the ideas and visions we had when Nawa opened in 2018. Specifically, our vision revolves around building a modern Asian restaurant in an urban setting. Over the years, we’ve changed some of the menu items to cater more towards local tastes, which can sometimes alter the original flavors of the dishes. But Fort Wayne, especially Downtown, has developed so much in the past few years — I think it’ll be more receptive towards adventurous dishes and flavors.
Nawa also has a private room, and it’s been a popular venue during the holiday season. Another goal of ours is to utilize that space during other times of the year. It’s an intimate space that can fit up to 50 people and can be used for many different functions, including business and office meetings, recruitment dinners, holiday dinners, rehearsal dinners, family get-togethers, and many more — we’ve even done small weddings!
Visit Nawa on The Landing at 126 West Columbia Street, or online!
Zack Hinton, General Manager at 816 Pint & Slice
Molly: How did things go for Pint & Slice in 2023?
Zack: 2023 went very well. We did Friday night concerts and had a great time serving the community, while listening to good music. Also, the push for more music Downtown really helped increase our sales.
Molly: That’s great! I imagine when you have a hot commodity like pizza, the more people who walk by the better! Were there any hard lessons you learned in 2023?
Zack: A hard lesson I learned in 2023 is that as a general manager, I’m expected to always be available, and the business really depends on me to continue to grow and be successful.
Molly: I imagine so. You seem to be doing a good job, though! Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for Pint & Slice in 2024?
Zack: In 2024 I hope to continue to thrive, and maintain the same atmosphere that we’re known for. I want to make Friday nights even bigger, keep growing, and continue to attract old and new guests. I also hope to work with the community even more and help keep Downtown Fort Wayne great.
Visit Pint & Slice at 816 Calhoun Street, or online!
Hezekiah Russell, Co-owner of Sweets on Main
Molly: How long have you owned Sweets on Main, and how did things go in 2023?
Hezekiah: Onnolee and I took over as owners of Sweets on Main in September of last year. Fortunately, Onnolee has been the general manager of the shop for a few years now, so it’s been a smooth transition for us and our customers. Overall, 2023 was a great year for Sweets on Main, and we look forward to building off of that momentum into 2024.
Molly: I’m so happy for you! Sweets on Main is such a local favorite! Have there been any hard lessons you learned since taking over?
Hezekiah: Taking over a well-run operation with a strong foundation and network has helped tremendously with the learning curve, as we continue to grow the business. Any business will have its challenges, and our biggest one thus far would probably be learning how we can best serve our customers with our hours of operation. We always prioritize our customers, and we are continually looking to improve their experience.
Molly: I think from the outside, it can be hard to understand the challenge of seemingly small things like fine-tuning hours of operation. Based on the lines down Main, though, it looks like your customers are responding well—and the sweets are worth it! So looking through 2024, what are your and Onnolee’s aspirations for Sweets on Main?
Hezekiah: Moving into 2024, we are focusing on offering more interactive experiences for our customers. We’ll be having weekly game nights, fun artwork, themed events, and more! We couldn’t be more excited to continue providing affordable and quality sweets options for anyone looking to come be part of the Downtown Fort Wayne experience.
Visit Sweets on Main at 123 W Main Street, or online!
Molly Conner is a Fort Wayne native and freelance writer. Having lived in Downtown Fort Wayne throughout her twenties, she loves watching her stomping grounds grow. With her love of storytelling and community in tow, she’s eager to tell Downtown Fort Wayne’s story piece-by-piece—exploring the people, spaces, and organizations that make it thrive.