While small businesses across the country experienced revenue losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some even having to close their doors for good, a Charlottesville mainstay found that adapting its model in a time of crisis brought increased business.
Scott Smith is the owner of Bodo’s Bagels, which has locations on Emmet Street, Preston Avenue and The Corner. The popular eatery has been a local institution since opening in 1988, but it faced new challenges in the wake of the pandemic. Smith said employees’ ability to adapt to a new normal was key in the business’ success throughout the past 18 months, including shifting operations to drive-thru.
Smith said he was prepared to come up with alternative operations before the major shutdowns began in the spring of 2020 because he’d been paying close attention to news about the coronavirus.
“I never thought that this was going to be a brief thing that closing could help with. So we never even considered closing. What we considered was how do we shift gears in a way that’s going to be durable over months, because that was clearly what we were looking at,” he said.
Originally, each store responded by limiting dining room seating, but that only lasted a couple of days as greater restrictions were imposed on restaurants.
“We needed to be able to move things outside and start running a drive-thru model,” Smith said.
Smith thought the Emmet and Preston locations had by-right use of drive-thrus because the buildings previously operated as fast-food restaurants for many years. The Emmet location was previously a Roy Rogers and the Preston location was a Rax.
“Both of those were drive-thru fast-food setups … Bodo’s never used those drive-thrus, but they were physically there,” Smith said.
This existing infrastructure gave Bodo’s the opportunity to make a change. They ordered wireless handheld credit card terminals, and within a week had begun operations outside. For the first time, the Emmet and Preston locations now operated exclusively as drive-thrus, and The Corner location was outdoor walk-up ordering only.
For the first couple of weeks of drive-thru operations, business was slow. But as word got out about the drive-thru, Smith said business began to pick up, and has continued to grow. Soon, cars trailed out from the drive-thrus and into the street, waiting in long lines for bagels and coffee.
The Emmet location particularly saw an increase in revenue during the pandemic, Smith said. He attributes this both to the drive-thru and also shifting some evening hours to that store.
This flux especially made up for a lack of business at The Corner, which is primarily frequented by University of Virginia students and staff due to its proximity to Grounds. Smith said UVa’s closure last year resulted in fewer patrons, but the financial success of the drive-thrus at the other locations allowed The Corner location to remain open.
However, Smith was later contacted by Charlottesville officials and found out his understanding of the drive-thru use was incorrect.
“At some point, we heard from the city, and we actually never sort of researched this but [the city] had changed things so that the by-right use supposedly went away and was replaced by a special-use permit. And had we continuously been operating the drive-thrus, we [would have been] good … we would have retained our use of by-right use, but we weren’t, so unbeknownst to us, we were doing this sort of illicitly at the beginning,” Smith said.
“So then we we figured out how to sort of accommodate the things that were most important to the city, which basically were traffic concerns, as best we could, and they authorized us to continue operating the drive-thrus until all restrictions have been lifted by the city and the state,” he said.
Now that restrictions have been lifted, Bodo’s is back to indoor service with indoor seating and masks are required for all patrons. Smith said the dining rooms are rarely full, with most customers getting their items to-go, so it’s been easy to enforce social distancing.
Smith said a lot of customers have asked for the drive-thru to reopen, and he understands why. However, he says it’s not realistic to reopen them given zoning and permit regulations.
“I don’t think that [the city] will approve it in any normal way, and and for good reason … despite our best efforts in keeping traffic off the street, there was traffic on the street at our busiest times, and I know they had complaints about it,” he said.
The success of the drive-thru model has inspired Smith to look into including it in a future location if they build one.
“If we were to open a fourth store, we would want there to be possibility of a drive-thru … running the drive-thrus at these two stores demonstrated to us that it would be a smart thing to focus on because there are a lot of people who I think pandemic or not would really like to have that option,” he said.
“I think we could design something that the city or [Albemarle County], depending on where it was, would be able to sign off on and would be viable in that way.”
Smith says all three locations’ employees should get the credit for the continued success of the business and adapting to changing models during unpredictable times.
“Our employees were just spectacular,” he said. “We also hired people who are just extraordinarily good. I think we’re very lucky in general. We have really good people kind of across the board.”
“People have been really wonderful for the most part to our employees, generous and grateful. And they really appreciate what we’re doing. And you know, that’s often really palpable in the interactions that you have with people. But I think it is not really visible to people what we or anybody else who’s attached to this are doing, how hard everyone’s working,” Smith said.
Smith said part of the key to Bodo’s popularity is that it was already a successful to-go venture before the pandemic.
“I think we’re lucky because of the kind of business that we are. Even within restaurants, a place that has a large to-go segment has a big advantage over a place that is doing all sit-down,” he said.
Smith’s advice to business owners facing challenges is to be creative and adaptable.
“You can try to shift gears to make yourself safe in the present circumstance to the greatest degree possible, whatever that is. And that is a continual challenge for everybody these days,” he said.