When the going got pandemic-rough, Gabi Barghachie and Mike Blevins did something some would say was foolish: They opened a restaurant.
Specifically, they opened Vision BBQ in the Vinegar Hill Shopping Center off Ridge McIntire Road on Feb. 12, providing a quick lunch and dinner option for take-out or delivery with some room to dine inside.
It’s been tough, but not because of the pandemic.
“We opened and it snowed and it’s been pretty tough weather for the whole week,” Barghachie laughed. “We’re feeling like we’re just a little more crazy for opening in the worst two weekends we’ve had in two years. That’s bad timing.”
The barbecue joint offers pork, chicken and brisket on a sandwich or platter. There are sides. There are signature sandwiches, including one with all of the meats plus pickled onions, pimento cheese, cheese sauce and smoked poblano sauce. Napkins, of course, are included.
“We want Vision BBQ to be a fun place where all the people of Charlottesville, whether they’re white collar, blue collar, remote workers, kids, families — whoever — can all come together and appreciate the flavors and the spirit of true barbecue,” Blevins said.
Weather aside, conventional wisdom would seem to contraindicate opening a restaurant of any sort at a time when a virus is running amok all over the world. These two men, however, had a plan.
“We wanted to focus on sort of a walk-up and take-out sort of place, a snack shack concept. The pandemic sort of changed everything in the restaurant industry and it gave us a good opportunity,” Barghachie said. “It doesn’t seem like a good idea on the surface, but it’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time and things just sort of fell into place.”
The surface does seem a bit choppy for opening a new restaurant. According to the National Restaurant Association, 80% of restaurants saw significantly less business in 2020 than the year before. By the end of 2020, the restaurant industry nationwide had lost about 1.5 million jobs during the pandemic.
Two of those 1.5 million jobs belonged to Blevins and Barghachie.
“We’ve worked in the restaurant business for a long time and we were both in the position of just figuring out what the post-COVID world would be like. We figured now was as good a time as any to pull it off,” Barghachie said.
As odd as it may seem, the pandemic has turned into an entrepreneurial catalyst. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, business startups fell in Virginia by 17% in March 2020 and 15% in April 2020, year over year, as the economy shed jobs like a Saint Bernard in spring.
That turned around by the new year. In January, Virginia saw an 80% increase in new business starts over pre-pandemic January 2020.
Those Census figures count business startups that are likely to be open and operating within a year of formation. Similar statistics played out across the country, the Census Bureau reports.
“Our communities mourn the loss of businesses owned by our friends and neighbors,” said Rebecca Haydock, of the Central Virginia Small Business Development Center. “However, there is unprecedented activity in new business starts. Nationally, the number of new business startups doubled to over 1.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2020.”
Blevins and Barghachie worked with the center to get their ducks in the same pond, if not in a row, before opening Vision BBQ.
“Vision BBQ is a terrific example of smart-start businesses,” Haydock said. “COVID-era businesses like Vision BBQ are designing for 2021 success. Their business models focus on safety, technology and engaging customers through visually engaging and targeted marketing.”
Haydock said the challenge all businesses face during the pandemic is how to get their name out to customers and get their products into customers’ hands when in-person consumerism quickly became an anachronism.
“New entrepreneurs have figured out how to represent the quality and soul of their brands online and are using cloud-based tools to achieve efficient operations and reach customers at home,” she said. “New entrepreneurs are also taking advantage of online training, essentially getting virtual degrees in entrepreneurship.”
“When we see major shifts in customer behavior, whatever the cause, it can be hard for established businesses to make adjustments to their processes to meet those different expectations,” said Greg Dorazio, of the small business center. “That’s why we’ve heard so much about pivoting during the past year. It really isn’t easy at all.”
For Vision BBQ’s owners, the pivot was planned prior to the pandemic.
“We had been thinking for some time about what was missing in the area and we felt like there was room for a good, fast, local, low-priced take-out or delivery option that we could market to a wide audience,” Barghachie said. “I had stopped ordering out because for years you basically had a choice of pizza or Chinese food for delivery and you can only eat so much Chinese and pizza.”
When restaurants were shut down early in the pandemic, the entrepreneurial pair watched eateries based on the dine-in model either close up or struggle to go to the pick-up or delivery model.
“The pandemic was forcing other restaurants to change their business model to look more like ours,” Barghachie said. “Our original idea was a small hole-in-the-wall spot that served good food, and we found this spot, next to Shebeen, that really fits.”
The fact that Vision BBQ is new may work in its favor.
“Basically, a business can be almost trapped by its own previous success when a change comes along that makes its systems and processes much less effective,” said Dorazio, who worked directly with Vision BBQ. “Opening a new business that is optimized for the new conditions can be a great opportunity to create efficiencies that existing businesses might not have.”
Dorazio said the buzz surrounding a new restaurant, coupled with good food, can help push a new place to success.
“Local businesses, like restaurants, get a great jolt of energy by being the new kid on the block. Back that up with a great customer experience, and you can begin to convert regulars and be off to the races,” he said. “Even in a pandemic, people have to eat.”
Barghachie said that’s the goal.
“This was the right time, and the [business development] center was a really good resource for us,” he said. “Our plan is to keep it simple. It’s not difficult to make consistently good food.”