The pandemic has impacted all businesses—from small to large, restaurants to fitness studios, nail salons to dentist offices—and each business has reacted differently. This week, we talked with the minds behind Cali Comfort BBQ in Spring Valley, California, just outside of San Diego. Owner Shawn Walchef and Digital Hospitality Specialist Stover Harger went back to the drawing board and rewrote everything they thought they knew about running a sports barbecue spot. They pushed their digital strategy to the limits and found success at a time when hope was running low.
Our Yelp reviewer, Maridel A., mom of two and San Diego local, talks to us about her experience with Cali Comfort BBQ—both before and during the pandemic—from extraordinary customer service to top-notch efficiency in uncertain times.
Built specifically to cater to large crowds during sporting events, Cali Comfort was hit hard when restaurants had to shut down. But instead of feeling defeated, Shawn and Stover went to work and made some pretty drastic changes. Here’s a preview of some of the steps they took, from Shawn: “When the Coronavirus hit, we thought about what we do best: barbecue. That’s what we do. So how can we focus on that? We eliminated 90% of our menu that didn’t travel well, which significantly helped us reduce our food costs. So during the peak days of the pandemic, which were the holidays—Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, 4th of July, Easter—we were doing more sales per hour than we did in 14 hours the year before when we were open.”
Their unrelenting focus on hospitality is another reason they’ve been able to find so much success. “The only way to ensure that hospitality happens is by hiring,” said Shawn. “If you don’t hire for heart, and if you don’t hire for hospitality in their DNA, it becomes very difficult to teach people to care for other people.”
When you prioritize that, people notice. In fact, Maridel says she feels many business owners have been hyper-focusing on hospitality and customer service during the pandemic, shown through her Yelp reviews. “SinceCOVID started, I’ve been receiving the best customer service from restaurants. I feel like they’re appreciating their customers more after being shut down and because they want their customers coming back. My reviews during COVID have all been five stars. It’s nothing but just positive feedback because everyone’s just been so friendly. They’re going above and beyond.”
That said, pivoting during COVID isn’t all we talk about in this episode. We also heavily discuss something that is near and dear to Stover’s heart: digital strategy. Cali Comfort BBQ has invested an enormous amount of resources into their digital marketing strategy—they lean heavily on social media and Yelp Connect to engage with customers. “ABP: always be posting, always be publishing, always be planning, always be promoting—whatever you want to insert there,” said Stover. “You should be putting stuff online.”
A mix of hospitality, the willingness to make tough decisions, and a strong emphasis on digital marketing has enabled Cali Comfort BBQ to triumph against the odds. In this episode, you’ll hear more from them on exactly how and why they made these decisions and how you can apply them to your business. Through our reviewer Maridel, we learn, once again, about the importance of customer service and how positive experiences encourage happy customers to spread the word.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Shawn, Stover, and Maridel, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.
Behind the Review, episode 6 transcript
MARIDEL: It was my first time. It was actually all of our first time because normally everyone goes to the other barbecue joint. Our friend heard about Cali Comfort—she wanted to check it out. And we didn’t know what to expect. We were like a party of 15 to 20. What’s the waiter or waitress gonna expect? What kind of service are we going to get? So that was already running through our mind.
EMILY: That’s Maridel, San Diego local. She’s telling me about the first time she went to a very popular BBQ spot, off the beaten path and a ways from her house. But worth every mile of the drive. This was pre-pandemic when her and her friends tried out Cali Comfort for the first time, but I connected with her after seeing she returned to Cali Comfort recently and wrote a review about her experience during COVID while they were closed for dine-in but serving carryout and delivery.
Truth be told, I first met the owners of Cali Comfort earlier this year when the Yelp Restaurants team was connecting with customers to hear what they needed in this crazy year that is 2020. Shawn Walchef and his right hand Stover have spent many hours with me on Zoom over the past seven months, and we’ve gotten to know each other quite well. Their dedication to providing hospitality digitally is both something to admire and to learn from. This pandemic has impacted so many, both professionally and personally, and Cali Comfort is no exception. But the reality is this team was dedicated to connecting with customers digitally even before the shutdowns began in March. And that approach and mentality is what’s helped them have a more profitable year than expected during these challenging times. It also allowed them to shift their business model to better scale and grow for the future.
In today’s episode, we’ll learn from their expertise and we’ll hear the story of Maridel and her multiple touch points with the business. We’ll dive into her COVID experience, the service she received, and even the changes she’s seen in business owner behavior online in general these past few months. First, let’s hear Maridel’s review.
MARIDEL: Thank you for a filling lunch. Ordered brisket sandwich and the meat was perfect and tender. I’m glad that the sauce is on the side so that it’s not soggy. It came with the perfect amount of sauce that I smothered in every bite. I also got a complimentary peach cobbler, so delish, thank you, Cali Comfort.
The service that I received from the young gentleman was exceptional. He was so nice, friendly, and helpful.
EMILY: Short, sweet and informative, and it gives me the chance to highlight the changes and successes of Cali Comfort during COVID. Maridel was impressed by the quality of her to-go order, but it wasn’t just a boxed-up version of the Cali Comfort menu she had during her first visit to the restaurant. Shawn and his team revamped their entire menu and list of offerings when the shutdown first happened.
SHAWN: When you’re talking about to-go packaging and how we make sure that barbecue’s carrying well, a lot of the challenges that we face during the beginning of the Coronavirus were because we have a huge menu—it wasn’t just barbecue that we’re selling. We’re selling burgers, we’re selling salads, we’re selling steaks.
We were open for breakfast before Corona, we were built on breakfast. So when the Coronavirus hit, we go, well, what do we do best? We do barbecue the best. That’s what we do. And how can we focus on that? We eliminated 90% of our menu that didn’t travel well. That took a long time to prep, and that’s significantly helped us reduce our food costs by six points—we always have run a high food cost because we pick high quality meats for our barbecue. But just the amount of time of prep to get those things together. And when you’re ordering different things on the menu, it takes longer for delivery. So during the peak days of Coronavirus, which were the holidays—Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, 4th of July, Easter—we were doing more sales per hour than we did in 14 hours the year before when we were open.
EMILY: For all the non-restaurateurs out there: reducing your food cost by six points is huge. What Shawn is referring to is their P&L—their profit and loss sheet—tracking how much they’re spending vs. how much they’re making in sales. The message here is that they had to scale the menu way down in order to be able to efficiently sell at a higher volume and maintain the quality they’re known for. Not everything carries well. But BBQ does—as long as the sauce is on the side and you provide enough sauce for your customers to smother every bite.
The shutdown forced Cali Comfort to trim the fat in the business by taking the extras off the menu and focusing on what they do best at a volume that they could not only sustain but that would allow them to grow. Cutting the fat isn’t just for people in the restaurant industry. We’ve seen these kinds of pivots in all types of businesses. Take fitness for example. My local spin studio reopened a few months ago and eliminated some midday classes but expanded morning and evening classes into two studios since the bikes now need to be distanced.
To take it back to Maridel’s first experience with Cali Comfort though, this business was a gathering place. A local watering hole. In fact, it was created by sports fans for sports fans.
SHAWN: When we built Cali Comfort BBQ, we built it for hospitality and to host parties. So it was very intentional that every room in the restaurant could be a room for a birthday party for a celebration of life, for a little league, for a church group. And we did that because as sports fans, we always want to be welcome when we’re going to a visiting stadium. It can be intimidating when you don’t know the lay of the land, and the greatest sports fans, the greatest tailgates, when you go there, it’s not about the jersey that you’re wearing—it’s about the fact that you showed up, and if you showed up, you’re welcome. And we really built that into our business model. We have a capacity of 250 people inside, outside. It’s a family-friendly sports entertainment destination. We’re fanatics, and we wanted to make sure that if the game was on you were going to be able to see it in high definition with a great view with the audio on, but also, if you didn’t care about sports, we wanted to make sure we took care of the barbecue connoisseur.
And we’re just fortunate that we were able to hire people that have hospitality in their DNA, that know how to care for people. And that’s something that is ingrained in who we are and what we do.
EMILY: We’ll talk about the staff and service in a minute, but let’s go back to this concept of being built for hospitality. Remember, Maridel said in the beginning of the show that she showed up at Cali Comfort with a group of 15 to 20 without a reservation. So it makes sense that the physical layout and square footage of the restaurant can easily accommodate groups, which is not something that most restaurants can do without advance notice. This was a place, pre-COVID, that was constantly hosting multiple parties and gatherings and special moments. Now they’re serving those same families, teams, and friends through barbecue carryout and delivery. To have that success, they had to do it right, and they had to use digital channels to communicate it out and make it happen. Shawn’s colleague Stover says their digital strategy was taking shape even before the pandemic.
STOVER: I would say actually we were embarking on our digital hospitality journey before COVID, and the way that we approach social media, we like to make acronyms, cause we think it’s fun.
ABP—always be posting, always be publishing, always be planning, always be promoting—whatever you want to insert there. You should be putting stuff online. And I know that we found, individually, me and Sean and our own digital journeys, that posting your own content and engaging with your audience, whatever that is, they could be friends.
They could be customers, they could be business partners, but you’re having a conversation that’s one-on-one in the public sphere, which lets other people engage with that conversation, whether or not they’re typing. So it’s actually a really important platform for a business owner or a brand or a personality to use.
And COVID doesn’t have anything to do with that. One day COVID will be gone, and we’ll still have to post to some form of social media, and it might not be Instagram, and it might be something we’ve never heard of, but it’s important to get your voice out there.
EMILY: This is especially important during COVID when people are looking for businesses to support, things to do, and safe experiences to have. And it’s that digital content that brought a customer like Maridel from the other side of town to check out Cali Comfort’s COVID experience for herself.
MARIDEL: I didn’t know what to expect. So do I just call in my order or should I just go over there? What should I do? So I figured, okay, let me just go over there and see how they’re running their business so I can share that on Yelp. So I go over there, there were a couple of people in line, and so of course they were taking extra precautions with their signs, with the arrows of where to order where to pick up your food. If you’re paying cash, if you’re paying with a debit/credit card, and it was actually really smooth. You know, this whole COVID experience was brand new to everyone—I just knew, okay, six feet distancing, social distancing. And so they have set up this window to order and the gentleman was great, so friendly. He was so sweet. He was so nice. And I’m not just saying that, but seriously, that experience was like, he was very patient with me. It was really genuine. His service was very genuine. He really made sure that my order was correct. And what exactly was I ordering? He wrote it down. And then I waited about 10 minutes, and my order was already ready. It was quick. And you know, usually a barbecue joint, you wait a while, so I sat in my car waiting. I thought it was gonna take a long time. And then next thing you know, it’s like, oh, they called my name already.
EMILY: I could tell that Maridel is a very empathetic person. She goes out of her way to support local businesses and can feel the struggles that they’re going through. She adjusts her expectations to meet the reality we’re all living in during 2020, but in the case of Cali Comfort, her expectations were definitely exceeded. The experience was smooth, the service was exceptional and she felt safe the entire time.
Let’s stay on the topic of safety because Shawn’s decision to not reopen their dining area—even though they technically have the space to operate “safely”—was not one that he made lightly.
SHAWN: One of the most difficult things during Coronavirus is dealing with our own fear as leaders and as restaurant owners of how we handle not only staying safe, but staying in business, because if we don’t stay in business, it’s no good. So how do we balance keeping our staff safe, keeping our customers safe, but also as California’s enabling different businesses to open up at 25% capacity or to have dining outdoors. Um, should we go and do that? We had very difficult discussions saying, yes, we could do that, but we decided against it. You know, ultimately every time we tried to have that conversation, even when the Padres were in the playoffs, which is the first time in 12 years. We’re a San Diego sports bar. We knew that we could have a packed sports bar, but can we do that safely? I mean, when we think about the fact that we’re 100% people, we’re not 25% people. So we’re not in the business of telling our greatest customers that it’s only six to a table, or it’s only four to a table. You know, everything in our DNA is like, how do we put tables together? How do we bring more people in?
And we just never wanted to put our managers, our staff, and our guests into an uncomfortable situation where we don’t know the answer. What do we know that we can do best? And that’s, we can do digital, so we can improve our digital infrastructure to sell BBQ online. We can improve our technology. We can work with our partners, and we can work with third-party delivery to get more barbecue out, and ultimately that’s led to us opening up a ghost kitchen, which we’re in the process of doing so that we can get more barbecue to other places in San Diego.
EMILY: While emotionally the decision was hard for Shawn and his team, it paid off when their business began to run with higher efficiency, lower food costs, and more people in the San Diego area enjoying Cali Comfort BBQ—whether that’s through delivery, carryout, or a car picnic, which is sadly all too familiar this year. But it wasn’t just the signage, the space between customers ordering, or the fast service that Maridel remembered. It was the service she received from Steven and the attention to detail in ensuring her order was correct that made her feel confident with the experience. Maridel didn’t mention Steven’s name, but Shawn knew it was him.
SHAWN: So we talk about digital hospitality and that every business needs to be digital first and every business needs to be in the hospitality business. The only way to ensure that hospitality happens is by hiring. So if you don’t hire for heart, and if you don’t hire for hospitality in their DNA, it becomes very difficult to teach people to care for people. They have a different level of standard. And then we can go through and let them know what our procedures are to help the guest along in that journey. It was Steven, my catering manager, that was in the window based off of what she said because he takes the time to make sure that if somebody that comes and there are new guests or somebody that has a question about barbecue, he’s going to walk them through it just the same way that any other cashier or host would do, just the same way as any manager would do. So when it’s a part of your culture and a part of your DNA, I don’t have to worry about, Oh, well there’s a VIP guest coming to the restaurant. Let’s make sure it’s the best barbecue when they go. No, every guest is a VIP guest.
EMILY: Hiring for hospitality is something I learned in my days working with Marriott. And Shawn’s right: It’s hard to teach people to care for other people. In episode five with The Candle Pour, owner Misty talked about how important it is to not settle in hiring—don’t just fill the empty spot, even in desperate times. The rest of your employees appreciate you finding the right fit for the team, and you need to find someone who will carry out your vision when interacting with guests and customers.
Let’s close out by talking about reviews. As master digital content creators, Shawn and Stover also understand the importance of digital engagement. And not just getting tons of unengaged followers or posting a few pictures a week, but actually engaging. Responding, commenting on things, talking to other barbecue fans, and business owners, and sports fans, all online.
SHAWN: One of the most important things that we’ve learned about social media is that it’s not always about the numbers of people. So everyone gets obsessed with how many people like the post or how many subscribers do you have? How many followers do you have? Ultimately what matters is, where’s the one-on-one engagement, and what do you do with that one-on-one engagement. Because everyone consumes content in different ways, but there are certain things that make you stop scrolling. And if it makes you stop scrolling and think or comment, then maybe it was worth the time to actually respond to the person that stopped scrolling and commented.
And if you do, and you show up in a memorable way, you’re going to do something that 99% of business owners aren’t going to do. They’re not going to make that engagement, and the deeper you go, instead of just saying, oh, thanks for responding, but if you ask a question in the comment or you send them a direct message, now, all of a sudden you have a brand ambassador that goes, I can’t believe somebody took the time to actually reach out and ask me for clarification of a question or ask me, why did I respond the way that I did. And now you have a deeper connection with the restaurant owner. So many people, they go to your favorite restaurant, and they see somebody knows the owner, and they feel special because they know the owner. Well digital’s changed that. It’s opened up the door to so many people.
STOVER: I believe that social media is a mix of an art form and a science. The art form comes in the improvisation that you do in the moment. And that can be just a one-on-one conversation with a customer that had a good or bad experience. That’s the improvisation factor, but the science comes in with the analytics, and as anyone who’s used Yelp, Yelp Connect, or any other business tool, knows the more you look at the numbers and what’s actually happening, the more you can improve your business. So we approach it the same way. It’s a good thing to just look at how things are performing. And what we found is that polished content almost always underperforms compared to when Shawn stands on the roof, holds his cell phone in a selfie pose, and talks about what’s literally happening in that moment with his business and then posts it.
It’s not polished, but it’s real. So therefore it has a stronger vibration with the audience. On the other hand, you could hire a video crew, which we know in the age of COVID might not be the best thing to do, and you can spend a ton of money, and you can wait a couple of months for that to come back, and then the world has changed. Or you can do it free yourself, learn in the process, and have a better conversation with your audience.
EMILY: Shawn and Stover aren’t alone in this—many business owners are stepping up the digital engagement during COVID. Maridel actually mentioned it.
MARIDEL: I think local businesses are doing a great job with keeping their customers coming back, you know, just being active, promoting, like, hey, we’re open for dining in, come in, or we’re open for takeout.
Also, since COVID started, I’ve been receiving the best customer service from restaurants. I feel like they’re appreciating their customers more, after being shut down and, you know, cause they want their customers coming back. My reviews during COVID, it’s all been five stars. It’s nothing but just positive feedback because everyone’s just been so friendly. They’re going above and beyond.
EMILY: Customer service and safety are two things that Cali Comfort has prioritized during this time and it makes it easier for people like Maridel to enjoy their experience and then want to share about it. Maridel told me that what motivates her is that other consumers are looking for local places to support and information about their operations. Her reviews can help provide that and also spread the word about businesses that are creating memorable experiences during this unprecedented year. This approach often results in positive reviews, but there are negatives too. Shawn responds to them all.
SHAWN: We have over 2,300 four-and-a-half stars on Yelp. And those first 1,600 reviews, I responded to every review—all the bad ones, all the good ones, and everything in between. And we learned so much by responding to those reviews. If it’s a problem that’s happened in multiple reviews, how do we improve it? As we got past 1,600, I passed off those responsibilities of responding to the reviews to Corey, my social media manager, and now Steven, my catering manager, and they respond to the reviews with heart. So if somebody does have a good or bad experience, we need to acknowledge that. And especially now in the digital age and moving forward, I think nothing’s more important.
EMILY: Reviews—both positive and negative—can help your business and create connections with customers that can’t be measured or matched by word of mouth, both offline and on. The Cali Comfort approach is to use social media as a tool to tell their story and connect with potential customers in their area. They engage with online reviews and connect with consumers digitally so they can continue to streamline and scale their business through things like ghost kitchens. I hope that their insights on the initial pivots they made back in March of 2020 and their mindset on social media and digital marketing gives you some perspective that you can take back to your business.
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