Three Women Whose Pandemic Pivots Set the Stage for Success
By Bonny Osterhage
Photos by David Teran
…and then COVID happened. Those four little words make a big statement about the way people now live and work. I had a vacation planned…and then COVID happened. I just accepted a new position….and then COVID happened. My business was thriving…and then COVID happened. This disease has affected people both physically and fiscally. Businesses all across the country have been forced to close their doors for weeks, months, and sadly, in some cases, for good. Fast thinking, teamwork, and creative solutions have become survival strategies during the shutdown and subsequent restrictive reopening of our economy, with companies shifting gears almost as quickly as the virus spreads.
The following three San Antonio women are among those who worked tirelessly to make lemonade out of what has arguably been the biggest lemon in recent history. These savvy business owners and managers implemented strategies that not only addressed the immediate struggles, they redefined what “business as usual” would look like for their companies in a post-pandemic world.
Marketing and Business Administration, Jason Dady Restaurants
While almost all businesses have been adversely affected by COVID, perhaps none quite as badly as the hospitality industry. Crystal Dady, wife of Chef Jason Dady, handles the marketing and business administration for the successful Dady restaurants and catering operations. When the news of the pandemic began to break, she watched in disbelief as one by one, conventions and private parties started canceling contracts. She knew then that something horrible was about to happen.
“Our downtown Austin and San Antonio restaurants had gone from customers to no customers almost overnight,” she says. “Then, when South by Southwest was canceled, we saw the writing on the wall.”
Dady met with the executive team, and collectively they made the tough decision to take a proactive approach and close all six of their restaurants in the hopes that it would make it easier for their staff to file for unemployment before things got worse. They announced the closures on March 16.
“We knew that it was going to be a big challenge for our employees to get unemployment and our main goal was to help them get to the front of the line,” she explains. “We also wanted to make sure we could still pay them what we owed them.”
The Dady team understood firsthand how badly the hospitality industry employees were hurting from all the closures and layoffs, and they decided to do something about it. Through a partnership with Culinaria, and companies like Sysco and South Texas Cuisine, they transformed their Alamo BBQ restaurant into the Hospitality House. Over the next 12 weeks, anyone in the hospitality industry from dishwashers to hotel maids could pick up freshly made meals twice a day to take home and enjoy.
“We knew that everyone in this industry was falling on hard times and we wanted to help,” explains Dady. “We literally fed thousands of people.”
The service was so successful that Dady soon realized it could be the solution to keeping the company afloat while the restaurant doors remained closed.
“We realized our clientele still wanted fresh, hot meals, but they didn’t want to cook, and they didn’t want to brave the lines at the grocery store,” she says. “By offering our meal prep to the public, we gave them one less thing to worry about.”
She and the team created a meal program where customers could purchase three, 3-course meals every week for $120, and have them delivered, contact-free, right to their doors. Family-friendly options, including pizza and pasta kits were added to the mix as a way to give families something to do together.
“People were scared and trapped in their homes with their families,” says the mom of three. “We wanted to offer them a way to have fun and take their mind off of things for a while.”
The meal prep service proved to be a game-changer, landing the Dady products on the shelves of H-E-B as part of the grocery giant’s “Texans Helping Texans” initiative. Chef-inspired heat and eat meals, including the Brisket Chili from Two Bros BBQ Market and the Nutella x3 from Tre Trattoria, along with comfort foods like Tuscan Bolognaise and King Ranch Chicken, allowed customers to enjoy restaurant-quality dining in their own homes.
“We are honored and privileged to be able to participate in the H-E-B program because it was instrumental in our survival,” says Dady.
Today, Alamo BBQ, Two Bros BBQ, Tre Trattoria and Jardin are once again open for business with plans to open Range in the works, but the meal plan service will remain for now.
“It’s always been a side business, not the main focus,” explains Dady, who says they will continue to evaluate each week as the market continues to evolve.
For Dady, the biggest takeaway from the experience was the realization that her team was strong enough to not only survive, but thrive. And if faced with the same circumstances again, she knows they could handle it.
“Going through this pandemic was the lowest of lows and the highest of highs on a daily basis,” she describes. “You could easily flounder under that pressure, but our core team came together really well with a common focus and goal. We went into it together, and we came out of it together, stronger.”
Lead Instructor, JoyRide Cycling and Fitness
“Joy cannot be contained.” That is JoyRide Cycling and Fitness Lead Instructor Kelly Middleton’s mantra, and it was put to the test this year when both JoyRide San Antonio studios closed their doors in early March.
“We had not been mandated to close yet, but things didn’t feel right to us, so we decided to act. We are first and foremost about our community, and we wanted to keep everyone from our instructors to our riders safe.”
Sweating while sheltered became the top priority for Middleton and the Joyride team. Within one week, JoyRide had combined its Texas and Connecticut teams and talents to create a full schedule of off-the-bike classes via Instagram Live. Strength training, yoga, and HIIT classes became the line-up, with instructors including Middleton donating their time, energy, and, most importantly, their creativity to keep people motivated and moving.
“We had to get inventive when it came to weights,” laughs Middleton. “People were using water bottles, wine bottles, and large detergent and kitty litter containers. There was even a ‘broom pilates’ class.”
The classes were successful, but according to Middleton, something was missing—well, two things to be exact.
“We missed that live interaction that made our studios sparkle, and we REALLY missed the concept we were founded on—CYCLE! So, we did the next best thing and added Zoom classes.”
Zoom allowed everyone to get back on the bike in the comfort of their own homes and take classes with their favorite JoyRide instructors and classmates in real time.
“Adding Zoom allowed us to engage with our clients and each other on a whole other level,” says Middleton. “Our Texas instructors and riders got to know our Connecticut team and vice versa. It was really cool to see, and it drove home the point that we were all in this together.”
Zoom also offered the JoyRide team and community a way to be social, while maintaining social distance. People “hung out” after classes, visiting and catching up, and JoyRide employees from instructors to the CEO engaged in weekly Zoom happy hours.
“Recreating the Joy vibe through technology is challenging, but these social opportunities provided us with the engagement and support we needed,” says Middleton. “It united us across all the studios and made us stronger as a company.”
In May, as restrictions began to ease, JoyRide opened both of the San Antonio studios under the strictest of guidelines that went above and beyond local mandates. Bikes are now spaced six-feet apart, cutting the number of riders each studio can accommodate by half. Medical grade HVAC filters have been installed, and fans are no longer a part of class. Gloves were mandatory for both riders and instructors for the first two weeks, and masks are still required by anyone entering or exiting the studio, although they may be removed to ride. Finally, class times are spaced further apart to allow for extra cleaning procedures.
“We did what was mandated, and then we did more,” says Middleton.
Recently, restrictions eased up to allow for more capacity, but due to space restrictions, JoyRide studios couldn’t add more bikes and stay compliant with the six-foot spacing rule. The solution? Ride outside! Taking a cue from the Connecticut studios, Middleton and crew set up an open-air “pop-up” at the old Cavender Cadillac building on Broadway. The large, covered space easily accommodates all 38 bikes spread six-feet apart, and utilizes headphones with “silent disco” technology to rock the house.
“Silent disco technology is something that has been successful in New York and Connecticut,” says Middleton, explaining that the headphones allow the riders to hear the instructor and the music, without anyone else being disturbed by the sound. “We saw this as a way to bring the newest technology to San Antonio, and the response has been great.”
And although the riders are joyfully coming back to the studios, Middleton says that the pandemic made the team realize the importance of offering online classes as another way for people to find their joy. “JoyRide GO!” is a new virtual studio that features online cycling and studio classes for the rider who wants to sweat at home or on the go. There’s also a new JoyRide At-Home Bike available for purchase to make the experience from live to virtual studio seamless.
“We have learned that the space we are in is not what defines us,” says Middleton confidently. “It has always been about the people and the energy. It’s combustible joy and as long as we have our community and our instructors, it works anywhere.”
Director of HR and Administration, Sol Schwartz & Associates CPAs
As the expression goes, taxes are one of two of life’s certainties, which means that not even a global pandemic will exempt people from paying them. But it will exempt CPAs from shutting down their offices.
“We were automatically exempt from closing because taxes still had to be filed,” says Jennifer Stief, Director of HR and Administration for Sol Schwartz & Associates CPAs. “We functioned at full capacity the entire time, but the way we functioned was much different.”
Like many human resources professionals, Stief had to quickly move the business to a mobile model, keeping only a voluntary skeleton crew in the office on a daily basis. Her biggest concern was making sure that the accountants had the equipment they needed to work from home, and that the external server would be viable enough to maintain more than 50 people using it at one time.
“We’ve never had all the employees on the outside network at full speed at the same time,” says Stief, who closed the office for two days to test all of the systems. “Our IT group planned ahead and everything worked perfectly.”
Having the necessary technology and equipment to work from home was only half the battle. The other, and just as important half for Stief, was maintaining company morale and keeping people engaged.
“We had to figure out how to get everyone trained and set up for Microsoft Team and Zoom so that we could hold meetings, which was not something we were used to doing,” she explains. “We also tried to come up with activities that people could do on those platforms from home to stay connected with each other.”
The team-building committee came up with things like art contests where employees used items from around their homes to come up with their creations, and scavenger hunts using digital photographs. Restaurant gift cards were sent to employees so that they could enjoy meals with their families.
“We were used to having meals brought into the office during the busy season and we missed that,” says Stief who coordinated those efforts. “This was a way to let employees know that we were thinking about them and missing our time together.”
In addition to keeping things running smoothly from a business standpoint, Stief was also tasked with fielding hundreds of questions from employees as they navigated things like working from home while homeschooling children, figuring out the various technological aspects of online meetings and document sharing, and making sure everyone was up to date on the new tax laws like the Family First Corona Virus Response Act, that were coming out and changing practically every day.
“Our accountants were doing extra advising that had nothing to with a normal tax cycle,” she explains. “We had to make sure that everyone was up to date.”
As restrictions eased and more people began returning to the office on a voluntary basis, a typical day now finds the office at approximately 2/5 capacity with that number increasing to 1/2 during tax deadline season. Desks and public stations are stocked with individual hand sanitizers, masks, and gloves, and the majority of meetings and interactions are still handled via online platforms. In-person client meetings are held by appointment only.
“We will reevaluate how many people we will allow in the office after the first of the year,” says Stief. “We are not oblivious to the fact that the office will look different because we have learned that working remotely is more doable and successful than we ever imagined.”
And while Stief says this is not something anyone ever really plans for, the situation has changed the way that companies will do business in the future.
“This has forced many companies, including us, to ramp up our work from home options because we are finding that it just makes more sense for some people in terms of commute and flexible hours, even without a pandemic,” she explains.
This year marks Sol Schwartz & Associates’ 40th year in business, and the company had begun moving into a more modern age with plans to implement many of the technological aspects already in the works. Stief says COVID just caused those plans to get fast-tracked.
“We wanted to do something memorable for our 40th anniversary this year,” she laughs. “We never imagined it would be this.”