Early in the pandemic, Kyle Cato thought his dream might be over. He’d opened CrossFit 806, a gym near Western and Plains Boulevard, in late 2010. One of the first CrossFit licensed gyms in the city, it quickly built up a passionate and loyal clientele. When the city shut down in March 2020, Cato closed his doors, too, sending his members home with kettlebells and free weights—loaners from the gym—and pledged to give them daily workout instructions.

But though he and his coaches kept in close contact with members, Cato worried. “Our doors were shut. Nobody used my gym,” he says. Uncertain about when he could safely reopen, Cato decided to try to make the best of a bad situation. His gym was closed anyway. Why not use his time wisely? “I spent money. I knocked out walls to create floor space,” he says. “We were designed to have 20 people working out at once, but the big remodel made it to fit 30 people in a more organized way.” 

As virologists began announcing that outdoor spaces were safer than indoors, Cato also considered whether 806 could have a more prominent outside component as well. He installed a pull-up rig in the parking lot. “I wanted it to be a fairytale entrance when someone came back. I wanted that wow factor to be there at our opening,” he says.

Almost 90 days after closing, CrossFit 806 finally welcomed members back during the summer. They discovered a much more expansive workout floor, a better flow for group exercise, and a lot less chaos. “The gym is feeling more alive than it ever  ,” Cato says today during an early-afternoon break between sessions. Membership has been growing rapidly. The outside equipment and inside remodel have allowed him to add classes. “We’re running with it as the pandemic turns the corner. It actually made my business better. We’re a well-oiled machine.”

COVID was scary. But on the other side, Cato has seen unexpected benefits. “It made me a better business owner,” he says.

He’s not alone.

Dish for Dish, Plate for Plate

Last spring, Ronnie Granger prepared to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Sunday’s Kitchen, a small, downtown Cajun and Creole restaurant now located on Sixth between Polk and Tyler streets. He’d done steady business serving breakfast and lunch out of a small space. Four tables inside and four patio tables maxed out his capacity at 32 seats. Sunday’s Kitchen was increasing in popularity, however, and the limited space presented a challenge. 

“We were packing them in and already turning people away,” Granger says. “The dining room was a choke point.” Then the pandemic hit. He was already a member of multiple Facebook groups in which local and national restaurateurs had begun sharing best practices as COVID landed on their doorsteps. So when dining rooms closed, Granger saw an opportunity.

It was time to put that choke point behind him.

“The restaurants that were successful, all they did was be willing to adapt. You had to. You didn’t have a choice in the matter. If you didn’t adapt, things got hard,” he says on a recent Tuesday afternoon between the lunch and dinner rush. So Granger changed the entire concept of Sunday’s Kitchen. “I knew we had a restaurant, but I had to stop treating it like a restaurant and start treating it like a food truck—a stationary food truck with a fixed location.”

Indoor dining restrictions last spring forced restaurants to close anyway and offer takeout and delivery only. Granger embraced the shift. “We started boxing [the food] up good, wrapping it tight, keeping sauces separate, all the expectations of a food truck,” he explains. “It wasn’t a hard transition but a matter of simplifying. But what happened is it leveled the playing field for me.”

In other words, he knew his eight tables would never allow him to compete with bigger restaurants. But at the time, those enormous dining rooms were in the exact same predicament. They were serving takeout only, and so was Sunday’s Kitchen. So Granger ran with it. That meant changing not just how
he got meals to customers, but the way he interacted with customers in the first place.

“That’s when we took our social media to a different level. We started posting more and changed the type of posts we made,” he says. In particular, Granger recognized opportunity on Instagram. “I can’t compete with a big dining room and a bar, but I’ll go up with you dish for dish, plate for plate. So that’s what happened,” he explains. “Every plate, I said, ‘That plate needs to look like something you can take a picture of, something you can post.’” 

He focused on creating visually appealing, Instagrammable food, one plate at a time, and relied on his growing base of customers to spread the word.

They did. Organically, local influencers and prominent civic leaders began to order from Sunday’s Kitchen and post about it. “Customers with big platforms were showing up randomly and ordering food. People saw it,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it without those people with influence.” When Granger himself posted about a certain dish, it was likely to sell out. The steady business gave him the freedom to grow. Eventually, he added a dinner menu.

Today, Sunday’s Kitchen is fully open, but that food truck/takeout mindset persists. “We are definitely two different restaurants,” he says, comparing his pre-pandemic and current operations. He estimates his business has grown five-fold over the past year. “Customers want local, homestyle food. We’re thriving.”

Crisis Renewal

Talk to any business owner who is still in business in 2021, as we approach the tail end of COVID, and you’ll hear similar stories to those of CrossFit 806 and Sunday’s Kitchen. We had to change. We couldn’t just wait it out. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we did it anyway.

The government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans definitely helped, combined with local banks’ hard work to get that money to customers. The community’s insistence on supporting local businesses during the crisis also played a huge role. But more than almost anything else, these small businesses discovered that their willingness to embrace transformation—and do it quickly—allowed them not just to survive the pandemic, but come out better on the other side of it.

At 575 Pizzeria, owner Brent Kelleher closed his Civic location for much-needed renovations, upgraded his phone system to handle a barrage of takeout orders, and even introduced a new Take N’ Bake pizza (see sidebar).

At Brent’s Cafe, owners Brent and Heather Lancour hoped to retain as many of their staff as possible, even with the dining room closed. They started their own curbside and delivery rather than using a service like GrubHub. They also introduced $45 family meals, which proved incredibly popular (see sidebar).

Joshua Raef, the local owner-operator of the Georgia Street Chick-fil-A, doubled down on the delivery side of his business and focused enormous attention on his drive-thru. Even though his dining room is still closed—there’s a chance it could reopen in late May—his location has been busier than ever. He says his business has been “forever changed,” in the best ways (see sidebar ).

For these businesses, the pandemic compressed several years of slow, necessary changes into a 12-month span. The transitions may have been painful—the pandemic was scary, the anxiety was harmful, the grief was enormous—but sometimes suffering leads to growth.

Academics call this process “crisis renewal.” According to this theory, devastating crises can sometimes be agents, in the long term, of positive outcomes. A destructive hurricane forces massive improvements within a city’s infrastructure. A local tragedy binds a community together like never before. A global pandemic ends up strengthening local businesses.

Kristina Drumheller, Ph.D., is a professor of communication studies at WTAMU and an expert in crisis communication. She explains that, when things are going well, businesses often end up on a form of autopilot. The status quo works and there’s no reason to shake up the system. “But when a crisis occurs, we find out there are other processes or other ways that we want to redefine our business,” she says. “[Small businesses] should embrace those as opportunities instead of just looking at a crisis in a negative light.”

With that mindset, businesses ask hard questions when a crisis disrupts the status quo: Do we need to adapt? Do we need to change our focus? Do we need to update our mission statement? And then they allow those answers to drive action.

The dustbin of history is filled with examples of organizations that refused to change, or didn’t adapt quickly enough. “We see a lot of businesses where you have to stop and wonder what happened and why they aren’t the leaders [of their industries] today,” Drumheller explains. “Why aren’t we on Skype instead of Zoom? Why did Blockbuster not become Netflix?”

The answer is that they weren’t prepared for the transition in the first place, and when those shifts happened—when a crisis landed at their feet—they weren’t able to pivot. This concept doesn’t have to apply only to a pandemic. Drumheller says businesses should always be questioning themselves. “Even if it’s not a pandemic, how do I look forward at how a crisis could affect my business?” she asks. “How would I continue operating? How do I resume business if my building catches on fire?” The companies that address those questions and steer their business models toward survival often end up seeing better success when the crisis is in the rearview mirror.

Drumheller points to remote work as a perfect example of this. Within some companies, individuals had spent years asking for the flexibility to work at home. Experts acknowledged it could increase both morale and productivity. But countless businesses were reluctant to offer it simply because they didn’t trust the non-traditional concept. Apart from a few tech giants, remote work made them uncomfortable. 

“I would argue the pandemic has shown businesses that every time they said, ‘Oh, we can’t do that,’ the pandemic said, ‘Yes, you can,’” Drumheller says. “In any business where you don’t have an absolute reason an employee has to be there from 8 to 5, ask the question: Can they do work differently? Can you allow folks with families to go to a kid’s play or take care of their elderly parents? Can you just say, ‘These are the projects that need done. I don’t care when and how you do them, as long as they’re done by this date?’ Companies who do that have employees with a better quality of life.”

Better Morale, Better Balance

One local example is the External Relations Department at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, a communications shop that connects the organization’s multiple schools and campuses with the public. Prior to the pandemic, its 50 employees mostly worked out of a few physical offices spread across the state of Texas.

That’s not the case any longer. When the pandemic began, the department shifted to remote work, and discovered this not only improved communication, but also efficiency. “We saw that we could join a meeting via Zoom and be extremely effective,” says Mattie Been, Assistant Vice President for External Relations. “It was so accessible to get together and have meetings across campuses.”

Prior to that, she points out that a 30-minute, in-person meeting would often be accompanied by “the meeting before the meeting”—the chit-chat that happens when a team assembles—along with wrap-up conversations after the meeting concluded. Then there were commute times, presentation and laptop setups, and other meeting-adjacent responsibilities.

“Now, a 30-minute meeting is actually a 30-minute meeting,” Been says of the new Zoom protocols. As communication improved, the interactivity helped eliminate duplicate work as well. But more than anything else, she saw her team members’ work quality continue, even though they had begun to enjoy the extra freedom.

It’s not just anecdotal to TTUHSC. One study in 2015 found that remote employees are more productive than in-office employees because they experience fewer distractions and have a quieter work environment. Escaping the cubicle helps them achieve more in fewer hours. They also tend to lead healthier lifestyles, which ultimately benefits their employer. 

“People realized the value of that work-life balance. They saw what they were missing,” Been says. “It was just really beneficial for our culture.” So even when the organization decided it was safe to work together in person, her department kept the work-from-home option. Position by position, the department’s leadership team evaluated whether remote work could remain a perk of the job. 

As a result, several employees are still completely remote. Others, like Been, come to the office just a few days a week. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Been expects her team members to be accessible to jump on a Zoom meeting at any point. But apart from that expectation, each employee enjoys flexibility and freedom. “It’s OK if you’re not in the office sitting at your desk 8-to-5. There’s still a lot of work happening even if the person next door to you is not in their office. That doesn’t mean they’re not fulfilling their purpose and being effective,” Been says. “This respect for people’s time has shifted everyone’s mindset. It encourages people.”

Above and Beyond

Not everyone is comfortable looking for the silver lining of a pandemic. Clearly, it has been a devastating year in Amarillo and around the world. As of last month, the virus had taken the lives of more than 700 people living in Potter and Randall counties. Imagine the devastation if a 737 airliner filled with Amarillo residents crashed upon departure from our airport. Now imagine it happening twice more over the course of a year. That heart-wrenching scenario represents the local death toll of the disease.

But as our area increases its vaccination rate and moves forward, certain businesses are benefiting from their willingness to make changes. “When we got to the fall and were facing uncertainty about whether we would close down again, people were wondering ‘Is this what life is now?’” remembers Jason Harrison, president and CEO of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce (see sidebar). “It caused them to get creative with their business plans.”

Some businesses, like cleaning crews, found themselves doing better than they’d ever done and were forced to service the extra demand. Others, especially retailers and restaurants, had to find new ways to get their products to consumers so they could keep the doors open. But all found ways to adapt.

“Through that mentality and resilience and Amarillo work ethic, because of that creativity, we are now starting to see a big rebound,” Harrison says. “The proactive businesses changed their models and were very active. They went above and beyond, and that makes them a better business.”

It connected them more closely with their customers and cemented customer loyalty. It delivered new products and revenue streams. It increased productivity and morale. 

Because the world changed, these businesses changed, and a willingness to embrace that potential helped them wring something positive out of a global negative.

Business is coming back in Amarillo. It might just be better than ever. 

SIDEBAR: Amarillo is Open—and Poised to Flourish

“The community is ready. Businesses are ready. There’s gonna be no doubt—we’re already seeing it,” says Jason Harrison, president and CEO of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce.

He’s talking about the explosive reopening of the local economy as Amarillo and Canyon residents get vaccinated and businesses rebound after the uncertainty of 2020. As businesses pivoted in response to the stop-and-start restrictions of the pandemic, this area fared better than many other parts of the state. Initially, the city projected a decrease in sales tax revenue, which funds municipal operations. Worried about potential budget cuts, the local government began planning for the worst.

But during 2020, the City of Canyon increased its sales tax revenue 14 percent over 2019. The City of Amarillo’s sales tax collections for March 2021 were up nearly 9 percent from the previous year. At a State of the Economy event in late March, finance expert Monica Mehta pointed out that Amarillo had weathered 2020 much better than many other cities. 

So while the outlook for the U.S. economy has already been improving, Amarillo’s low unemployment rate and booming economic development put it at the precipice of extraordinary growth. 

“It’s a culmination of a lot of things,” the Chamber’s Harrison says about Amarillo’s current position. “There’s more economic development going on than we’ve had in the last 30 years.” He points to the opening of a new one million-square-foot Amazon distribution and fulfillment center, the ambitious launch of Sharpened Iron Studios, the fall opening of AISD’s AmTech Career Academy and the inaugural class of the new Texas Tech University School of Veterinary Medicine in Amarillo, all of which are driving local enthusiasm.

“Plus, there’s all this pent-up demand and excitement from consumers. They have more money now than they probably ever had,” says Harrison. For one thing, families tended to spend less and save more during the pandemic. And secondly, the government’s stimulus checks deposited money directly into their bank accounts.

“They have money ready to spend and businesses are starting to open up,” he says. “With the vaccination campaign, you have peace of mind and excitement to go out and do things. People feel safe. People have money. The culmination of all those things are why we are so quickly able to rebound.” 

Not every business survived the pandemic-related restrictions and closures, and Harrison is careful not to downplay that pain. “People went out of business, and those are businesses we may never get back,” he says. But he does recognize that, as illustrated by the stories on these pages, many businesses found a way to adapt and change in response to the crisis. 

“Amarillo has a roll-up-your-sleeve-and-get-the-job-done mentality and you’re seeing that now,” he says. “They had to get creative and make it happen, and they’re in a better position now.”

SIDEBAR: 575 Pizzeria: “A Tighter Team”

Before COVID, 575 Pizzeria saw takeout represent around 20 percent of its business, according to owner and founder Brian Kelleher. When the pandemic forced the closure of indoor dining, that number jumped to 100 percent. It stayed there for weeks.

Kelleher wasn’t ready for it. At the beginning, he thought his phone systems were capable of handling the the extra volume—until Kelleher called another restaurant and got a busy signal. He understood that the restaurant was busy. But at 575, when phones were busy, the caller just heard incessant ringing. “I realized our phones were making people mad,” he says. So late last year, 575 completely retrofitted its phone system, adding a busy signal and revamping how calls arrived. “It’s a work in progress, but it helps our ability to serve customers,” Kelleher says.

Had takeouts stayed at 20 percent, that upgrade may never have happened.

That wasn’t the only change. Early in the pandemic, Kelleher had decided to make use of the closures to remodel his original Civic location—a long-needed construction project. But the closure stressed his remaining kitchen on Hillside. “Trying to fit in all those [carryout] orders in a short amount of time was very challenging,” he says. Still, despite two-hour wait times for customers’ pizza orders, he wasn’t willing to change the quality of his product. Cooking pizza faster wasn’t an option. 

“We had the ovens we had,” he says. “We didn’t want to mess with cook times, so throughput wasn’t an area we could improve.”

As a solution, he introduced a brand-new product: Take N’ Bake pizza. These were the same familiar 575 favorites, but customers could pick them up uncooked, ready to bake at home. “We didn’t have to send those through our ovens. We could produce them quickly and in advance,” Kelleher says. This allowed customers to call in early, pick up their orders at their leisure, and even drive home without worrying their pizza was getting cold. Customers from Canyon and Bushland began to respond.

“This was a huge development for us,” he says. “It allowed us to enlarge our range of customers. It opened up a new product to more users.” Most importantly, it took strain off the pizza ovens during peak times. “If [customers] were willing to cook at home, it didn’t cost as much and it was more convenient than waiting in a long phone queue,” says Kelleher.

Since reopening fully, sales are up at 575, but Kelleher is still considering ways to streamline his operation, especially interactions between guests and their server. “You never want to see restaurants close and go out of business,” he says today. But begrudgingly, he still recognizes benefits of the moves COVID forced him to make. “Our staff has become a tighter team. They had to. They rallied together to face a lot of these challenges together,” Kelleher says. “It all came out of the pain and struggle we were feeling.”

SIDEBAR: Brent’s Cafe: “We Felt the Love”

Brent and Heather Lancour opened Brent’s Cafe in January 2019. Their Olsen Boulevard restaurant, known for its creative, farm-to-table dishes, was just hitting its stride in early 2020. “We were ready for a fantastic year. Then all of a sudden, the brakes were put on everything,” Brent says. “That scared us.”

But like many other restaurant owners, Brent and Heather began communicating with their peers. “We were all giving each other tips so we could stay in business,” he says. “Restaurants were sharing each other’s posts. That was really great to see.”

The Lancours gritted their teeth and determined to make it to the other side of whatever was headed their way. “Our number-one goal was to support as many local producers as we possibly could. Our second-biggest priority was keeping employed as many staff as we could,” Heather says. That informed the changes that came next.

With the dining room closed, Brent’s added curbside and delivery services, relying on their own employees to deliver meals. (Now fully reopened, the restaurant has partnered with a local delivery company.) They introduced family meals with large, shareable entrees at a very reasonable $45 price point. “Those have been so popular,” Heather says. “You know how busy families are nowadays. They wanted to eat out but four different entrees, multiple times a week, isn’t always possible.”

Customers responded. Regulars increased their orders. “They felt invested in our staff,” Brent says. Tips went up exponentially, “sometimes 30, 40 or 50 percent.” 

Brent’s ended up having to let one employee go, but eventually rehired that employee. 

When the dining room reopened, Brent and Heather removed tables to meet limited capacity requirements. It turns out customers liked the extra spacing, and those extra tables still haven’t found their way back into the dining area. “I would love to seat another 30 people, but more important is to have a comfortable atmosphere where everybody can enjoy themselves,” Brent says. 

Having retained their entire staff during the pandemic, they’re now hiring new employees to meet increasing demand. “More than anything, we’re just grateful to the local community,” Heather says. “We definitely felt
the love.”

sidebar: Chick-fil-A: “These Are Forever Changes”

Local owner-operator Joshua Raef launched the Chick-fil-A on Georgia Street in the summer of 2011 and immediately built up a huge business. But despite having a high-profile corporation behind him (“I’m under no illusions about that,” he says), the pandemic initially left him reeling. 

“For the first four to six weeks [after the shutdown], our business was almost cut in half,” he says. When he realized the pandemic was going to last longer than a few weeks, his thoughts turned to survival. “It was raw fear.”

But Raef knew his location had earned a reputation for excellent drive-thru service, so with indoor dining closed, he prioritized that side of his business. “It’s amazing what you can do when forced to focus resources on something,” he explains. “We thought we were good at drive-thru already, but learned we could be a lot better about it. We got faster than we ever thought possible.”

He compares it to the evolution of pit crews in NASCAR, with a team of specialists planning ahead and layering expertise to reduce pit stops to mere seconds. “If you can put a lot of people with specialized tasks on the drive-thru, you can run it in record time,” he says.

Also, in the fall of 2019, Raef’s location had been one of 50 Chick-fil-As nationwide testing delivery services. That was a lucky break. “Overnight, that business quadrupled,” he says. “It’s quintupled since then. The delivery business blew up and I don’t think it’s going away.”

Meanwhile, thanks to app-based ordering, curbside service boomed. Stats and revenue increased across the board, and as of this month, Raef’s Chick-fil-A has still not reopened its dining room. Corporate would have allowed it, but the independent owners in Amarillo all decided to keep theirs closed for the common good—at least until vaccines were available for team members. Raef misses the community aspect of indoor dining, but knows the growth of drive-thru, delivery and curbside wouldn’t have happened otherwise. 

In fact, reopening the dining room at all will be a challenge at this point. “Our delivery and mobile business are running out of a third of the dining room,” Raef reveals. His employees are literally using that space for meal assembly and delivery coordination. He’ll probably end up building interior walls to retain at least part of that staging area. “You can’t put that genie back in the bottle,” Raef says. “These are forever changes.”

The Georgia Street Chick-fil-A continues to flourish. To address a labor shortage and reward his existing employees, Raef increased hourly pay for his entire team. “We’ve hired 48 people over the last two weeks,” Raef said in early April. “We’re busier than ever.”