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Episode 37

Part 2: Independently Owned Restaurants Series

Laurie Torres
Owner of Mallorca Restaurant

“This is the wrong time to ask independent operators to change the way we order restaurant supplies. We don’t have time to figure it out. We’re overwhelmed and have too many other things going on.”

Independent restaurants owners face many challenges that are unique to those of large chains. If you work in sales or marketing for the foodservice industry, you must understand these differences to successfully communicate with Independents.

The best way to learn? Hear the struggles and needs of restaurant owners first-hand. Listen to industry veteran, Laurie Torres, share the ups and downs of restaurant ownership on this episode of the Lead(er) Generation podcast.

Highlights From This Episode:

  • Challenge facing independent restaurants
  • Navigating the pandemic
  • Unique solutions during unprecedented times
  • Ordering and sourcing restaurant supplies
  • Vendor and partner relationships
  • Technology for independently owned restaurants
  • Inflation and staffing challenges
  • Staying on top of trends

Watch the Live Recording

Full Episode Transcripts

Tessa Burg: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Lead(er) Generation. I’m your host Tessa Burg. Today, we are continuing our three-part series around trends with independent operators. These are independently owned restaurants, and this is in line with the National Restaurant Show coming up on Saturday, May 21st through Tuesday, May 24th. If you want more information on the National Restaurant Show, visit their website at nationalrestaurantshow.com.

Tessa Burg: But today’s guest, super excited to hear from her, we have Laurie Torres. She is the owner of Mallorca. It is located in Downtown, Cleveland, ride by, if you’re like me, a great stopping point before or after browns games, if you don’t like mayhem, and who wants some really good food. And then also she is the president of the Cleveland Independence and in the board of directors to the Ohio Restaurant Association. So Laurie, thank you so much for joining us today and for being our guest. It is nice to have you.

Laurie Torres: Thank you.

Tessa Burg: So right before this call, we were talking about your journey through the pandemic and the creativity and resilience we saw from so many independent operators. Tell us a little bit about what that looks like today. What is the largest challenges facing your community and what are some of those creative solutions that you see, especially from your lens in the Cleveland Independents being implemented?

Laurie Torres: I think that obviously I can give you the obvious answers, which are inflation. It’s a huge issue right now. Things are costing double, and I mean double what they were costing before, and we can’t raise our prices exponentially to cover those costs. I think staffing continues to be a problem where before it was kind of taboo to poach one another’s employees. You see us not only poaching one another’s employees, but you see the big industry, big operators outside of our industry poaching our employees. So we may lose a chef not to another restaurant, but to Amazon delivery at $35 an hour, which is just unheard of. So that’s a huge problem. I think from fine dining, having to kind of recreate yourself, do a lot more to-go, and that’s become an issue. There’s a plethora of things, but those are some of the main things that we face that cause us to have to be more creative every day.

Tessa Burg: Yeah, those are some huge issues. And I know that Mallorca is actually not a sports bar at all, it’s more fine dining. I didn’t tell you this, I got engaged to my now husband at Mallorca.

Laurie Torres: Ah, that’s so wonderful. I love those stories.

Tessa Burg: Yes, it was one of our favorite restaurants when we lived Downtown, but the only time I can go there now is before and after brown schemes…

Laurie Torres: Yeah, that’s amazing. Thank you for that.

Tessa Burg: Oh yeah.

Laurie Torres: I think that’s a beautiful thing for me owning a restaurant that’s 26 years old is, I always say that the soul of Mallorca is made up of all the joy that’s been celebrated here, and that being a part of people being allowed to be part of so many people’s history and then become a part of ours, that’s such a huge thing for me. So thank you for that.

Tessa Burg: Oh yeah, you’re welcome. And you’re absolutely right. Our favorite part about Mallorca’s food is the experience, is going into the restaurant, is sitting down, awesome service, everything is just, it really transports you. And so when the pandemic hit, that had to have been a major challenge to, “Now what do we do when so much of “why people come to us is about this experience?” It’s awesome food, but it goes so much above and beyond that. Tell me about some of the solutions you put in to kind of keep the spirit of Mallorca alive, even through all those challenging times.

Laurie Torres: That’s interesting you say that, cause I was talking about this with someone the other day because we did have to… Excuse me, tripping off my words. We did have to shift to to-go for a long time to, particularly when we were closed and the only thing you could do was to-go. So we had to shift to to-go, and we had to see a lot more of our income come in that form, the form to-go.

Laurie Torres: And so you had to be really creative in terms of knowing that everybody can have food to-go, but how do you transport the experience of Mallorca in that to-go box so that it’s not just, I’m picking up a pot paella and I’m eating at home, but how can we be creative and make it so that when they get that food home, they still feel that Mallorca experience. And for us, it was really putting on our thinking caps and thinking in terms of to-go food with flare.

Laurie Torres: And oftentimes we would send personalized notes home that said, “If you were here, we may talk about this “and we sure miss you.” Or putting together to-go so that it was more than just a to-go meal, but a to-go experience, and packaging things like, “Hey, you take this package home, “you’re gonna have your sangria “and you’re gonna have your champagne. “And we’re gonna put some little masks in there “so you can have like a masquerade at home, “or putting castanets in there, “so you could celebrate your Spanish nest.” So it was really being creative.

Laurie Torres: And we even arranged zoom calls with people that would make to larger orders, and we’d say, “Hey, after you guys are done eating, “let’s have a quick zoom so that we can say hi.” And to really trying to transport that experience into that to-go box.

Laurie Torres: But otherwise, it’s just to-go food like everyone else, and that’s really something that I think fine dining experience or fine dining restaurants, particularly those who have a history, really do and will have to do going forward, is to create more than just, “My food is online and you can get it,” but transporting that experience from Mallorca into the home.

Tessa Burg: Yeah, no, those are beautiful solutions. So with that pivot, trying to create something special in a new format, did that impact… And even probably the volume of food was impacted. How did that change how you source and order and get supplies to deliver that new kind of Mallorca experience?

Laurie Torres: You really kind of have to… Where before you could really order a lot more, and obviously not the food so much because we pride ourselves on fresh seafood and fresh food, but before you would order a lot more of your ancillary products in bulk.

Laurie Torres: And really what COVID is it kind of shifted that because you didn’t know from week to week what you were going to use. And you also didn’t have the excess of money that came in from selling excess of things, so you really started kind of on-demand more like inventory, like, “I’m gonna buy exactly what I need “and know more or know less.”

Laurie Torres: And that really has actually carried forward into now, even though the demand for restaurants has increased and we’re back to where we were as before. We still now are looking at it like that kind of worked for us, that on-demand inventory, as opposed to ordering in bulk.

Laurie Torres: So I think when suppliers call me and say, “Hey, we can give you 2,500 of this instead of 200,” I look at it and say, “I don’t know that that savings is worth the risk “of buying that much, not knowing what’s gonna happen.” Not that I know Mallorca is gonna be here for another 26 years, it’s just I don’t know how quickly I’m gonna have to pivot and that item that I bought would become moot or unnecessary. And so is it really worth it for me to buy that big bulk amount? So it’s changed that, I think, in a lot of ways, for not just myself, but when I hear from other independent operators, they’re saying the same thing.

Tessa Burg: Yeah, no, that is really interesting. So how have your suppliers reacted to that? Have you shifted more your on-demand buying online or to channels that are guide as better set up for that or are the same people able to satisfy on-demand and bulk?

Laurie Torres: Yeah. I used basically the same suppliers. And I think that the suppliers really acknowledged that that was necessary. And some of the ones who were used to selling larger amounts during COVID, everybody had to be creative, everybody had to shift the way that they did their business or else they weren’t gonna be in the business.

Laurie Torres: So if you did have a supplier that said, “Hey, it’s either 2,500 or nothing,” then you’d say, “Okay, well then I’m not gonna use you. “So you can either sell me a 1000 or I’ll go to someone else and get 1000.” Everybody had to shift. I mean, that’s just kind of how it was all the way down the line. If I don’t want it and I’m not gonna buy it, and you’re requiring me to buy more than I need, then I’m gonna go somewhere else. That’s just how it is.

Laurie Torres: And we talk about the relationship we have with our vendors is very important. That relationship is really important, knowing that I am gonna deal with Dave at Land ‘N’ Sea, and him knowing my business and me knowing his business, and those relationships were crucial during COVID because it was, and even after, because it was easier for me to say, “Hey Dave, we’ve been working together for 25 years. I’m telling you what I need. This is what I need. And we’re partners together in both your business and in my business, because if I do well, you do well. And if you do well, I do well. So we’re partners.”

Laurie Torres: So that relationship made it easier to make those adjustments and say, “Well, we’re going through this. I need to make some adjustments in the way that I order. And we’ve been around long enough and you wanna keep me as a customer when this is all over. So let’s work together.” And that, again, relationship-building is crucial for specifically for times like now, or times during COVID, when you have to pivot and you have to change the way that you do business.

Tessa Burg: Yeah, I feel like that is a universal truth the pandemic is. We were all experiencing this together. And so it was a time where I feel everyone was a little bit more empathetic, getting a lot more creative, much more supportive. Were there anything that your partners or vendors did that really wowed you or helped in a dramatic way that was unexpected or maybe just very useful?

Laurie Torres: I mean, I think probably during COVID, and we were talking about this the other day in a round table, one of the crucial things, and made a huge difference between those that survived and those that struggled, was if you had a landlord that worked with you. If you had a good relationship with your landlord and you had a history with that landlord of working together, in that, landlord said, “Hey, I know you’re struggling. We’re all in this together. Let me help you out.” That in so many cases with so many restaurants was literally the difference between staying open and oftentimes closing.

Laurie Torres: So I was fortunate because I’ve had the same landlord for 26 years and we have a good relationship with each other. And when this all happened, I said to him, “We’re not having income right now.” And he said, “Well, we’re in this together.” And that was a long-term kind of approach for him and for me, because the landlords who weren’t like that are the ones who ended up with empty buildings now, because their restaurants closed and now they’re trying to fill those spaces.

Laurie Torres: And I think the same thing with suppliers, when I would call a supplier and say, “I don’t want the whole fish, I want half the fish. Is there somebody who can buy the other half of the fish?” The suppliers who are willing to say, “Yeah, let’s do that together,” those are the suppliers that I’ll continue to work with. And again, they were thinking long term, knowing at a certain point that I was gonna that whole fish again.

Tessa Burg: Yeah, the phrase you just used, thinking long term, I think is a principle that businesses who live by that, survived, and businesses who were thinking too short term, either didn’t survive or are not doing well right now, are struggling, certainly to recover.

Tessa Burg: One of the areas where we see people turning more of their attention, given this long-term view, wanting to have more relationships with their customers, is this trend in marketing called D2C, which stands for direct to consumer. And in that, food manufacturers and original manufacturers are trying to get closer to people who actually buy their products, and it’s given way to a bevy of technology.

Tessa Burg: Have you seen any of these technology solutions, where you can buy more direct, but it keeps it all in one place? And if so, what’s your perspective on that trend or those tools?

Laurie Torres: Like we said before, now is not time to ask an independent operator to learn how to use a new mechanism for getting the things that they need for their restaurant. Long term, that may work.

Laurie Torres: So if I know that I’m gonna… I need to know for myself right now, because there’s too many other things going on with all the other things I’m dealing with. I need to know that my rep that I’ve always worked with, who knows what I order, who knows my supply, who knows my standards, I need to know that person’s available to me so that I can say to them, I need this, I need that, and they got it.

Laurie Torres: Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a place for apps, for technology. That’s not to say there isn’t a place.

Laurie Torres: I can speak in terms of the independent operator, and that we have so many balls in the air that to have to learn a new technology to order my fish or to order my alcohol is just not something that I wanna do.

Laurie Torres: And I have one of my wine distributors who gave me the whole song and dance about this new way that I can order my wine every week, and I was like, that’s all well and good. That’s another password I have to learn, another app I have to figure out, that means I have to look through a whole catalog. That might work for me at three o’clock in the morning when I realize I forgot to order Marsala wine and I whip on there and order some Marsala wine. But it’s not something that I wanna do right now.

Laurie Torres: I’m used to that person-to-person, you know what I order, I know what I order, and that’s quicker for me. So that’s kind of counterintuitive, I think, for the independents.

Laurie Torres: But again, long term, we’re all gonna get there, but right now is the wrong time to introduce that. You can introduce it as a backup, but not as the primary way for me to order. That’s just gonna be just too difficult to the extent that I may say, “I’m not gonna do that at all. I’m just not gonna order that at all.”

Laurie Torres: And it literally did get to that point with that wine distributor where I just didn’t order for three weeks cause I didn’t have time to sit there and figure out the app or whatever. And she finally called and I said, “I’ve just been getting it somewhere else because I don’t wanna mess with this. I don’t have time to deal with this app that you have.” And she said, “Okay, let’s just go back to you ordering directly from me.” And now I’m back to ordering from her every week.

Laurie Torres: So again, long term, and in the background, that’s good. But right now in the foreground, you still need to let your independent operators have their contact person to order their stuff from. Does that make sense?

Tessa Burg: It definitely makes sense. I mean, you had solutions, you had to be focused on solutions during the pandemic, and now you have these new bevy of challenges, including inflation and staffing. What are the solution that you do need to see now to address inflation and staffing challenges that you and the community are facing?

Laurie Torres: So again, we go back to thinking long term or thinking short term. Okay, so with inflation, there’s a temptation to go, “Oh my God, I had to pay twice as much for my vegetables. I had to pay twice as much for my fish. I’m gonna raise my prices.” That can be, in the long term, the death of you, because particularly if you have a reputation, like Mallorca for example, we have a reputation of being fine dining, but affordable fine dining. So can come in and two people can eat a nice meal for $125 versus the competitors which might be $300.

Laurie Torres: So I don’t want to bastardize my brand by just all of a sudden raising the prices of the food, because that’s contrary to who we are. And it’s also about respect for my customers and respect for the city that I’m in. And that these people have been coming here for years, and I want us to be the restaurant for everyone, not just for people who have the money to be able to afford my price hikes.

Laurie Torres: And so again, you have to think long term. We will get through this inflation as long as I’m breaking even right now. If I can get through this inflation, people will appreciate fact that I stayed true to who I was. And I thought about long term what I wanted us to be and the message that, I don’t wanna send the message that if I’m getting have to pay more so are you. I want it to be a message that I’m part of the community and that being part of the community means sometimes I have to make a sacrifice so that I can still be here for the community when we get through it. And I hope people will appreciate that in the end.

Laurie Torres: And I think the same thing is true when it’s with employees. I mean, I’ve had employees here that have literally been part of our family for over 20 years. As a matter of fact, most of our employees have been here for over two 20 years. Our youngest employee has been here like four years, and we still call ’em the newbie.

Laurie Torres: And again, that is because you’re always thinking long term, you’re always thinking about how does it look when you go into a restaurant and you see that same face every time. It feels familiar. It feels like home. It feels like, “Oh my God, I was here 15 years ago “and Enrique is still there.” That sends a signal to people that this is like a home, that we’re like a family, that this is a comfortable place, that the employees are being treated respectfully, they’re being treated kindly enough so that they wanna stay here. And when they are treated with love, they love the house. And that kind of love emulates into how they treat the customer when they come through the door.

Laurie Torres: So, but again, that’s a long term thing, and it can be frustrating sometimes when you’re like, “My payroll costs are so high, “and man, it might be better if I could get somebody “who is a little cheaper in the kitchen “or a little cheaper here.” But again, you’re gonna shoot yourself in the foot by doing that. So again, with the long term, building relationships in that long term thinking.

Tessa Burg: So I think it’s really beautiful how passionate you are about your customers and the experience you’re delivering for them and your employees. Do you think all your customers know the sacrifice you’re making as a business owner to keep the prices steady, to keep the experience amazing?

Laurie Torres: I don’t think all of them do. I mean, I don’t, but it’s still it’s part of my brand. It’s part of who I am. And by doing all of the things that I’m doing, by having respect for the city, by having respect for the customers, by having respect for my employees, that emulates in an attitude that you feel when you walk through the door.

Laurie Torres: So do they know directly, “Oh my God, I know that she paid $40 for that chilean sea bass and she’s only charging me this much.” Do they know that? No, but they know the feeling that they get when they come through the door. And that comes from doing all of those things and having that respect for all your vendors, your employees, your customers, your house, your city, that emulates in the attitude that you feel when you come through the door. And so do I know that directly they appreciate it? No, but I get the sense that they can feel that.

Tessa Burg: That’s awesome. How do you share these ideas and inspirational nuggets, especially around retaining staff? I mean, that stat that you have staff that’s been there for 20 years is really incredible. How do you share that with other Cleveland Independents who right now are really struggling to even keep new staff they’ve just brought on?

Laurie Torres: I mean, I think that I have a lot of times my staff, I will share my staff with other independents, not as employees, but I will say, “Jorge, call Enrique, ask them why they’ve stayed here, ask them what motivates them to stay in one place, ask them.”

Laurie Torres: We’re a different kind of restaurant in the sense that, these are employees who know the business. You don’t have college kids where this is just a stepping stone for them, and they don’t intend on staying in the business. So I’m fortunate because these are people who are professionals in the business, who plan on staying in the business, so they wanna make a home here.

Laurie Torres: It is a little bit more difficult when you have that kind of stepping stone, where you just have college kids or high school kids. It is a little bit more difficult, but if you do it right, and you’re respectful and you appreciate the people that work for you, that’s gonna emulate maybe not in them staying, because obviously they’re not gonna go get their engineering degree and come back and serve for you, but that’s gonna emulate in them sending other people to maybe work for you. That’s gonna emulate in them becoming customers of yours, them sending you customers, because of the feeling they got when they worked there.

Laurie Torres: So it may not serve your employment, where you’re getting to keep these people for a long time, but if someone works somewhere where they really love it, but they’ve moved on, they’re definitely gonna tell people, “Go and work there. That place is home, that you feel like this, you feel like that.” Nothing negative can come from that respect for your employees and that thinking long term as you’re part of your city that you’re in, you’re part of it, your community. And that you’re more than just a restaurant, but that you’re a place for people to come and celebrate joy. And you’re a place for your employees to feel like they’re home. And that nothing negative can come from that.

Tessa Burg: Yeah, no, I love that so much of your creativity and the solutions that you’ve put forward to get through the pandemic, and even now through this period of continued pandemic really is all based on your values and what’s important and what’s a priority at Mallorca. There are so many different trends and different solutions that we see in the independent restaurant space. Do you ever go outside of sort of… I mean, it feels like you’ve created this beautiful bubble, but how do you stay up on trends and solutions that’s going on outside of Cleveland or outside of independents that also kind of fuels or aligns as possible solutions for you that aligns with your values?

Laurie Torres: That’s one of the things as a long-term restaurant, if you, as a restaurant that’s been here for a long time, you constantly have to be thinking about, “I don’t wanna get the reputation “of being my father’s restaurant “or my grandfather’s restaurant.” So you really do have to think about maintaining your brand, but expanding your brand as well.

Laurie Torres: So just in terms of something simple like the menu, I will never take anything off the menu. Because if somebody comes, who was here 15 years ago, and they got that stuffed salmon, and it was the best thing they ever ate in their life, it better dang on well be on the menu when they come back 15 years later.

Laurie Torres: So, but what I can do is I can look at the trends in food that are now, the people that are going toward organic, the people that are going toward vegan or vegetarian, the people who have gluten concerns, I can expand my menu.

Laurie Torres: The next generation, there’s a huge vegan. That’s a huge trend right now. And I hope it’s a beautiful trend. And so I have to look at how to take my brand, which is Spanish, and make vegan food. So that’s just a simple way at looking at trends and food.

Laurie Torres: Other things are to look at things at generationally how people think. So my generation, which I won’t tell you what that is, but we liked stuff. We liked collecting stuff, getting big houses, having big cars, that was our thing.

Laurie Torres: The next generation, they like experiences. So if I know that about the next generation, how can I take Mallorca and make it into an experience beyond what it is? So creating things like, we do wine and dine in the dark, blindfold dining in a pitch dark room, tasting food with your fingers, experiencing wine and food in the dark. That’s something that young people are like, “Wow, that’s so cool. I wanna do that.”

Laurie Torres: And so what that does is that brings people that are in that next generation who think of Mallorca as their grandfather’s or father’s restaurant, and they’re like, “This isn’t my grandfather or father’s restaurant at all. They’re doing these really trendy, cool things that no one else is doing.”

Laurie Torres: We started doing… I know the next generation is big on Harry Potter. That’s like a big thing. There’s like a cult on Harry Potter. So we do wine and wizardry. So we take the Spanish theme, we put wizardry into it. You always have to be thinking about what the next generation is, following not just the trends in food, but also in the way that that generation thinks, not just, “Okay, now I’m ordering. I’m gonna have vegan food.” But what else, what else? Not just what food trends there are, but what trends in each generation, what things are important to each generation, and how you can pair that with the business that you own. Does that make sense?

Tessa Burg: Oh, it totally makes sense. I love those ideas. Where do you learn about these trends? You hit it on it so precisely what each generation wants or expects. How do you track that? Do you listen to podcasts or read reports?

Laurie Torres: No, I mean, you read a lot, you read the business journals, you go to Destination Cleveland, they’re always doing studies at Destination Cleveland, traffic studies, there’s always stuff like that going on. I read the Crain’s Business Journal, I read the Wall Street Journal, I listen.

Laurie Torres: I have a daughter who’s 26 and a daughter who’s 16. The difference is between what those two groups want. And so we literally… I have a 65-year-old employee who I call dinner in the show because he’s so fascinating. I said to her, “Can you pair with him and make some TikToks?” So her generation loves the TikTok. So they love my 65-year-old employee with my 16-year-old daughter doing TikToks together.

Laurie Torres: So that, again, it takes the Mallorca as being my grandfather’s restaurant and makes it like, “Oh my God, look at this restaurant, they’ve paired the 65-year-old guy doing TikToks with the 16-year-old girl in doing these fun and funky kind of TikToks.” So, you listen to the young people, you maintain the relationship with your older customers. But you can’t sit on your laurels. You can’t say, “Well, we’ve always been successful, So we’ll always be successful.” Because that’s just not the case. You always have to be reinventing and looking at what’s going on generationally with food, with everything.

Tessa Burg: That is great. I am now going to start following you on TikTok so I can see TikTok videos. What a fantastic idea. So we are outta time. Thank you so much for being our guest. If anyone listening wants to get in touch with you, where can they find you?

Laurie Torres: You can either email me at lktorres22@gmail or @mallorcacle.com, or you can call me, 463-4192. I answer the phone 24 hours. Nature the beast.

Tessa Burg: Yeah. Yeah, and restaurant life is certainly not a 9:00 to 5:00. Before we got on the call, you mentioned that you participated in a round table around how to address struggles with the Crain’s Business Journal. So for any listeners, whether you’re listening to this in April, April 6th is when are having this conversation, go ahead to Cleveland Crain’s Business and search for that round table featuring Laurie Torres if you want more ideas and inspiration about how to address the struggles happening today with inflation, staffing, and, any other topics, Laurie, that you guys covered in that round table?

Laurie Torres: Yeah, basically the struggles that the restaurants are going through, and how they’re coping.

Tessa Burg: Fantastic. Well, thank you again for being a guest. You can listen to all our podcasts at tenlo.com/podcasts, or no, /leader-generation, or just click on the word podcast. And until next time, have a great week.

Laurie Torres

Owner of Mallorca Restaurant

Laurie Torres is the Owner of Mallorca, a fine-dining experience in Cleveland, Ohio. She manages the operational and strategic vision of the restaurant, which has been serving Spanish and Portuguese cuisine for 20+ years.

Laurie is instrumental in identifying emerging trends in the food industry. She serves as the President of Cleveland Independents. Plus, she’s won multiple industry accolades, including the 2021 Rising Star Award by the Ohio Restaurant Association.