Lessons learned: Reno entrepreneurs share success stories due to pandemic pivots

Shila Morris, left, and Kay Salerno, sisters and co-owners of Squeeze In restaurants, said they’ve learned a lot of lessons when it comes to running a business and constantly pivoting in 2020.

Shila Morris, left, and Kay Salerno, sisters and co-owners of Squeeze In restaurants, said they’ve learned a lot of lessons when it comes to running a business and constantly pivoting in 2020. Photo: Shane Trotter



EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is adapted from the 2021 edition of Northern Nevada Smart Money, a specialty magazine of the Northern Nevada Business Weekly, the 4th edition of which was inserted for subscribers in the March 24, 2021, edition. Go here to view the digital version.



It was a year ago, and sisters Shila Morris and Kay Salerno, co-owners of five Squeeze In restaurants in the Northern Nevada region, were throwing spaghetti at the wall.

OK, not literally. The popular brunch spots, known for their omelets, don’t have pasta on the menu. Even if they did, this was not a time to waste food.


It was mid-March 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic had just taken hold in the U.S., shutting down food and beverage businesses across the country.


“Overnight, 85% of our revenue went away,” Morris said in a video interview in early 2021. “Never has our financial security been as threatened as it was in March.”


Like many, Morris and Salerno said they felt the pull to “wallow and doomscroll” when COVID hit. But then the sisters — who are also co-owners of the Squeeze In group, which makes up a total of 11 franchised locations dotted in the West, including the company’s flagship eatery in Historic Downtown Truckee — quickly snapped back into their entrepreneurial mindsets.


“We freaked out about it for one day,” Morris said. “And then we went into action mode and threw as much spaghetti at the wall as we could.”


Some ideas didn’t stick, like take-home smoothie kits and home delivery service, Salerno noted. The innovations that did stick — trimming down the menu, dialing in to-go items and offering customers the opportunity to sponsor a hot meal for a frontline worker, among others — “saved the family-business,” Morris added.


Salerno, in fact, said their “Feed the Local Need” initiative, which led to customer-sponsored meals going to nearly 4,000 frontline workers, kept their restaurants afloat in April and May. Squeeze In partnered with local hospitals and served workers in Northwest Reno, South Reno, Sparks, Carson City and Truckee.


“It literally was the saving grace before we received (a Paycheck Protection Program loan).” Salerno said. “We would’ve gone under if we had not taken on that particular initiative.”


Added Morris: “One of the biggest things we learned is being resilient and to not stop taking action.”


It’s just one of many lessons a group of Northern Nevada small business owners and entrepreneurs who spoke with Northern Nevada Smart Money said they learned in 2020, a year that saw a tremendous shift in the business world as we know it.


Reno’s Khalilah Cage said the pandemic brought forth the importance of consistent, clear and compassionate communication with employees. Courtesy Photo

 

GROWING RELATIONSHIPS

Khalilah Cage, co-owner of the Brewer’s Cabinet, Sierra Tap House, Ole Bridge Pub and Shim’s Surplus Supplies in Reno, said she learned the importance of communicating with employees — with consistency and compassion.

“As business owners, we were able to talk to our employees and gain more of an understanding of who they are as people, and help them out,” Cage said. “It’s been awesome to come together as a family unit in the businesses and be able to grow our relationships.”

Morris and Salerno, echoing that sentiment, said they realized there was opportunity to not only strengthen relationships with employees, but also reinforce their leadership skills.


“As hard as it was to feel like we were punched in the gut, we also saw it as an opportunity to really help our team and grow our leaders,” Morris said. “And we saw their resolve rise, and that linking of arms helped buoy and empower us to be their leaders and them to be leaders to their teams.


“You just can’t buy that kind of leadership training and have that camaraderie and trust that comes out of it.”


Cage said she also saw the value in showing grace — to herself, her family, her employees and everyone around her.


“We’re all doing the best that we can, especially now during this really uncertain time,” Cage said. “I think giving each other a break and giving each other grace and giving ourselves grace is huge right now. And it will carry over when we’re out of the pandemic.”


Brian Loy, founder and president of Sage Financial Advisors, said the pandemic has underscored why small businesses need to have a committed team of employees.
Courtesy Photo

 

COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Brian Loy, founder and president of Sage Financial Advisors in Reno, said this year, more than any before, taught him the importance of being readily available for clients.


“We realized our clients tend to want clarity and they want to be connected, so communication was key,” said Loy, whose company helps people grow and protect their wealth. “We deal with people. We’re in the people business, we just happen to deal with money. And when these things rock your world, they can be terrifying.”


This was especially true for their clients who are small business owners, Loy said.


“I think one of the hardest things is the journey with our clients who are business owners,” he said. “Who would’ve thought that this thing would have lasted so long? And we have to try to continue to advise them with financial plans that have to be adapted. They had to look at managing PPP, all of the stimulus plans. Sometimes, it’s financial handholding, trying to walk them through all of these changes.”


This, Loy said, also drove home how essential it is, as a small business, to have a great team that will adapt quickly and effectively.


“It was important to have smart people that I can go to confirm our strategies and check our strategies and then to be able to make decisions and pivot,” Loy said. “You can’t do it alone.”


Darik Volpa, founder and CEO of Rehearsal, said his company saw revenue increase 17% in 2020 compared to 2019. Courtesy Photo

 

FINDING NEW BUSINESS

While many entrepreneurs saw revenues go down in 2020, others saw sales boosted by the world’s accelerated shift to remote work and videoconferencing.


One of those was Darik Volpa, founder and CEO of Rehearsal. The company’s video-based practice and coaching platform — used by customers like Adidas, Nestle and 3M — saw record sales in 2020, with its revenue increasing 17% compared to 2019, Volpa said.


“The shifts of people working from home, people being more comfortable using their webcam and doing online learning, have all been great for us,” Volpa said. “It's really expedited trends that were already happening and in place. It’s going to serve as kind of a tailwind for this year and beyond.”


Pre-COVID, Volpa said Rehearsal attracted a lot of new business leads by presenting at roughly a dozen trade shows a year. The company typically spent $200,000 a year on trade show-related expenses, including travel and lodging, shipping the booths and equipment, among others.


“Those are necessary to do business, but they aren’t things that actually generate revenue,” Volpa said.


With trade shows wiped from the calendar in 2020, Volpa and his team explored ways to attract new business and generate leads without in-person events.


He said businesses fortunate enough to have leftover spending money have opportunities to obtain new customers without getting on a plane.  

 
“There is going to be a lot of dollars that have been used for other purposes that are trying to find a home,” said Volpa, noting the company started producing webinars and is considering sponsoring key podcasts. “I wouldn’t say we’ve completely figured it out just yet, but I think coming up with new and innovative ways to capture our need to generate leads as a sales team, digitally, without travel, will be a great growth opportunity.”

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