Small Business Spotlight: Gary Strauss (BIG & little's) on Running a Restaurant Chain | Gordon Law GroupSmall Business Spotlight: Gary Strauss (BIG & little's) on Running a Restaurant Chain | Gordon Law Group

Small Business Spotlight: Gary Strauss (BIG & little’s) on Running a Restaurant Chain

We’re very excited to feature Gary Strauss on Small Business Spotlight! Gary is one of the owners of BIG & little’s, a popular Chicago restaurant chain that you may have seen on the TV show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

Andrew Gordon of Gordon Law Group talks to Gary about how the online landscape is changing how restaurants operate, the importance of marketing, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed ways that a restaurant can run more efficiently.

Navigate the Video

  • 00:47: The beginning of BIG & little’s
  • 01:54: Being featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives; getting on the show and capitalizing on the exposure
  • 03:26: The trend of online ordering (and how COVID-19 has permanently affected it)
  • 05:12: How to use the COVID lull to your advantage
  • 05:51: Why restaurants don’t need to rely on location anymore
  • 07:41: The importance of online marketing and social media
  • 08:21: Save on third-party commission costs through marketing
  • 09:16: Tips for success: Make sure you have the right employees
  • 11:39: Maintaining customer service for takeout and delivery customers
  • 12:35: Tips for success in the COVID pandemic and beyond: Improve your business’s efficiency

Full Video Transcript

Andrew Gordon: Hi everyone. It’s Andrew Gordon. I’m an attorney at the Gordon Law Group, and we have with us today a great guest, very excited to have him: Gary Strauss from BIG & little’s.

We’ve been doing this video series with small businesses, entrepreneurs, to discuss how they’ve not only been surviving, but in fact thriving, during the COVID pandemic, and to discuss ways that other small businesses can do the same.

So, Gary, really happy to have you. Honestly, BIG & little’s is one of my favorite restaurants. I’m not just saying that because you’re here, but I can prove it with receipts.

Gary Strauss: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Andrew Gordon: Tell us a little bit about how you and your partner got started. What was the inspiration behind it?

Gary Strauss: My partner Tony and I⁠—he’s the Little of BIG & little’s. I’m the Big of BIG & little’s⁠—we grew up together in the city and we always try to search out places where we could get good quality food at a reasonable price. And we felt that there was a void there. And it turns out that we were correct; there were people that actually are willing to eat good food with a plastic fork and knife.

People ask us what type of restaurant [we] have. And we just say that we have a restaurant that has great food. We have po’boy sandwiches, we have tacos, we have fish and chips. We have burgers, we have sushi. We have good food, that’s what we’ve got.

Andrew Gordon: So how long ago did you start BIG & little’s?

Gary Strauss: We started BIG & little’s 10 years ago. My partner with BIG & little’s, I’ve known since 3rd grade, and we’ve always dreamt about opening up a business together. And the idea to go forward with the restaurant was when my partner Tony was chosen to be on the show Hell’s Kitchen.

Andrew Gordon: That wasn’t the only TV exposure that you guys have had. I also saw you guys on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives as well, right?

Gary Strauss: Correct. And that, uh, was a game changer.

Andrew Gordon: How did you go about getting on the show?

Gary Strauss: They have secret shoppers. So they had actually been here, to our restaurant, a few times without us knowing. After they had been here and tried our food, they had contacted us a month later saying, “Hey, we’d like to consider you for the show.” And they ended up calling us a month later saying, “You guys were selected to be on the show.”

Andrew Gordon: After you had that exposure, what were some of the ways that you were able to capitalize on it?

Gary Strauss: One of the things we did, actually, the host of the show, Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, advised us that we should sell T shirts with our logo on it. He said, “There are going to be people that are going to be traveling from all across the country, and they are all about getting souvenirs from places that they’ve visited.”

And so that was really great. They’d sit down. They saw us on TV, they’d come in, they’d get to meet us. They’d eat the food, they’d love it, and they’d want to leave with a T shirt. So that was real cool.

Andrew Gordon: Yeah, definitely. And it sounds like that’s been pretty worthwhile for you guys, too.

Gary Strauss: Yeah, merchandising plays a big role. We probably could do a little bit more than we have. There’s definitely a huge market that a lot of people are jumping into online.

Andrew Gordon: Over the years, have you found that more and more people are looking to either order online, or that it’s essential as a restaurant business to be online?

Gary Strauss: Definitely. When we first opened 10 years ago, in 2009, there wasn’t online, or there may have been, but very slight. The percentage of people purchasing food online increased significantly over the last, probably, 3 to 5 years.

Of course, during this pandemic, our online sales are probably 95 to 100%, but that’s temporary. But, that being said, even though it’s temporary for now, I do believe that this lockdown that we’ve experienced in Chicago has really taught people or given them the time to learn how to actually use the online platforms.

Andrew Gordon: That’s really interesting. So you think that the trend, even once this lockdown ends, that there’s going to be more people than ever that will continue to [use online ordering apps] because now they’ve gotten used to it.

Gary Strauss: I do. I think that they, you know, whether they were older and they were afraid to try it, or they never liked it, I think that they’ve learned to become comfortable with it. When we open up, I think the percentage of people ordering online will increase even more than it was before.

It is hard though, because those third party platforms take a percentage of your sales. For example, let’s say our sales maintained the same throughout this experience⁠—which they did not, they decreased heavily⁠—but if they had maintained, you may do the same sales, but the actual net profit that you get would be significantly lower after you paid them their percentage for using their platform.

Andrew Gordon: And our last guest [Mistey Nguyen of MADN Agency] was talking a little bit about how now that things are a little bit slower, it’s a great opportunity to implement some of the things around your restaurant that you may not have had the time to. Changing POS systems, updating your website. What are some of the things that you guys have done to take advantage of this time?

Gary Strauss: We are actually, if you can hear the banging in the background, we’re actually building a wall to use some extra space in the kitchen. We’ve definitely been trying to stay on top of doing things that we normally don’t have the time to do, considering that we are a lot slower than we normally are.

I really think that moving forward, we’ll choose to have smaller spaces that’ll focus and concentrate on having more online and to go ordering, which means that we will be able to save on rent. Possibly even the location.

I think nowadays, if you keep up with marketing and you’re focusing on online and delivery, you may not need to be in the best corner, which would require a very, very high rent. I think you can be on an off side street and still be successful.

When people see pictures of your food, or they find you on Yelp and there’s reviews, or somebody told you about it, when they look it up, they’re just going to go there. And they’re gonna be able to use the maps to get themselves there. So you don’t have to rely on walking traffic, necessarily, anymore, and I think that’s going to be the new norm.

And that’s the reason why we’re seeing these cloud kitchens. I don’t know if you’re familiar with cloud kitchens, but they’re these warehouses or buildings that house 30, 40 small kitchens where they are delivery only. It allows people to try a concept [with] minimal risk and minimal costs to giving it a shot. And I think you can literally allow a restaurant to survive on marketing alone.

Andrew Gordon: Yeah, it sounds like marketing and online presence is more important than ever. What are some of the things that you’ve done recently?

Gary Strauss: My partner and I, as you can see by the gray hairs on my head, we’re a little bit more old school. We were very fortunate that word of mouth and being on all these nationally televised TV shows really carried us a long, long way, until we realized that you don’t want people to forget about you.

And in order for you to do that, you need to make sure that you have an online presence that really just keeps flashing your logo and your name and your food in people’s faces to remind them that you’re still there.

There goes a period where they may not come to your restaurant for a year or so, but you keep reminding them that you’re there. And if your food is good, which ours is, and they get reminded, it’s kind of a no-brainer where they’re like, “Oh, hey, yeah, I haven’t been there in a while. Maybe I should go back, you know, maybe I’ll go there tomorrow for lunch.”

Something as simple as an Instagram post or a new special online, just to get it out there, I think is really, really important.

Andrew Gordon: Yeah, and it sounds like, too, as the Uber Eats, the Grubhubs are taking more and more of the cut, that perhaps some of these marketing ways will give you an opportunity to just drive traffic to your own ordering and bypass some of them, as well.

Gary Strauss: It’s something that we do. When we promote and we market, primarily we just use our website, try to bring traffic to our website because we do save that percentage commission that we have to give to those third parties.

But there is something to be said about those third parties, that they also spend a lot of money on their own marketing. It hurts to pay the percentage, but you know, if your restaurant is busy and the orders are coming in, I guess you can be appreciative of that.

Andrew Gordon: Yeah, definitely. I mean, even if it may come across a platform that takes a cut, it’s still business, still exposure. Crucial during these times.

So, as a business owner, what are some of the things that you have found that help you succeed in your business, that perhaps when you started, you would have never thought to even pay attention to? Simple things, perhaps, like bookkeeping.

Gary Strauss: I would definitely reiterate that marketing is extremely important. I think that it can easily get away from you. [I recommend] having somebody who’s capable and in charge. I don’t recommend it being an actual day to day operations employee. I think it needs to be a specific person that their job, even if it’s part time, their job is to post and market, and literally flashing people and posting stuff every single day.

What else have I learned? (laughs) Make sure before you grow that you have certain things in place. For each one of my locations, I feel that my employees understand how we like to treat customers, what our customer service is like. And I feel that it takes somebody that’s worked with us side-by-side over the years, that understands that, that can pass that mentality on when a new store is opened.

And it is very, very, very difficult. It requires a lot of hands-on by my partner and I. We still continue to work 6 days a week, all day, for 10 years. We very rarely go on vacation. And I think that that helps to contribute towards the success of the restaurant.

Andrew Gordon: It must have, obviously, taken a lot of work to grow from one to multiple restaurants, especially when your focus has always been on quality food, making sure that quality stays consistent across these different restaurants.

So I think you brought up a great suggestion, which is to hire internally, grow slowly, and then bring your best people to those new locations so that you can continue those same aspects of quality and customer service.

Gary Strauss: Yeah, I’d like to say that we’ve been very fortunate that you’re greeted with the same warmth at all the BIG & little’s restaurants that you go to. And it’s because we emphasize those things, and we’ve been very fortunate to maintain a good crew of management people that have gone along with us for the ride.

But it is very, very difficult. And I think working on a lot of those little things that you wouldn’t think would make a difference actually does.

Andrew Gordon: Yeah. And now, during COVID, obviously a lot of those things that you would typically do, you can’t. Do you have any suggestions or ways that you’ve been able to keep that friendly experience, although times are certainly different now?

Gary Strauss: It is very interesting to see the shift, where your focus is on making sure that orders are prepared properly and complete, versus making sure people eating in house are satisfied.

It takes a different personality. The person who is always like, “Hi, welcome to BIG & little’s!” may not be the best person to make sure that the orders are going out correctly, and same and vice versa. The person who’s able to pump out the food and make sure that everything is great may not have that personality to greet customers.

But for now, we’re adapting to the change and all we can do is see where it goes from here.

Andrew Gordon: Gary, some of the businesses that we’ve been talking to that are especially struggling during the COVID pandemic perhaps had weaknesses in their businesses before, and these weaknesses have only now been increased because of the stresses of COVID. What are some suggestions to keep yourself organized and on track both in normal times, and then when stressor situations like the current one occurs?

Gary Strauss: For us, when you’re doing scheduling with employees, you can get very complacent in thinking that you need a certain amount of employees on certain days during certain times. I think what the experience of COVID has taught us, because we’re basically running on fumes right now, is that we actually didn’t need as many people as we thought on a daily basis.

I believe we actually learned that with a lower amount of employees, you’ll find that they’re more productive, which is surprising. Sometimes it just takes 1 or 2 people to just stir up conversation or cause a distraction, and the next thing you know, not everyone’s on the same page.

And I think that when we are running on such a tight schedule, we’ve found that we can actually be extremely productive with a minimal expense, but it took this situation to happen in order for us to see that. When we open back up, I think that we will add on employees at a smaller pace, I think, than we would have thought we would.

Andrew Gordon: That’s really interesting, and I think that’s great advice for anyone out there: Pay attention to costs and efficiencies, because it sounds like you’ve been able to take a lesson from this. Even in the future when things are back to normal, you can minimize costs. People can be more efficient, things can run better. So I think that’s great advice for everyone out there.

Well, Gary, I really appreciate your time. Everyone that’s watching, I’m sure, greatly appreciates it as well. For those of you that haven’t been to BIG & little’s, check it out. My favorite is the Samurai Taco. Gary, what’s the best way for people to find you online?

Gary Strauss: We are online at bigandlittlechicago.com, all spelled out.

Andrew Gordon: Bigandlittleschicago.com. Well, thanks Gary. Talk soon.

Gary Strauss: All right. Thank you. Bye guys!

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