Griffin is no stranger to the journey of running restaurants, or beating back odds. He landed on the venture in October of 2010. He was vacationing to Durango, Colorado, when his late wife, Belinda’s, back gave out. They stopped in Frisco and Griffin, a former fishing lodge owner from Louisiana, decided to set up shop.
He had $35,000 and founded The Lost Cajun in a town 9,000 feet above sea level that averages 175 inches of snow a year.
Roughly $100,000 later, Griffin was stirring pots of gumbo as hordes of diners lined up outside the tiny, 850-square-foot venue.
Griffin’s friend and fishing buddy, Espey, opened the second unit in Breckenridge, Colorado, two years later. And it was time to franchise.
Griffin says when COVID started closing stores, he went and told executives they needed to stop taking royalties (as the filing noted). “Turn them off,” Griffin recalls.
The company burned through most of its cash doing so, which led Griffin back to leadership. He suggested corporate employees take at least a 50 percent pay cut until it could secure PPP funds or cash began to flow back in.
“I said we can cut our current salaries, or we can lay off half our staff,” he says. “And the whole tam, I tell you what, I was so proud, every single one of them said, ‘you know what, I can get by on half.’”
The Lost Cajun closed its corporate office in Covington, Louisiana (a spot it opened in 2019). “We did all the right things that I knew how to do to save money,” Griffin says. “But as this thing progressed, and stores, they’d get them open, and then there’d be another lockdown. We were at 50 percent royalty then zero when they went below a certain number. And we did that all the way through the middle of August. Until we finally got everybody back open and back operating again.”
But even when stores returned, they had to run under restrictions. Off-premises sales before COVID represented less than 10 percent of the chain’s business. It’s now up to 35–40 percent, which is both a sign of innovation and progress, and proof recovery remains in flux.
The Lost Cajun doesn’t have any corporate units. Meaning when the pipeline dried up, so did those $35,000, $40,000 checks that fuel the business.
There were three ready to go when the pandemic struck, stores in South Carolina, Colorado, and Texas. Since they were already under contract and construction, they opened.
But that was it. “Nobody was buying,” Griffin says of pandemic conditions. “We didn’t have any more stores. Right now, we have very few prospects and no stores in the pipeline.”
Yet this isn’t to say the future is dire, he adds. Since filing, Griffin says franchisees have fielded calls asking if they’re closing. “The answer is no,” Griffin says. Unless stores were troubled pre-COVID, he believes they’ll be fine. There’s even a recent store in League City, Texas—no state restrictions—that’s pushing waits on Fridays and Saturdays, and is simply limiting seating due to hiring challenges.
Given how long it takes interest to turn into physical restaurants, though, Griffin thinks it might take a year, year and a half, to get momentum back. Tangible growth might not return until mid, late 2022.
It’s a change of pace for a chain that more than doubled its unit count in 2018. But something Griffin plans to approach head-on. “I ain’t going nowhere,” he says. “You know me. I’m a fighter. I’m going to be there until the very end.”