Once a thriving barbecue-oriented sports bar, this San Diego–area concept has discovered the potential of a more digital-oriented business.
Born in the midst of the 2008 crisis, Cali Comfort BBQ had to learn to adapt from day one. Owner Shawn Walchef didn’t listen to naysayers when he opened the doors to the San Diego restaurant, and was determined to turn what was previously a breakfast spot into a sports bar.
But while the seating capacity of the 5,700-square-foot location and liquor license drew Walchef to the space, business at Cali Comfort didn’t exactly meet the potential.
“We had 18 employees when we opened,” Walchef says. “We probably did about $300,000 in sales that first year, struggled to pay our bills, struggled to pay payroll, to figure out our menu.”
Those struggles inspired Walchef to make a key pivot. The idea to rebrand as a barbecue concept emerged about a year after the restaurant’s opening, when it hosted an amateur barbecue contest for the community and Walchef learned from expert Gene Goycochea how to properly make barbecue.
In 2010, Cali Comfort officially tacked BBQ onto its name. Not long after, sales started to grow, and in 2015 the company turned a profit for the first time.
While the food at Cali Comfort BBQ has earned rave reviews, one of the brand’s secret weapons is its status as a media company. In 2017, Walchef started a barbecue podcast with butcher-shop owner Derek Marso called “Behind the Smoke.” He later launched another podcast called “Digital Hospitality,” covering the ways businesses in the hospitality industry can leverage digital tools.
“[The podcast] forces you to ask questions and to understand that there’s so many people out there that are doing so many incredible things in different industries at different levels,” Walchef says. “Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg—all these people that have built all these incredible companies give us the possibility to share our story with anyone that’s willing to listen.”
Before the pandemic, Cali Comfort BBQ focused on growing the media side of its brand through social media. The effort to boost its digital presence seemed to be paying off, and Cali Comfort BBQ came into 2020 with a projected 8 percent net profit.
Things quickly changed when COVID-19 made indoor dining an impossibility. As sales plummeted 50 percent overnight, Walchef had to make tough choices that included laying off nearly 30 employees. But his experience with digital platforms prepared him to take immediate action.
“I went with my iPhone to the top of our restaurant, made a video for Twitter, made a video for Instagram and a video for Facebook, and basically told everybody, ... ‘We’re going to be doing delivery and takeout only. We really hope you support us,’” Walchef says. “We got tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of views on all those different platforms. It’s just very powerful what you can do when you build a community.”
Cali Comfort BBQ adapted to COVID by shrinking its menu to 10 percent of its original offerings. The brand decided to home in on its barbecue prowess and got rid of offerings like burgers, salads, and weekend breakfasts. Walchef says the revised menu reduced food costs by 5 percent and labor costs by 15 percent. Even when dining rooms were allowed to reopen, the brand stuck to off-premises-only.
The new menu also revealed the power of existing items like the Cali BBQ Tailgater BBQ Feast, which became the most popular digital order. California’s relaxed alcohol laws also allowed the brand to put its liquor license to use, selling house-made beverages like its Mai Tai and Tiger King fish bowls off-premises.
For Cali Comfort BBQ, 2020 proved that a digital-centric, off-premises approach is crucial for its future. Walchef says the brand is repurposing 60 percent of its restaurant into a commissary kitchen. In fact, Cali Comfort BBQ already has its first no-seating restaurant in the works.
Walchef credits early partnerships with third-party platforms for giving the brand the upper hand by the time the pandemic came. In the three months after partnering with Toast, Cali Comfort BBQ added 2,500 emails to its existing base of 8,500 subscribers.
As the pandemic pushes brands toward a digitized future, Walchef is betting the pre-COVID restaurant industry is a thing of the past.
“[The shift to digital] is not just happening to our business,” he says. “It’s happening globally to every single business, no matter the size, no matter the industry. Once a restaurant owner understands that, they have such a huge advantage, because they’ve built a business and they understand hospitality.”