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Photo by Barry Courter / Opened in the old 2 Sons space on M.L. King Boulevard, Proof is the brainchild of Michael Robinson, left, and Mia Littlejohn, third from left. Toby Darling, second from left, and Kaleena Goldsworthy manage the food and bar areas.

At its core, the Proof Bar & Incubator was created to help restaurant and food service industry people navigate the sometimes complicated waters involved in running such a business. Like the rest of the world, it didn't anticipate also having to deal with a global pandemic.

And, like so many others, it needed to pivot when the COVID-19 virus hit, and in collaboration with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center it created the Restaurant Recovery program to help owners and operators of restaurants and food service businesses.

Proof is a food and beverage incubator and bar that also houses a commercial kitchen and restaurant spaces for new businesses looking to eventually transition to their own spaces. It moved into the old 2 Sons Kitchen space on East M.L. King Boulevard in February, but didn't officially open the restaurant portion until about a month ago.

It grew out of the local nonprofit CO-LAB's Consumer Goods Accelerator program, where Proof co-founders Mia Littlejohn and Michael Robinson were both entrepreneurs in residence.

They've worked with more than 20 companies, many of which they still work with, such as Sequatchie Cove Creamery, Cashew Plant Based Café and Hutton & Smith Brewing Co. They help these companies develop everything from a mission statement to a marketing plan, with training on how to survive a shutdown caused by a global pandemic.

Littlejohn and Robinson facilitate the Restaurant Recovery classes, which involve two 90-minute teleconferencing sessions and a one-hour individual session per week for four weeks. There is no charge to the owners, and Littlejohn said the current class, which started June 8, has 20 businesses. A second session will begin July 28. More information can be found on their website, proofincubator.com.

The two, along with bar and general managers Kaleena Goldsworthy, owner of The Bitter Bottle, and Toby Darling, owner of Dr. Thacher's, have been researching and talking with food service professionals from around the world, making note of what works and what doesn't. Both Goldsworthy and Darling participated in the Consumer Goods Accelerator program.

"We developed the program since the COVID-19 outbreak shut everything down, plus it's also the distillation of our research leading up to it," Littlejohn said.

"I think there are different people from around the world at different stages of reopening, and some have different standards, but there are places that have been successful and we look at them."

There are many common strategies, such as regular cleaning and social distancing, that are working around the world, and she said one of the biggest challenges is convincing people "how requiring masks for all guests and staff is truly a great practice."

Many of the practices discussed in the program are in place at Proof, which delayed its grand opening when the pandemic hit until about a month ago. She said masks are required, for example, for all guests to wear at all times except when they are seated at their own properly distanced tables.

"If they are walking to the bathroom or moving around, we ask that they wear a mask," Littlejohn said.

They also take the first name and a phone number of guests should they need to communicate if a guest or staff member gets sick. Health care workers have reported in recent weeks that contact tracing has become complicated because people are mingling in larger-than-recommended numbers.

Littlejohn said there was a test case shortly after opening when an employee called in to say she didn't feel well. Staff and customers were immediately contacted and told of the situation, and staff members were tested, with the results coming back negative.

"Our guests appreciated the transparency and communication," she said.

Robinson said there are no hard-and-fast guidelines on how a restaurant has to deal with a sick employee, and that causes confusion and distrust for staff and customers.

"Some are doing nothing, or they just make them stay home and don't report it," he said. "It's part of what's making contact tracing harder."

Kenyatta Ashford recently opened his Neutral Ground restaurant inside of Proof. He shares the kitchen and dining room space with Chris Greer and his Lil Oso eatery. Both are open from 4-10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and Ashford is also taking the Restaurant Recovery class.

(READ MORE: Chef Kenyatta Ashford updates Creole cuisine as his new restaurant, Neutral Ground, incubates at Proof)

Poppytons Patisserie, a food truck bakery, and Lolo Bar, a CBD-based business, also operate out of the space on King Boulevard formerly occupied by 2 Sons and Douglas Heights Bakery.

"I've learned quite a bit, because they offer a plethora of information," Ashford said.

He said Littlejohn and Robinson reached across the empty lot to Chatt Smoke House and offered to make the open space habitable for dining, and that has allowed for more seating, even with social distancing guidelines. He said the experience of communicating with customers when a staff member got sick also resonated with him.

"Being transparent is very important," Ashford said. "We were able to be open and honest about it and people appreciated that. That garnered us a lot of support."

Attendees also have access to accountants and attorneys and, of course, they talk to each other, sharing challenges and successes.

Littlejohn said Proof has seen a steady increase in business since opening, and as more and more people hear that the business is firm in sticking to its guidelines.

Robinson said advances in technology, such as smartphone apps that allow for touchless ordering and payment, are also something industry people should explore.

"We are stressing to people to leverage that technology that is out there," he said. "We are also hopeful that the family meals and to-go items can be sustained."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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