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The Top Chef and Food Network star opens up about stewarding his business through a pandemic.

Chef Brian Malarkey is not only a culinary star, he helms a growing culinary empire, Puffer Malarkey Collective, which has a portfolio of 4 restaurants including Herb & Ranch at UCI Research Park. Here, he shares how he’s keeping his hospitality business strong through recent challenges, taking care of hundreds of employees, and taking advantage of an unexpected new opportunity. 

How are you navigating the current moment as a business owner?

We were some of the first ones to close because we didn’t have a firm grasp on what the situation was yet and that was very concerning. Now that we are able to re-open, we’re moving slowly to be sure we are taking care of our employees and guests. We completely restructured our organization, moving managers into the restaurants where they are focused on day-to-day operations, guest awareness, guest satisfaction and taking care of our employees. 

What was your approach to reopening?

We went dark for a while because we didn’t want to make anyone go to work. When we were comfortable, we asked for volunteers to come back and initially focused on takeout. Our goal is to bring people back into an environment where they feel comfortable, happy and safe. Thankfully we have large restaurants with a lot of real estate and are able to space everything out, first outdoors and now a bit indoors. One of the most gratifying experiences for me is when we have older diners say, “Wow, this is our first time we’ve been out and we really feel comfortable.”

How did you pivot business operations?

At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to furlough more than 400 employees so we started a relief fund. My next door neighbor who works at Dell made a donation to the relief fund and suggested I do a cooking class for a group of their employees. It was so successful that Dell asked me to do 10 more classes, other companies including Irvine Company started to call, and it’s taken off.  It’s organically developed into its own business line and part of the proceeds support our employees. We’ve developed internal processes to source and ship our own ingredient boxes. Now we do four classes a week for as many as 2200 people at a time and are considering rolling it out to other chefs. 

Why are virtual cooking classes so popular with companies?

It’s human nature to connect with one another. For companies, these classes are a fun and safe employee engagement experience. They’re a great way to bond with your co-workers and feel connected, even when teams can’t be together in person. Then I’m just Sir Talks-A-Lot and I’m pretty funny so we have a good time together. 

What do you think the future holds for the dining and hospitality industry?

The Spanish flu came through and caused even more mayhem than what’s going on today. What followed two years later was the biggest party the world has ever seen, the Roaring Twenties. I’m calling for the Roaring Twenties part two coming up very, very soon because we’re all in need of some good dancing and martinis.

Watch Chef Brian Malarkey’s Irvine Company cooking class demos: here and here.

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