Student spotlight: FIU trio launches Lokal to help struggling restaurants

Restaurants already have one of the highest failure rates among industries. Add to that a pandemic crisis that has dealt a huge blow to the eateries just trying their best to keep the lights on.

Three Florida International University seniors — Albertina Manosalva, Analys Rodriguez and Camila Navarro – have  set out to help restaurants find the recipe to survive the pandemic – and form habits and strategies that will help them thrive and grow for years to come.

Albertina and Analys won the Hult Prize entrepreneurship competition at FIU in December for a social impact concept focused the food industry. While researching that concept, they got to know the plight of a number of restaurant owners. They also saw some commonalities: Many of the businesses had low visibility and lacked brand consistency. What’s more, the chef owners have a passion for food, but lacked knowledge about running a business. In the months following the competition, Albertina and Analys, together with Camila, were inspired to start a business to help the local restaurants beat the odds.

Between the three of them, they are mastering subjects such as business, social entrepreneurship, marketing, data analytics and computer science in the FIU Honors College classrooms, and they also have participated in the StartUP FIU program. They couldn’t help but think about how marketing was so crucial for restaurants during the pandemic and how technology could help them reach more people when they needed the help the most, yet the businesses were solely focused on sheer survival. The student founders worked hard to come up with a business model that would be affordable for the businesses and, more importantly, bring real, sustainable results to the restaurants quickly.

The students built a team and launched their startup, Lokal Miami in April offering a range of services such as brand development, social media management, influencer marketing, website development, SEO, delivery app management, event strategy and more. Today they work with 12 restaurants in South Florida and Orlando. “This is just the beginning,” said Albertina, who created a clothing business at 17. “Lokal Miami is the first agency focused only on local restaurants and venues in Miami. We know how to target local customers for the hospitality industry with innovative digital and in-person marketing.”

The team develops an individual, holistic strategy for every restaurant business client after studying their culture, consumer behavior and metrics, said Analys, but there are common challenges the team finds in these businesses, including a lack of brand recognition, insufficient customer research and data as well as poor online customer engagement. By focusing their expertise on the restaurant industry, they can make more impact on the restaurants’ bottom lines, while using technology to automate processes and create efficiencies for the restaurants. And for these GenZers, making a social impact with their startup is important.

In working with each client, Lokal’s goal is to show measurable results – and they already have. For instance, for one Brickell coffee shop, I Think She Is (ITSI), the Lokal Miami team was able to increase in-house sales by 113%, and UberEats sales by  6,834% in just five months, the team said.

“We found a recipe, what we call the holy grail of restaurants,” said Camila. “We know already what we need to do so they grow, and we have tested it with every one of our clients – and it has really worked.  Now we want to expand and help more restaurants in Miami.”

The team numbers 9 people now, 8 of them Latinas, in Miami, Argentina and Colombia. In addition to the coffee shop, they also work with Mr Baguette locations, La Piazzetta, Devia Juice Bar locations, Pokeai locations, and Mani in Pasta. Lokal also serves several clients in Orlando.

Lokal created a tiered pricing model for restaurants, based on their budgets and needs. Regardless of tier or budget, everything is measured. Lokal Miami produces monthly reports for clients anlayzing the metrics behind menu pricing, marketing and social media strategies to track what has worked and what hasn’t. Then they create a report with next steps and new recommendations for the following period.

“We go very in depth into, for example, what are the most ordered items in the menu, what are the most profitable? How can we make sure the most ordered items  are also the most profitable? How can we innovate, for example, the weekly lunch specials?,” Camila said.

 “We’re always looking for innovative ways to bring new people into the restaurants,” Albertina added.

Another benefit of their business model: Lokal Miami can facilitate partnerships that are win-wins. For instance, the ITSI coffee shop sells healthy chocolate bars made by Conscious Bar. This helps both businesses, particularly because Conscious Bar is a respected brand with strong marketing that can bring new customers into the coffee shop, Analys said. “We’re creating a community that is supporting each other on their projects.”

The biggest challenges have been managing growth and setting up systems and processes, while also managing a team. “You’re always thinking about how can I do better, how can I make it better for everyone else,”  said Albertina.

Photo at top of post: From left, Lokal Miami team of Analys Rodriguez, Albertina Manosalva and Camila Navarro.

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter and email her at [email protected]

Nancy Dahlberg