In this installment of Meet the Merchant, we speak to Phillip Ingram of Lonni’s Sandwiches in St. Petersburg, Florida. A 35-year-old lunchtime favorite for office workers, Lonni’s Sandwiches was hit hard by so many working from home during the pandemic. Ingram shares how he was able to adapt the business to the changing demands of his customers with the help of Clover.
Our Meet the Merchant series features Q&As with real-world Clover merchants. Read our full catalog for innovative ideas and real-life stories of small businesses in action.
Clover: So how did you wind up with Lonni’s Sandwiches? You took it over from the original owners. Tell us about that decision.
Ingram: So, it’s kind of crazy. Obviously, the past few years have been crazy in general. Lonni’s Sandwiches is literally as old as I am—it has been around since 1987. I’ve been in the food service industry for about 20 years now and had been developing a couple of my own plans. I’m always searching for businesses to potentially purchase or looking at locations that would be good shells for a business model that I have in mind. Then I came across Lonni’s. One of the concepts I was working on developing was a gourmet sandwich shop. So a lot of the things that were already established by this brand fell in line with my vision. It was pretty scary because I bought Lonni’s in January 2021, right in the height of COVID. Luckly, it’s a very well-known brand in the community. It has a great rapport with the community and the product was fantastic.
Clover: So why sandwiches? What was the driving force behind that interest for you?
Ingram: I’ve worked in food for a good while. I love the food industry, I love the service industry, but it is challenging sometimes to have a great quality of life within the industry. As a sandwich shop, we primarily cater to business traffic. We close at 3:00 p.m. every day, which provides me with nights. We’re also closed every Sunday. So we do good business for our customers during the week for their lunchtime needs, and then both myself and my employees are able to have a quality of life afterwards as well.
Clover: When you took over the restaurant, did you feel like you had to make a lot of changes or was it mostly small tweaks?
Ingram: At first, I didn’t want to rock the boat. Again, this is a brand that’s thirty-five years old. It has a lot of core, regular customers. I’ve made tweaks to the business, of course, but I haven’t done anything that I think changes the core of the business or the services it provides. The food is the same; I’ve adjusted maybe 10 percent of the menu. And we’ve done a refresh on the interior of the business.
Clover: Lonni’s is famous for the Minnesota wild rice bread. Are you still making that?
Ingram: That that bread will never go away! The quality of that bread is amazing. You’re not going to find it in the market anywhere else. It’s difficult to execute. We start by sourcing a very specific wild rice grain from Minnesota that we ship down here. We have a local baker who has our bread recipe and can only sell exclusively to us. So once we ship the rice down, we cook it in-house and send it to the baker, who then cooks it into the bread. We get bread delivered fresh daily and it’s sliced to order.
Clover: Oh, that sounds good.
Ingram: Yeah, it is! Because of the rice, there’s less flour than a traditional slice of bread, and there are no preservatives in it. So I sometimes call it “cloud bread” because it’s so fluffy and soft when you bite into it—it just melts in your mouth.
Clover: Yum! So, tell us a little bit about how you got connected with Clover.
Ingram: Because I’ve worked with a lot of restaurants, from small businesses to national chains, I’ve had experience with a bunch of different POS systems, and I was already familiar with Clover. It’s very user-friendly. If you need to change any of the buttons on the fly, you can do that. If you need to look at reporting while you’re at the business or while you’re at home or while you’re on the other side of the world, you can do that, too–all from your computer. If I need to account for anything, review anything, make any changes, it’s not difficult at all. I also use Homebase, one of the Clover apps, which makes managing my labor very easy. It provides great reports and analytics, and I appreciate the ability to teach new employees in a quick manner on how to use it. I do a lot of specials with our ordering–I do discounts, daily specials, and weekly specials. Clover makes it very easy to adjust my menu on their system. It takes less than a minute to update anything on my menu, which is very convenient. That’s why we use Clover.
Clover: How important is that level of flexibility (to change the menu, for example) for you and potentially for other small business owners who may be interested in that?
Ingram: I would say this year, more than others, it has been super important.
Supply chain issues are a big problem that has plagued the industry. So there are a lot of times where I’m unable to source products that I might normally be able to. I can update that in the menu as well very quickly. Or, let’s say bacon is up 28 percent in costs this year. I can’t charge the same dollar amount or cent amount that I would charge for bacon, say, a year ago. To have that flexibility to update those prices in a very quick manner is needed in today’s industry.
I think restaurant operators, in general, have needed to have extra flexibility this year more than any other year, just because of all the supply chain issues that have been going on throughout the world.
Clover: What other features of Clover products that you use would you recommend to other small business owners as they look to maybe shift the way they operate?
Ingram: You know, the nice thing about Clover is that it’s cloud-based, so there’s a lot of apps you can test out. From my experience, Homebase would be a good one. It’s super easy to manage your labor through. You can access it anywhere, so if you’re an absentee owner, you don’t even need to do anything on the device itself. You can just do it at your house, which is very convenient.
Online ordering is another one, just as everything has shifted. We’re in a new normal, and online ordering is definitely part of that new normal.
Clover: You came into this business right as the pandemic started. You’re a lunch-based business. What were some of the challenges of that situation, and how were you able to overcome them?
Ingram: We’re in the heart of the downtown business district. The challenge when I took over was that most of the office towers that surround us were only at 10 to 20 percent capacity. And now, they’re only probably at 60 to 70 percent. So our core clientele wasn’t at the office, right? So that definitely was a challenge. We had to find other ways to get people in the door, and we had to find them from other places. We are blessed that we are in Florida, and Florida has exploded with population growth, specifically in the Tampa Bay Area over the past year. So we’ve found guest traffic in other ways, and we’ve done that through marketing and social media campaigns. We’re slowly starting to get a lot of our large catering back, too. It’s now moving in the right direction. We still face some challenges, but it’s on a good trajectory for us.
Clover: As a young business owner, this probably wasn’t exactly the experience you expected. But in some ways it sounds like you’re coming out even stronger.
Ingram: This has been probably the craziest two years of my life. You know, I have worked in the industry for a long time. I, alongside many of my other colleagues in the industry, found myself unemployed at one point during COVID for the first time in my career. And to go from unemployed to being a business owner has been quite an unreal experience, to say the least. But you know, everything happens for a reason. There’s still a lot of challenges, particularly with commodity cost and supply chain issues. But with that being said, it’s been awesome.
Clover: So what visions do you have going forward for the restaurant? Anything specific in mind as far as expansion or menu changes?
Ingram: So I expect that we’ll continue to expand our business through, primarily corporate catering and office lunches as office traffic continues to come back. I think that we’ll probably be full of office traffic at some point in 2022. So I think naturally, the business will grow with that. They’re actually breaking ground on a forty-seven story tower that will be built across the street, directly across the street from where we are. That would be the tallest tower on the west coast of Florida, so I expect the traffic will grow from that.
But really, you know, my big thing is we’re celebrating our thirty-fifth anniversary next year. So I’m looking forward to doing a celebration with the community just as a thank you for their support over the years and specifically for their support through COVID. You know, there were some scary, scary days and months during that time, and we got through it. We’re looking at the other side, looking to potentially grow, you know, maybe there’s some other locations down the line. We’ll see. Not there yet, but it’s potentially there. But just looking forward to celebrating next year, celebrating 35 years with the community, that’s been awesome for us.
Cover: Is there any final advice you’d like to share with small business owners or others thinking about taking the kind of leap you did?
Ingram: To small business owners—particularly young owners—I would just say believe in yourself. You know, it’s scary. The jump is scary. There’s going to be people potentially who will say that it’s not time, or you shouldn’t do it, or there’s too much risk involved. But you do it, you jump, and if you work hard and are confident and sell a good product, and interact with your guests correctly, you’ll never look back.