Money Talks: The small-business owners who just started another one

Welcome to Money Talks, a series in which we interview people about their relationship with money, their relationship with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.

Lin Jerome and Alexandra Lourdes have been in the hospitality business for the past five years. The Las Vegas-based entrepreneurs met while they were both working at the University of Nevada Las Vegas — Alexandra was working in the provost’s office and running all of the major on-campus events, and Lin was the associate director of admissions for UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law — and after collaborating on a charity event to raise money for Make-A-Wish, realized that they worked very well together.

In 2015, Lin and Alexandra launched the Refined Agency, an interactive marketing company that worked closely with hospitality brands in Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Then they decided to employ their hospitality strategies themselves, for their own concepts and brands. The Refined Agency morphed into Refined Hospitality, a 42-employee business that brought in $1,244,756 in revenue in 2019.

Refined Hospitality is the driving force behind three Las Vegas concept restaurants: Café Lola, Saint Honoré, and the newly launched Pizza Anonymous, which was developed as a way to provide a unique speakeasy-style takeout pizza experience during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In addition to being successful BIPOC small-business owners who are learning how to pivot during an unprecedented year, Lin and Alexandra are both moms — Lin, 39 years old, has a 16-month-old daughter; Alex, 36, has a 2-year-old daughter.

Lin: In 2017 we had the idea for our first concept, Café Lola. When we started the Refined Agency, we were always working out of coffee shops, and every coffee shop we would go to, we would find things that weren’t always up to — I wouldn’t say our standards, but they just didn’t have the things that we were looking for when we were working at these spaces. They were just drab, and they were uninspiring, and they didn’t have the items that we wanted to eat. Alex is gluten-free, and they didn’t have gluten-free pastries. So we had the idea for Café Lola, which we opened in 2018.

Alexandra: The main thing we want to do is give people an experience when they walk through the door. We learned that very quickly — that people don’t want to come in somewhere and not feel something special when they walk through the door. For Café Lola, we wanted to create a space where women would feel inspired when they came in. We’ve heard so many times that people don’t want to leave because they like sitting there and enjoying the aesthetic of the whole place, with flowers all over the wall and chandeliers.

Lin: Every single concept that we’ve started thus far, we’ve kind of made it a business within a business. With the Refined Agency, we were working out of coffee shops initially, and then our company grew to eight employees and we needed to have an office. So we rented office space, and we said to ourselves, “You know, we’re paying so much in rent right now, it would be great to have a space where we could use a space as an office but still make revenue as well.” When we had the idea for Café Lola, we said, “This would be great to have the café downstairs and have The Refined Agency offices upstairs.” We knew we could pay the rent with the Refined Agency, and any revenue that the coffee shop would bring in would be additional.

For Saint Honoré, the idea was that we wanted to start making our own pastries for Café Lola. We were thinking of getting a commissary kitchen, but we came across this doughnut shop that the previous tenants had left. So we said, “Okay, why can’t we make the pastries in the back and then create a doughnut shop to get additional revenue from the front?”

When we started thinking about Pizza Anonymous, [we thought], we had this doughnut shop, we close it every day at 3 pm, why not use the space in the evening and come up with another concept? From a business standpoint, we’re always trying to utilize our spaces and our products twofold.

At first, the coronavirus was a shock for us. On the East Coast, everything was happening so rapidly but it hadn’t really made its way out West yet. We were kind of hearing the news, and when things were starting to get shut down we didn’t really understand the impact it would have on Las Vegas. We didn’t know how it would affect our community. Then, overnight, we woke up, and it was, “as of 5 pm today you are curbside only,” and that’s it.

For me, it was a huge shock at first. One, because we have this global pandemic, which, you know, worrying about health and safety and us being new moms and having these young children, and me having my 70-year-old mom who lives with us, and having all of that go through your head on top of owning all of these businesses and having all of these employees and what do we do? I just shut down for a minute because I was scared.

But we’ve always just figured things out, so we pivoted rather quickly. The weekend before [the shutdown], we did have some insight into what was happening, so Alex and I came up with these to-go boxes and started uploading them into our point-of-sale system and asking ourselves how we were going to market them.

Alexandra: We switched Café Lola to curbside, but Saint Honoré we just shut down completely. The amount of staff required to open our business is a lot, for doughnuts, especially because we’re doing everything from scratch. To have someone come in at 3 am to make donuts when we’re not sure if anyone is going to come in [to buy them] was a little risky. We said, “We’re going to have to close Saint Honoré because we don’t know if anyone’s even going to come out of their house.”

I came up with these fun birthday boxes for people who were celebrating at home. They were cute pink boxes with specialty items from Café Lola, but I would make them inside Saint Honoré. Cupcakes, our baked doughnuts, cake pops, and some chocolate truffles. We have this really awesome machine that can print customized logos and names and everything, so I printed “Happy Birthday” on the cupcakes and took a picture of them and posted it and it went crazy. I never would have imagined that kind of support. Honestly, I think it was a lot of the community helping us, but people we didn’t even know were asking for these boxes.

I couldn’t do it all myself, so I asked one of our staff members back. Sometimes we would have, like, 20 boxes to do in the morning. We were actually making more money than we did as a doughnut shop. I never thought it would happen like that.

Then I needed two staff members to help make the boxes, and we expanded from birthday boxes into Mommy and Me, Princess Tea — Café Lola has these princess teas, and I know people were missing them — I did a unicorn box, a lot of different fun things so people could still feel a bit of Café Lola at home.

Lin: We wanted to make everyone comfortable with their new world and their new surroundings and the new way of doing things, but still have the things that they enjoy. Just a way to bring joy to everyone in this unbelievably stressful time. For Las Vegas it was stressful times 10 because our city is centered around tourism and hospitality. If you could have seen the Las Vegas Strip during that time, when nothing was open, to go down there and be able to hear a pin drop on Las Vegas Boulevard was unbelievably frightening. We just wanted to bring a little joy to everyone.

Alex: After a while, it started getting to the point where people didn’t want to be at home anymore — so we learned how to keep everyone safe in our environments. Everyone wore masks, everyone wore gloves, everyone sanitized their hands when they walked in; we’re not accepting cash anymore, we were taking every single precaution possible. We were like, “How can we still give back to the community by being open?” We had 10 calls a day asking for the doughnuts. People wanted us to be open. So Lin and I had a meeting and decided to open again, with all of our precautions and limited menu items. We could see that people really wanted to support us, especially because we were being so open and honest about what we were doing.

Lin: The other thing we decided to do during the pandemic was to market like nothing happened. We’re still going to post three times a day, we’re going to still do stories, we’re going to still do photos, we’re going to still do videos, we’re going to market like we never even closed. A lot of other businesses just kind of went silent for eight weeks, which, just doing some research and going back to pandemics in the past or the Great Depression, the businesses that made it through those times were the ones that went on like nothing happened.

That’s where Pizza Anonymous came from. Before the pandemic even happened, my husband Steve — he’s Italian, his mom is from Southern Italy, so he grew up making pizzas with his family every Sunday. He likes to make family meals for the staff, so he made pizzas one day [pre-pandemic], and everyone loved them. When the pandemic happened, I was wracking my brain to think of other ideas that we could utilize our spaces and make additional revenue. I literally sat up for two nights straight, so stressed out, and then I woke Steve up and said, “What if we did pizzas out of Café Lola?” He said, “No, let’s do them out of Saint Honoré.”

Alex: We were, like, what if we did it like a secret? What if we didn’t even tell people it was us? We were going back and forth on the idea of, like, hiding the owners and all of that. That’s how the Pizza Anonymous name came up. We were going to launch it delivery-only, so people didn’t even know where it was, but we thought, “No, our following is so loyal, we need to share who we are.”

We’re a dough shop — we make beignets, we make our doughnuts — so we had all of the items we needed to make pizza. We got what we needed for the toppings from Café Lola, because at Café Lola we serve meat and cheese boards. All of the high-quality ingredients we were putting on the meat and cheese boards went on our pizzas. The only thing we had to bring in was cauliflower, because I wanted to make a gluten-free option. We make our cauliflower crust from scratch, and people say it’s the best they’ve ever had.

Lin: On July 31, we launched Pizza Anonymous out of Saint Honoré. We were sold out before we even opened. We shared clues on Instagram to “where could this location possibly be, look for the pizza slice on the door.” It was really, really cool. The first day, we were sitting up in the office, and I opened my email and we had 20 orders. I didn’t even know if we could fulfill them all, because the whole premise was “we make a limited number of pies, and when we sell out, we sell out.” We had sold out before 5 pm and we had people lined up in front waiting to come in.

The concept took off so well that we decided we wanted to launch it in Henderson, too. So on September 5, which is National Cheese Pizza Day, we launched Pizza Anonymous 2 out of Café Lola Henderson.

Alexandra: The startup costs were very low. One of the main reasons we did this was to give our staff more hours, because we were closed. We were able to bring back the other half of our staff, and they’re working the nights at Saint Honoré, and they’re super grateful.

Lin: Some of our Café Lola staff are also able to pick up additional hours. It really has become a way for all of the staff members in the Refined Hospitality group to have additional hours and work on this new concept. Pizza Anonymous has also brought in additional revenue for us, which has been extremely helpful because Covid, for everyone, kind of depleted — the percentages we were down, it’s frightening.

We were lucky enough to get Paycheck Protection Program funding in the second round. For businesses, that was so crucial.

Alex: We wouldn’t have been open without that.

Lin: I tell people, “Revenue went down 80 percent, but all the bills remained the same.” Landlords still need to be paid. There are still sales taxes that needed to be paid from previous quarters. None of the bills stopped, but the revenue stopped. Without PPP funding, there is no way we would be opening today. With all the marketing and sales you could have possibly done, the bills are still exorbitant.

Alex: We’re forced to be at 50 percent capacity, but the bills are still 100 percent.

Lin: We’re still busy. With Café Lola, we have people waiting to get in on the weekends, and if we could be at 100 percent capacity we wouldn’t have to do that. People still want to sit and eat at Café Lola, we just can’t accommodate them.

With Covid, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but we’re confident that we’ll eventually one day get back to where we were. But we’re behind. Everyone is behind right now.

If you have a compelling story about how money comes into play in one of your relationships — whether with a partner, a friend, a sibling, a coworker — we want to hear about it! Email [email protected] and [email protected] with a little about yourself.

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