The Phone Eats First
Artwork by Derek Joy
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine.
John Horvatinovich: Helping Many in the Food Industry Survive COVID-19
May 27, 2021 05:00PM ● By Sean Robinson
The phone eats first.
In the digital age, it’s increasingly common for diners to pose, snap, and post about their mouthwatering meals before digging in themselves. It’s proof that social media changed the way we consume food—and nobody knows that better than John Horvatinovich. He’s even made a career out of it.
As the founder of Bread & Olive Social, a social media management and consulting firm for the food industry, Horvatinovich delivers practical solutions and profitable outcomes to restaurants in the Metro area. He also services Washington D.C., where he currently resides. After a celebrated career as a local chef, there are few better suited to make eateries even more appetizing.
“My job isn’t to tell others how I would run their restaurants. It’s about being able to step back, think, and recommend specific things that will help them be successful,” Horvatinovich said. “What works in one restaurant won’t work in another.”
Horvatinovich’s career in the food industry began not in the kitchen but on the lawn. As a child, he mowed for a restaurant in the small coal-mining town where he grew up in Colorado. While doing so, he became transfixed with the atmosphere of the half-Mexican cuisine and half Italian-fare establishment—the staff working in unison, the families flocking back weekend after weekend, Denver bands playing inside and putting a soundtrack to it all. So, he made the move from outside the restaurant to in, starting as a dishwasher.
“As a kid in eighth or ninth grade, to be around all that energy was amazing,” Horvatinovich said.
That energy he found so intoxicating has never left Horvatinovich. Since his time in that tiny town haunt, he’s received his culinary degree from the Colorado Institute of Arts and worked his way through the food industry. He served in managerial roles at Carrabba’s, California Pizza Kitchen, and Hiro 88; as a culinary instructor at Metropolitan Community College; and sat on the board of directors for the Omaha Restaurant Association.
From 2012 to 2017, Horvatinovich even founded and operated his own restaurant, Salt 88. The menu featured a mix of Mediterranean cuisine with modern American elements.
“What I was able to do with Salt 88 was build a business from the ground up,” Horvatinovich said. “I created an entire food menu, an award-winning wine list, and transferred years of previous opportunity into one area.”
He’s doing that again with Bread & Olive Social, using what he learned in all those previous roles and at Salt 88 to help other businesses grow. As a consultant, his services cover everything from concept development and service training to hiring guidelines and marketing strategies.
What he won’t do is come into a restaurant and change the entire dining room or processes from top to bottom. His approach is all about finding what’s working and what’s not. Bread & Olive Social is a one-man show and Horvatinovich works hard to find where he can further tap into existing successes and solve pain points.
“He’s been there, done that, so he knows what restaurateurs are looking for,” said Brandy Nielson, who served as the membership and marketing director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association when they hired Horvatinovich. “He’s very driven and has a true passion. That’s what makes him so good at what he does.”
Many in the food industry find the need for consulting has never been greater. According to the National Restaurant Association, 110,000 eateries closed across the country in 2020 alone.
The industry is fighting to stay alive, and Horvatinovich is on the front lines. However, he said the two areas he serves—Omaha and Washington D.C.—couldn’t be performing more differently. With fewer restrictions, Omaha has been faring well throughout the pandemic while D.C. was hit much harder. In this case, the old industry adage holds true: It’s location, location, location.
“There’s a lot to be said in the difference between the Midwest and the coast,” Horvatinovich said. “It reflects the community in Nebraska. It’s that community-first mentality in combination of differing governance that has made Omaha a small blurb instead of a major disruption.”
Throughout the pandemic, Horvatinovich’s expertise has helped restaurants survive. At the beginning when indoor dining was completely shut down, he directed clients to create popular dishes customers could take home and bake. As COVID-19 carried on, some of his advice focused on providing guests comfort and nostalgia. For some clients, that meant switching up the menu while others provided creative reasons to bring people back.
“It’s time to stop the excuses and move forward within whatever restrictions we have,” Horvatinovich said. “Space out reservations, evaluate your operations, keep food costs top of mind. No longer can we sit on the sidelines and say we’re going to lose because of COVID.”
Horvatinovich does believe the industry will bounce back soon, but that may look differently depending on area once again. He’s also looking toward the future for his business.
Horvatinovich hopes to build Bread & Olive Social’s presence in the D.C. area and expand the team.
“The biggest impact I want on any restaurant is the connections I make,” Horvatinovich said. “It’s not just about numbers and seeing an increase in profitability. It’s the feeling I did good by the business too.”