As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce will profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
The Flying Squirrel and Crash Pad - iconic anchors on Chattanooga’s Southside - both started out of a love for climbing, now the owners are applying some of their best moves to making sure both stay around. “It’s not just the financial uncertainty, operationally speaking it's like a totally different business,” says Max Poppel, co-owner of the Flying Squirrel Bar and Restaurant and the Crash Pad, the scenic city’s uncommon hostel. His business partner of nearly 10 years is Dan Rose. “It’s also the type of food, the spacing of tables, PPE for everyone, staffing and guests. You are changing where the tables go, how you touch everything. It’s a major challenge to adapt to the new world.”
Armed with a PPP loan, new hours and most of the staff back, Mr. Poppel and his partner continue to figure out the next best steps at both locations. At the Flying Squirrel, they have changed hours, dropped local music, shifted to a first-time to-go menu as an additional option, and moved a lot of seating outdoors to an amazing green space right beside the restaurant.
“We are fortunate we had a place to put the tables we could no longer fit,” Mr. Poppel says. “It’s weather dependent, but we are doing what we can to make it work. We fenced it in to meet regulations, added lights, and speakers and for all of you who have come out and baked in the sun, we just got 10 more umbrellas and big shade sails are in the mail.”
Even with current seating cut to two-thirds due to social distancing, Mr. Poppel says business is picking back up. At 70 percent in July, he is hoping for a solid climb.
“We get a lot of people here twice a week and they have told us ‘it’s been our best Squirrel experience,’” Mr. Poppel says. “Our regulars have stayed through and helped to support us by coming out which we really appreciate.”
The business model changes brought exciting new additions to the Flying Squirrel menu. General Manager and Executive Chef Sanders Parker has created new favorites for the to-go and main menus mixed in with the regular Squirrel standards.
“We put his food quality with anyone," says Mr. Poppel. "We are very excited about what he is doing. Sanders made the menu his own. The classics have not changed – we still have the garlic fries and smash burgers, but there is also a big emphasis on local farms and he has done an amazing job with the unpredictable nature of not always knowing what’s coming in until it arrives. He does really well rolling with the punches and the result is our best menu yet.”
For Mr. Poppel, each new challenge is a reminder of what has worked at the Flying Squirrel.
“There is a renewed sense in quality product and service. That is what helps differentiate us, getting that repeat business. We are back to rocking and rolling and bringing our best game ever.”
You could say it was a game or a sport that helped create the vision that is now the Flying Squirrel and the Crash Pad - climbing. Mr. Poppel got his first introduction to climbing early in college.
“I wasn't very good, and I was always of a fat and lazy nature. But I did enjoy it. The second time, I could hold on a half a second longer, tangible progress, if imperceptible to the outside observer. I enjoyed that it was both mental and physical. It’s problem-solving and technique as much as it is strength like if you turn your body one inch in one direction, it can make a seemingly impossible movement possible. That really helped power through that fat and lazy thing.”
Mr. Poppel’s new hobby and new friends, one of them now business partner Dan Rose, took him to climbing competitions and his first-ever visit to the Scenic City.
“Chattanooga blew us away,” Mr. Poppel says. From there his climbing passion only grew and set in motion a move to Chattanooga for both he and Mr. Rose.
“I really had no plan in life, I wanted to be a climbing bum but my mother wouldn’t stand for it,” M.r Poppel says. “So we moved here for the climbing and got jobs to support our climbing and sushi habits.”
Mr. Poppel landed a winter internship at a local insurance broker’s office while he was still in college in the Northeast studying business.
“I did an internship with Evergreen Consulting,” he says. “We climbed on the weekends and I got to know the city and fell in love. There really is something to southern hospitality.”
The following year, he reached back out to the same insurance broker hoping to land a permanent job in Chattanooga. It was 2005. Max had just graduated from college.
“They said, ‘I can’t promise you a job,’ and I told them ‘See you on Monday, I am coming down anyway.’ So I hung out in the office until they hired me. It took about a week. They needed the help and I was eager.”
With his climbing passion always front and center, the business ideas presented themselves. First, The Crash Pad.
“The proximity to so much climbing just blew us away and there wasn’t a basecamp to cater to it. We all know Chattanooga’s well-deserved outdoor reputation and we couldn’t believe there was no community hub for those coming to experience it.”
The Crash Pad: Uncommon Hostel, was born in 2011 complete with a selection of sleeping quarters, a shared community and a cooking area along with outdoor event space.
At the time, they had another idea.
“We wanted to serve liquor to our guests after a long day playing in the hills and rivers, but we didn’t meet the kitchen and seating requirements to get a liquor license. We believed in the neighborhood and thought it needed more nightlife and brunch.”
And so Flying Squirrel opened its doors in 2013 right next to The Crash Pad. It was originally going to be named High Gravity and be a high gravity beer bar.
“So Dan sketched out a logo of a guy in a winged suit jumping for BASE jumping,” Mr. Poppel says. “And, the graphic designer we hired to help with the logo looked at it and said, ‘What is this, a flying squirrel?’”
Like that, another silly business name was born.
And just like in the sport of climbing, Mr. Rose and Mr. Poppel locked into figuring out the next best steps.
“We were pretty ignorant of the restaurant business,” Mr. Poppel says. “Dan had years of serving experience, but no other positions and neither of us had managed people before. So there was a big learning curve. It’s like a double-edged sword, great because you have a chance to reinvent everything to the specifics of your business, but sometimes it takes twice as long and we made two or seven times the mistakes. We are very fortunate the neighborhood has grown up around us. More businesses meant more of a reason for people to come down, so we all got busier.”
Mr. Poppel says the pandemic has shown that anything is possible. His advice to other small business owners: “Make sure you understand your industry-standard numbers and use them appropriately in your business. We didn’t know what a P&L was for the first few years of operation. Don’t be like us.”
Flying Squirrel Sunday brunch is now open at 10:30 a.m.
Enjoy items like the Squirrel breakfast burrito, with house-cured and roasted bacon, scrambled eggs, avocado and potatoes in a flour tortilla, all smothered in a caramelized, local cheddar cheese blanket. Served with a side of house hot sauce that's not so hot, but rounds out the overall flavor profile. Get. Eat. Be happy. Repeat.
Flying Squirrel is now open for spaced out inside and outside seating, as well as to-go and delivery through local vendor Dinner Delivered. Menus update frequently based on local produce, so check website for the most recent menus.
Dinner: Tuesday-Friday 6-10 p.m., Saturday 5-10 p.m.
Brunch: Sun 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.