Panther Entrepreneurs Co-Found Startup, Helping Restaurants Survive Pandemic Impact on Hospitality | FIU News

Analys Rodriguez Amaro always knew that the world of entrepreneurship was her destiny.

“That’s how I pictured myself when I graduated,” says Rodriguez, a native of Venezuela and a senior at FIU Honors College with a major in Business Analytics. Thanks to FIU, this dream is already a reality.

Working with alumna Albertina Manosalva ’21, who majored in business analytics and marketing, and Camila Navarro, who emigrated from Colombia, Rodriguez founded a company in 2021 to help local restaurants amid the pandemic’s brutal impact on the hospitality industry to stay water.

The project was born at the FIU. Rodriguez and Manosalva’s involvement in StartUP FIU – the university’s entrepreneurship center – and Honors College courses, which teach students how to develop their own startup ideas, made Rodriguez and Manosalva experienced student entrepreneurs.

They met at StartUP FIU’s campus headquarters and teamed up with biomedical engineering student Jazmin Lagier to participate in various FIU pitch competitions. Specifically, the team took second place (for a clothing recycling project) and later first place (for a project about restaurants and the food industry, which formed the basis of today’s startup). The team represented the FIU in a virtual, regional Hult Prize competition during the pandemic.

During their research for the restaurant project, the women conducted at least 200 interviews with restaurant owners, delivery drivers and customers, all in Miami.

“We really wanted to understand what’s going on in the industry from every angle,” says Rodriguez.

Customer loyalty turned out to be a key component in the equation.

“The restaurant where someone ate six months ago is probably not where they will eat today,” says Manosalva. “For restaurants to have larger profit margins and survive, the community must be loyal to them.”

Supporting restaurants with data and marketing

Seeing how restaurant owners were struggling to keep their doors open during the pandemic, Manosalva and Rodriguez decided to turn the project into a startup. The duo teamed up with Navarro to found Local Miami, a data analytics and marketing company for the local hospitality industry.

Local Miami offers a wealth of services to foster growth and success in restaurants. Team members conduct a preliminary business analysis for each restaurant they work with. Then they create a roadmap to success — including strategies for social media engagement, content creation, brand awareness, web development and administration, influencer marketing campaigns, and public relations.

“We’re always trying to figure out, ‘What makes this place different?'” says Manosalva. “You can find a thousand coffee shops, but ‘What’s unique about this one?’ These are things that restaurant owners often find difficult to identify. We help them to identify their brand and their goals.”

The team – consisting of an international group of women – not only creates the strategy. The women to implement The strategy. They become an integrated team within the restaurant and help with business development, which Rodriguez says is a part of the business that many restaurant owners don’t have enough time for.

“We take care of companies that really need our help,” says Rodriguez. “They tell us they didn’t realize how much help they needed until they spoke to us. We offer them services like monthly reports with suggestions and next steps for strategies based on their sales.”

While some restaurants may no longer be struggling with the same issues they were at the height of the pandemic (like closures or missing customers), many restaurant owners are still dealing with the fallout from all of this — understaffing, having to pay higher salaries to keep employees or attract new ones, and the need to establish a strong online presence and technological tools to support consumers’ increasingly digital demands.

Local Miami has partnered with restaurants across Miami including I think She Is (ITSI), Borsalino Coffee Bar & Food, Mestizo Gastro Fusión, Manjay Restaurant, Jet Fuel Meals and Mr. Baguette to name a few.

Analys Rodriguez (left) and Albertina Manosalva (right)

Bob Hacker, co-founder and director of StartUP FIU, says Rodriguez and Manosalva’s success is not at all surprising. He knew they were rising stars.

“It’s teams like this that make working with students at StartUP FIU so rewarding and portend a bright future for Miami,” he says. “Albertina and Analys are proof that teams with members who have complementary skills are always the most successful. Analys is a natural presenter and speaker. She’s one of the few young people I know who already knows how to command a space in a way that 40-50 year olds can’t. She is very intelligent and people want to engage with her. That’s one of their strengths.”

“And Albertina,” says Hacker, “is the only student who used to meet me weekly at 8am to learn financial modeling so she could forecast her companies. It showed me that she understood and was willing to learn the fundamentals she needed to succeed at scale. You would say something to her one day and the next week when you meet her again, she would have incorporated it into her approach. She has a clear understanding of when she needs to learn something and she does everything in her power to learn it.”

For their part, the women are grateful for the support of StartUP FIU. Manosalva thanks the staff at Hacker and StartUP FIU, including Gustavo Grande, for mentoring her and helping her become the professional she is today.

“You taught me. They did everything in their power to help me become an entrepreneur,” she says. “My critical thinking comes from them. I tell everyone I know who has studied business administration: “You have to go to StartUP FIU”. StartUP FIU was my home. That’s where I met most of my friends, that’s where I found my best mentors. They are amazing.”

A chance from the FIU

For Rodriguez and Manosalva, the startup’s success and the FIU’s role in their story is particularly sweet. The two women came to Miami from Venezuela to pursue higher education. At some point, Rodriguez’s family began struggling economically.

Her parents told her she had to return home as they could not pay for her studies abroad. But Rodriguez wasn’t ready to give up.

“I knew that I had no future in my homeland,” she says. “I wanted to stay in the US”

She asked the FIU for help, and the university supported her by offering her an academic stipend to pay for her tuition.

“The FIU really supported me,” says Rodriguez. “Through the FIU I was able to be part of StartUP FIU and programs at the university and experience all that.”

Today, both entrepreneurs are putting down roots in Miami (Rodriguez’s parents now live in the city and Manosalva recently married). Rodriguez is expected to graduate at the end of the spring semester of 2022.

The trio plan to continue helping their new home and community, one restaurant at a time.

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