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Panther entrepreneurs co-found startup, help restaurants survive pandemic's impact on hospitality sector
The co-founders of the startup, from left to right: Student Analys Rodriguez Amaro; alumna Albertina Manosalva; and Camila Navarro

Panther entrepreneurs co-found startup, help restaurants survive pandemic's impact on hospitality sector

Panthers teamed up to create a data analytics and marketing company to help restaurants survive the pandemic and thrive in today's complex hospitality industry landscape

April 19, 2022 at 3:41pm

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

“That’s how I envisioned myself after graduating,” says Rodriguez, a native of Venezuela and a senior in the FIU Honors College majoring in business administration in business analytics. Thanks to FIU, that dream is already a reality.

In collaboration with alumna Albertina Manosalva '21, who majored in business analytics and marketing, and Camila Navarro, who emigrated from Colombia, Rodriguez in 2021 co-launched a business to help local restaurants stay afloat during the pandemic’s brutal impact on the hospitality industry.

The project was born at FIU. Through Rodriguez and Manosalva’s involvement in StartUP FIU — the university’s entrepreneurship hub — and Honors College courses that teach students how to develop their own startup ideas, Rodriguez and Manosalva became seasoned student entrepreneurs.

They met at StartUP FIU’s campus headquarters, and along with biomedical engineering student Jazmin Lagier, teamed up to participate in various FIU pitch competitions. Notably, the team earned second place (for a project on recycling clothing), and later, earned first place (for a project on restaurants and the food industry, which became the foundation for the startup that exists today). The team went on to represent FIU at a virtual, regional Hult Prize competition during the pandemic.

Throughout 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 was going on in the industry from every point of view,” Rodriguez says.

Customer loyalty proved to be a key component in the equation.

“The restaurant where someone ate six months ago is probably not where they’re going to eat today,” Manosalva says. “In order for restaurants to have bigger profit margins and survive, the community needs to be loyal to them.”

Supporting restaurants with data and marketing

When Manosalva and Rodriguez saw restaurant owners struggling to keep doors open during the pandemic, they decided to turn the project into a startup. The duo teamed up with Navarro and launched Lokal Miami, a data analytics and marketing company for the local hospitality industry.

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

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

The team — made up of an international group of women — doesn’t just create the strategy. The women implement the strategy. They become a built-in team within the restaurant, helping on the business development side, which Rodriguez says, is a part of the business that many restaurant owners don’t have enough time to tackle.  

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

While some restaurants may no longer be dealing with the same problems they faced at the height of the pandemic (such as closures or lack of customers), many restaurant owners are still confronting the repercussions of it all — staffing shortages, having to pay higher salaries to help keep employees or attract new ones and the need to establish a strong online presence and technological tools to support consumers’ increasingly digital demands.  

Lokal Miami has worked with restaurants located 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’s and Manosalva’s success is not at all surprising. He knew they were rising stars.

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

“And Albertina," Hacker says, "is the only student who used to meet with me weekly at eight in the morning to learn financial modeling so she could do forecasting for her companies. It showed me that she understood and was willing to learn the fundamentals she needed to be successful at scale. You would tell her something one day and the next week, when you met with her again, she would have incorporated it into her approach. She has a clear understanding when she needs to learn something, and she goes all in to learn it.”

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

“They were teaching me. They did everything they had in their power to help me become entrepreneurial,” she says. “My critical thinking comes from them. I tell every person I know that has studied business, ‘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 FIU

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

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

“I knew I didn’t have a future in my home country,” she says. “I wanted to stay in the U.S.”

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

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

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

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