Operations | June 2013 | By Jennifer Gregory

Expect the Unexpected

Brands must prepare restaurants and employees for all types of emergencies.

Firehouse Subs has learned to prepare stores for emergencies like fires.
After a Firehouse Subs unit in Jacksonville, Florida, was destroyed in a fire, the brand learned the importance of preparing for emergencies. Firehouse Subs
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No operator wants to think about his restaurant catching on fire, a tornado destroying his roof, or an armed robber walking through his front door.

But to successfully deal with unexpected emergencies, quick-serve restaurants must have a plan in place long before an event happens.

The decisions operators, managers, and staff make in the heat of the moment can save the business and, even more importantly, potentially the lives of employees and customers.

Ken Burris is the former chief operating officer of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and CEO of Witt O’Brien’s, a company specializing in preparedness, crisis management, and disaster response. He says one of the challenges of planning for emergencies is that it’s impossible to plan for every dangerous situation.

Burris says quick-service restaurants’ first step in planning for emergencies should be a risk analysis of each location. “If your location has a natural hazard risk, such as [it’s] located in a flood zone or tornado-prone area, you need to make a thorough plan and prepare for these events,” he says.

When assisting with emergency planning, Burris says, he often finds that most quick serves don’t have written emergency plans. He says operators should create multi-level emergency documentation, including a detailed emergency plan for managers and a business continuity plan for getting doors back open post-emergency. Staff should have simple, one-page documents with instructions for different types of emergencies on hand at all times, he says, noting that the information could be hung on a bulletin board for easy access. 

“You can also make a laminated business card for managers to keep in their wallets with phone numbers of the corporate office, vendors, and local authorities,” Burris says.

The written emergency plan should designate who makes the decision to close or evacuate during an emergency, as well as establish a designated meeting spot outside the restaurant, he says.

In April 2011, a series of devastating tornadoes hit the Southern town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Molly Harris, catering manager of a Moe’s Southwest Grill in the area, says management’s quick decision to shut down the store 20 minutes before the devastating tornado hit the town prevented employees and customers from being in the store during the disaster. The unit suffered roof damage, however, and was closed for more than a week due to power outages.

In case of an emergency, it’s also important for each unit to keep an up-to-date asset list of equipment, supplies, and inventory in the store, says Meg Rose, director of company operations at Firehouse Subs.

After a fire destroyed a Jacksonville, Florida, restaurant, the brand learned firsthand the importance of having an updated asset list kept offsite, she says.

“Because our asset list was very complete, we were able to get a quick handle on our losses for insurance purposes,” Rose says. “Without that list, we would have had to dig through the debris to figure out what was inside the restaurant during the fire.”

Ray Stewart, franchise business consultant for Moe’s Southwest Grill, says brands should also develop a plan for protecting their food supply—whether with a generator or by transporting food to another location—in the event of a fire, tornado, or similar unexpected disaster.

That was something Moe’s had to learn the hard way. The location in Tuscaloosa was able to move all of its food to a store at nearby University of Alabama.

However, when a damaging tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, the next week, the Moe’s location there lost several thousand dollars’ worth of food, because it was left without power for more than 10 days. It also had no plan for storing food in the event of an extended power outage.

Burris says many businesses often forget about the impact a natural disaster or other emergency has on the community at large, a fact they should keep in mind when planning for one.

“Even if your restaurant doesn’t sustain damages, your workforce may be impacted to such an extent that it prevents you from operating your store,” he says.

Based on Stewart’s experience assisting with both the Tuscaloosa and Joplin tornadoes, each location should have had a cash reserve of about $5,000 earmarked for emergencies, he says.

“After an emergency, owners usually need immediate access to cash that they can use at their discretion to help their employees … or re-advertise when they open their doors again,” he says.

This emergency fund can also help the community. After the tornado in Tuscaloosa, Harris and the Moe’s staff used the funds and food from its unit to provide more than 2,500 free meals to first responders and residents.

But having a disaster plan is useless, Burris says, if the staff isn’t trained on how to carry it out in the event of an emergency. He says emergency procedures should be included in new employee orientation, and brands should also perform a simulated emergency exercise once a year.

After the drill, operators should debrief with employees to figure out what parts of the plan worked and what needs to be changed, he says.

Since emergency preparedness isn’t a topic that should be addressed just once or twice a year, Burris says, brands should review various emergency procedures or equipment regularly during staff meetings.

Firehouse Subs’ Rose says it’s also helpful for all employees on staff, not just managers, to be trained on using safety equipment, as it’s impossible to know who will be standing around when an emergency strikes.

After Firehouse Subs experienced six robberies within a span of 18 months at its Jacksonville locations, the brand held security meetings for more than 100 managers in the affected area, in which law enforcement went over procedures and what to look for during a robbery.

After holding the meetings and enacting several procedural changes, including shifting to two cash deposits each day, the robberies ceased.

“During the meetings, we stressed to our employees to do what the [robber] told them instead of trying to overpower them,” Rose says. “We wanted our employees to know that their first priority in an emergency was to keep themselves, the other employees, and the customers safe.”