Subway franchisee Jeff Kaplow has stayed busy during COVID-19. Through a project called “Heroes to Heroes,” he’s raised north of $43,000 to fund sandwich donations. So far, Kaplow and his team have delivered more than 3,000 meals to New York City healthcare workers on the front lines.
Kaplow took some time to chat with QSR about the initiative, and what’s it’s like running a franchise during these unprecedented conditions.
Let’s start from the beginning. What inspired you to start giving back, and how did that lead to “Heroes to Heroes?”
Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, my friend Jennifer Asher approached me with the idea to support the hard workers at NYC hospitals. I knew this would be a perfect way for me to pitch in and help my community during these challenging times.
My father, who passed away a few years ago, spent the last 10 years of his life battling cancer, and my family and I spent many days in the hospital. The staff took amazing care of my father, so this was my opportunity to give back to them in their time of need. Through the Heroes for Heroes program we provide NYC hospital staff with Subway sandwiches, chips and cookies.
Talk about the response so far. How has the program evolved?
The response from the hospital workers has been amazing. These workers have been so incredibly appreciative and have found ways to show us their appreciation such as pictures and messages. They are the true heroes. At first, we thought we would feed a few hundred and possibly a thousand workers if things were to really work out. We have now delivered 4,000 meals in less than a month and plan to meet our newly revised goal of 10,000 meals by the middle of May.
Run us through what it’s been like to execute this initiative.
Executing this initiative has been the most satisfying experience in my professional career. I’m at the restaurants preparing the orders with my staff early in the morning. Then, personally delivering the meals to the hospitals. When I get home, the work continues. I am scheduling for my restaurants for the following days and organizing future deliveries at numerous hospitals across NYC.
I’m also doing this while trying to figure out how to keep my businesses afloat and applying for loans and grants from the state and federal government.
Specifically with your team, how has the program activated them? Are they embracing the chance to make a difference?
My team is so thankful to be able to go to work every day and help the frontline workers. This project has energized them. They’ve been coming in early, sometimes as early as 5 a.m. to start baking bread for the orders. My employees have been going above and beyond and they are so proud of the work we are doing together to help fuel hospital workers.
Generally speaking, how important do you think it is for restaurants to play this kind of role during COVID-19? What kind of response have you seen from the NYC restaurant community during all of this?
The restaurant business is such an important part of the culture of NYC. Some would say it’s the lifeblood. No other industry is being hit as hard right now, but the industry continues to remain strong in so many ways. There are so many good people doing great work to help get us through this terrible time in our history. I’m proud to be one of them.
Take us back to the early days of COVID-19. What was that like? When did you realize everything was going to change?
The early days of COVID-19 were strange. I’m no medical expert, and it was hard at first to understand the serious nature of the situation. There was so much uncertainty. Leading up to the “pause” in NYC, we began to see fewer guests coming through our doors as non-essential workers began working from home. That’s when the real shift started. My immediate reaction was to keep my restaurants open. A lot of my employees need the work and I wanted to be able to serve my customers. As soon as we started working on Heroes for Heroes, I knew things would be okay. While there is still uncertainty and hardship in the world, it’s almost easier now than it was in the beginning because we have some idea of what we are working with each day.
What kind of innovations have you rolled out to help generate added sales? What’s the off-premises business look like today versus three weeks ago?
The most important thing is the safety of our community and being there to help frontline workers. That’s why my restaurants are open and ready to serve.
I have made sure my restaurants are safe for guests and employees by continuing to practice health and safety guidelines such as frequent handwashing, sanitizing commonly touched areas, practicing social distancing within the restaurant, and wearing gloves and masks.
At Subway, we’ve also rolled out a variety of offers to create value for the guests during this difficult economic environment. Some of these limited-time offers include buy any two Footlongs and get one free, as well as promotions for delivery options.
How has your restaurant handled the employee aspect?
As a business owner, I take the well-being of my employees very seriously. I have made sure all of my employees have access to masks and have added new operational procedures to make social distancing feasible between them as well.
The employees have stepped up tremendously during this challenging time and it is important to me to show my appreciation for their efforts. The best way to do that is by continuing to implement safety measures and increased pay never hurts. I’ve given some employees raises for to demonstrate my appreciation for their dedication.
In what ways are you communicating with customers to let them know what you’re doing?
We have COVID-19 signs on the door and windows stating that we are open and ready to serve along with updated restaurant hours. We are also communicating updated hours through our third-party delivery partners. At this point, many of our guests are just happy that we are there to provide them a delicious meal as many NYC restaurants are closed. We’ve also received a ton of customer appreciation around our Heroes to Heroes work – they see the prep work we are doing and almost every customer thanks us for our support of the community.
Broadly, from the front lines, what are your thoughts on how this might change the industry? What do you think the biggest shift might be?
One of the biggest shifts I have seen is an increase in use of third-party delivery and remote ordering. I think that more guests will continue to use these alternative methods for ordering food coming out of this. As a whole, the industry is not going to be the same. There will be a stronger sense of togetherness—a bond formed between employees and employers, as well as their customers. Customer morale is very different these days. People are just happy to be in our restaurants and have access to food. The level of appreciation from customers is much higher than it’s ever been, people aren’t complaining about the little things when they know there are people out there without food. They see all the hard work that restaurants are doing to stay open and serve the community where they can. When this is over, I believe there will be more guest loyalty to the restaurants that customers could count on during COVID-19 and those that were helping to make a difference in the community.