In many ways, the quick-service and fast-casual restaurant industries are better prepared to navigate the crisis posed by coronavirus than they would have been five years ago. The robust off-premises business that restaurants have built over the last three to four years is now paying off, as many cities and states have mandated that restaurants close their dining rooms and resort to carryout, delivery, and drive thru only.
But not every restaurant brand has the luxury of pivoting quickly to off-premises. Take RAVE Restaurant Group as an example: While the Dallas-based company is parent to pizza fast casual Pie Five, which had developed an off-premises strategy and even opened some drive-thru locations, it’s also parent to buffet chain Pizza Inn. And buffets most certainly do not offer the kind of experience that is safe from coronavirus.
“It went from, ‘How do we focus on this channel?,’ to, ‘Hey, this could be our exclusive only channel,’ to, ‘Some locations are not even allowed by the local governments to operate,’” says RAVE CEO Brandon Solano of looking into off-premises over the course of the outbreak.
Solano says RAVE is ramping up its partnerships with third-party delivery services to expand the opportunities for customers to access Pie Five and Pizza Inn.
But the company also came up with a creative solution for Pizza Inn: curbside buffet.
“Come on up to the buffet and we’ll serve you,” Solano says. “We’re also giving each individual customer their own spatula to get their pizza off the buffet. Then we put them in the dirty dishes when they’re done.”
He adds that some Pizza Inn locations have temporarily closed due to the pandemic, but his goal now is to keep the restaurants open through the downturn, no matter how long it lasts. He says the company is trying not to over-communicate its strategies to customers, because he’s afraid that all the communication will have the opposite effect and make guests more afraid.
While Solano says the last week-and-a-half “has been hell,” he’s also confident that the restaurant industry can bounce back quickly after the pandemic has bottomed out. The industry is an essential part of the nation’s food supply, he points out, and not only are Americans loyal to their local restaurants, but restaurant are also dedicated to service with a smile.
“We like serving. We have grit. We are resilient as hell,” Solano says. “Of all the industries and all the things going on, I’ll bet on the restaurant industry. We’re resilient and we’re relentless. … We’re not going to let this thing beat us.”
As a bit of encouragement to other restaurant operators, Solano points to his time with Domino’s and how that company survived its own crisis. He joined the company in January 2008, just as the economy was going over a cliff and the nation entered the Great Recession. Some 2,000 Domino’s locations were losing money, he says, and the stock price fell to $3.
But instead of panicking, then-president J. Patrick Doyle kept the restaurants open, assured the franchisees, and navigated the company through turbulent times. Doyle and Solano were instrumental in leading Domino’s through one of the most impressive restaurant turnaround stories in history, and today, Domino’s trades at over $300 on the stock market (even despite the recent market troubles).
“There will be brighter days ahead. … We’re going to stay open, and we’re going to make it today, we’re going to make it tomorrow, and we’ll make it this week, and we’ll put a month behind us and two and three and six,” Solano says. “When that’s over, consumers will come out of this. Things may be different. But we’ll weather this and we will thrive because that’s what we do.”
For more on RAVE’s strategy and Solano’s advice for getting through the coronavirus crisis, stream the podcast above.