Going forward, one of the key turnaround initiatives will be investment in delivery, a sales channel that is relatively new for the brand. But the runway for growth is there; digital ordering and delivery at Cicis has grown 300 percent faster than dine-in traffic since 2014, according to bankruptcy court documents.
D&G will also look to fix the footprint, which has shrunk rapidly in the past dozen years. In 2009, the chain operated roughly 650 stores in 33 states. At the beginning of 2020, Cicis had 395 stores, and when the chain declared bankruptcy this January, it was down to 307. As of March, the brand is now slightly under 300 units, which means roughly 100 stores have closed in a little over a year.
“Most, if not all brands at some point have to go through some closures, and it's not any different for us,” Dharod says. “We had some challenges with leases that were expensive or neighborhoods that now have moved away from where they were at one time. So just different things have come to this, and I feel like out of those 100 units, maybe there are some that if the landlords and us work together, we should be able to reopen.”
Dharod says many franchisees have been in the system for a long time, and that they’re committed to the brand—two much-needed qualities to drive franchise growth. From D&G’s perspective, its role is to help franchisees improve their bottom line. For instance, if one franchisee is spending 30 percent on food costs and another is spending 25 percent, the question is where is that 5 percent going? The company wants to help franchisees understand and resolve those types of issues, in addition to labor costs or lease agreements.
Once operators make more money, expansion will soon follow, Dharod says.
“That’s our strength, because as operators we understand where things can be saved or whether quality could be improved without additional expenses, and so on,” Dharod says. “And the brand used to do a lot of that a few years back. So some of it is just going back and reaching out into our drawers and doing things the way it was done before.”
Throughout the pandemic, Cicis has adhered to strict sanitation standards—a particularly vital investment, considering the stigma around buffets. Locations have increased frequency of disinfecting procedures, made hand sanitizer available for customers and workers at registers and sinks, required all employees to use PPE, installed plexiglass guards at registers, and placed social distancing markers throughout the interior and exterior space.
To adjust to COVID times, Cicis covered the buffet with glass partitions, and food is served by employees—a method that’s resulted in a 100 basis point improvement in food costs. Dharod believes that practice, as well as the upgraded safety protocols, will continue in most places.
Cicis isn’t the only buffet that’s struggled. Garden Fresh Restaurants, which operated Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, dissolved last spring and shut down all 97 of its stores. In October, Golden Corral’s largest franchisee, 1069 Restaurant Group, declared bankruptcy with $49.7 million in unsecured debt.
Despite the challenging environment, Dharod feels Cicis will reach positive growth when the pandemic subsidies. He adds that the company is financially strong and able to ride anything that may come up in the future.
“So if things are not right, we can slow things down and take a step back and regroup and move forward,” Dharod says. “Or if things are going great, we just get aggressive and continue to move forward.”