“As part of the rebranding, we were making concerted efforts to make sure we're putting ourselves in end caps or freestanding buildings with drive-thrus,” Westhoff says. “Moving forward, we won't do anything without a drive-thru anymore unless there's a real good reason to do it. Certainly, there are options where that does make sense.”
The million-dollar question, Westhoff says, is how to retain all those customers who tried Cousins Subs for the first time during the pandemic. He knows it’ll be a difficult task as more restaurants reopen and customers have more choices. Part of that is solved by offering a unique product. Cousins Subs’ menu depth is quite steep compared to its sandwich competitors; the brand sells cheesesteaks, cheese curds, French fries, milkshakes, cookies, soup, and chili.
Westhoff is also aware customers are attracted to speed and accuracy. In Cousins Subs’ case, accuracy has remained the same while speed of service has slowed. He attributes that to the increased drive-thru volume, but suggests migrating customers to other channels like curbside, third-party delivery, and ordering inside may help with the volume.
“I think that will alleviate some of it, but at the end of the day, it's not going to change our need to continue to focus on that because no matter how many guests we have coming through the drive-thru, we still need to achieve our service times,” Westhoff says. “With accuracy, we have a complex menu when it comes to just a number of toppings, and that's continually a challenge of ours. And we're working with our POS partner to try and make sure that our ticketing system within the stores prints the easiest possible ticket for our sandwich makers.”
The other issue hanging over the chain’s head—and basically everyone else in the industry—is a labor crisis. Popular chains like Taco Bell and Firehouse Subs are holding job fairs to hire thousands of workers. Others are increasing benefits, like Chipotle, which is enhancing its debt-free college program to even include a culinary school option, and Whataburger, a legacy brand that’s promoting general managers and paying them six-figure salaries.
The good news for Cousins Subs is that it’s retaining employees at a higher rate than it ever has, especially after giving workers two bonuses, the company said. Still though, Westhoff estimates Cousins Subs is about 10 percent sort of its desired workforce. The employment situation is materially different from store to store, depending on the community, mandates, and how parents feel about their kids going to work.
“At a lot of restaurants, we rely heavily on 16, 17,18-year-old kids who are in high school to work jobs,” Westhoff says. “And as the pandemic kicked in, the majority of the parents have their kids stay home for obvious reasons. Now they're starting to come back. We'll see with school ending here whether or not we're able to recapture a lot of those high school kids that we've had in the past because they’re key to our success in our busiest months during the summer.”
Cousins Subs will host job fairs to actively recruit in markets that are hardest to staff. Westhoff hasn’t seen any issues on a major level, but he acknowledges the occasional franchisee has a harder time keeping and hiring employees. He says it’s few and far between, but he knows that doesn’t make it any better.
Westhoff also suspects the labor pool will improve once the $300 weekly enhancement to unemployment insurance comes to an end. President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan extended the benefits through the beginning of September.
“What I would say for the most part is either you're in an area where unemployment is an issue or it's not, and you’re feeling the exact same effect as everybody else around you,” Westhoff says. “So if we're in a place where we're short-staffed, so are our competitors.”