When sales rebounded, Reader says, PDQ met with its investors and partners and stressed the employee need. It also prioritized not raising prices, if possible, and placing emphasis on quantity and quality so PDQ would not appear like it cut back during COVID. Reward the guest, Reader says, instead of asking them to compromise.
This was an important notion on multiple levels. Another reason PDQ’s sales are lifting above pre-virus levels is that COVID offered it a chance to welcome back a lot of lapsed users, or greet new ones. If for no other reason than the fact PDQ’s drive-thru was open at a time when many competitors were not.
This allowed PDQ to make a first impression Reader wanted to ensure lasted beyond quarantine times. A Spicy Chicken Sandwich and new nuggets—buttermilk marinated with a spicy breading—LTO arrived in February. As did a Cap’n Crunch Berry Shake. This kind of innovation is going to continue.
Additionally, while growth paused in 2020, PDQ did manage to open a few units. And Reader says they’re actively out looking for sites, with a plan to reignite the pipeline this year and next, which would signal growth come 2022–2023.
However, much of that future-look is dependent on market conditions and what truly unfolds in the wake of closures. Whether speculation drives prices up or available real estate fuels a resurgence. Especially with already high-occupancy drive-thrus, it’s a process with plenty of variables, Reader says.
“At the onset of COVID, we didn’t know what was going to happen. So we said, let’s focus on what we know versus what we don’t know,” Reader says.
And once more, that led PQD to its people and its customers.
Generally, Reader says quick-serves need to embrace the high-turnover reality of running a seasonal, cyclical business. It’s a transient workforce. Labor comes from students, athletes, people looking for second jobs.
Yet still, retention, even in relative terms compared to other industries, needs to rise to the top of brands’ priority lists, Reader says. “If you don’t lose good employees, hopefully you don’t have to hire people,” he says. In which case, perhaps you’re not incentivizing prospective employees with everything from iPhones to cash.
PDQ has fostered word-of-mouth referrals through people-first practices. For instance, it’s thrown graduation parties at stores for employees getting out of school. One worker even got married in a location recently.
“For us, it’s always been a focus on retention,” he says. “Even with everything going on, we had, by about 40 percent, our best retention percentage we’ve had as a company, even through [COVID].”
Reader says employers often get caught up in the timeline. “You don’t need to be a career PDQ person for that to be a success in our system,” he says.
There’s an employee in Sarasota, Reader says, who created a music technology he hopes to scale. PDQ worked with him on a business plan. If all goes accordingly, Reader knows this employee won’t stay at PDQ much longer. “We think that’s a big part of us and trying to be our culture … is trying to better yourself. That’s something we’re always trying to challenge our team members with. What are your goals? Share them with us. And we won’t take offense if it’s not working with us forever. But let’s talk about it.”
At the corporate level, Reader does this, too. If somebody, hourly or otherwise, wants to work in marketing or real estate, the brand will offer them a paid day to come and shadow PDQ execs at the home office.
Reader says he tries to meet with management teams every quarter. He’ll ask, “who are two or three people you can’t live without. And what can I do?”
“I don’t introduce myself to say I’m the boss. It’s more to get to know the people and understand their pain points and goals in life,” Reader says. “If they don’t feel like they’re valued, we can learn a ton from that.”
“I start with the insight that we’re big enough now that we have a footprint but we’re still small enough that I can attack at least every market, every quarter,” Reader says. “And set up a dinner with team members.”
During COVID, Reader didn’t hesitate to walk this walk. He didn’t feel right, he says, asking employees to operate from the trenches and take risks while he stayed at home. “I thought it was important that we didn’t have this wall between restaurant and home office employees,” he says.
Reader held weekly Zoom calls with every manager. Anybody could dial in. “I answered every question,” Reader says.
“The teams that win championships, they play for each other, not with each other,” Reader says.