Like most restaurant industry executives, Christine Specht had no plan in place for the crisis that resulted from the coronavirus outbreak. The Cousins Subs CEO says the Wisconsin-based sandwich chain prepares for things like class-action lawsuits and sales downturns of, say, 5–7 percent—not sales dives of 30 percent like the company has seen the last couple of weeks.
Still, Specht says she was prepared to act because she knew her team well, and she knew their strengths.
“For example, who likes process, who likes clear communication,” Specht says. “As I think about my leadership team and creative decision making and creative budgeting, I’m really seeing the strengths of my leadership team that I knew they possessed, but now they’re really on fire for it.”
Communication in particular has been a huge priority for Specht and Cousins—both communication to guests and communication to franchisees.
For guests, Specht says, the company is reminding them that Cousins is open for business, whether through drive thru, curbside pickup, or delivery. And it’s pushing incentives through its loyalty program in an effort to drive sales.
“What we’re trying to do is just communicate clearly and effectively and regularly—probably more so than we typically would in the past,” she says. “There is so much information coming at people that we know some people are just going to check out. So we want to make sure that our emails to our guests aren’t getting missed, because they’ve probably been bombarded.”
For its franchisees, store operators, and other team members, Cousins is relying on president Jason Westhoff to communicate all necessary information. Specht says Westhoff is communicating any operational changes to the system, as well as relaying any government regulations that might affect operators.
She adds that communications have been very transparent and straightforward. By keeping Westhoff the main communicator, Specht says, Cousins ensures that the whole system will know that any email they receive from him is an important update that is not to be missed.
“When our franchisees or store operators may hear something in the news, they’re going to hold tight because they’ll know that there’s going to be communication with more detail coming out from Jason,” she says.
Cousins Subs underwent a brand evolution a few years ago that included not only design and service upgrades, but also a uniform POS system and total alignment across the company’s back end. Specht says this allowed the brand to more easily adjust business operations when COVID-19 struck, like rolling out curbside pickup at locations that did not have a drive thru.
“I’m glad that we had the foresight to do it for the right reasons, but now that we have this situation, it makes it that much more impactful,” she says.
While it’s impossible to know how long coronavirus will have an impact on industry sales, Specht says there is plenty that restaurant operators can learn from the crisis in the meantime. For example, it forces everyone to look at how their stores are operating and to make adjustments where necessary. It also is revealing a lot about company culture and communication, she says, particularly for franchised systems that depend upon individual franchisees to drive guests in the doors (or around the drive thru or to the curbside).
She adds that Cousins is learning how to have a plan in place in the event of another major crisis.
“Do we have backups who can take over in the event that we lose half the labor? Are there backups to the backups? What do those plans look like?” she says. “While not everything can be executed according to a perfect plan, we can look at things differently.”
For more from Specht on how franchise brands can adapt to the growing crisis and communicate any changes throughout their systems, stream the podcast above.