Running multiple barbecue concepts isn’t easy in the best of times. It’s a labor intensive, delicate operation that has historically been one of the most difficult segments to scale. Preferences change by zip code. Predicting supply on low-and-slow mantra is problematic. Trying to maintain consistency and technique requires an even and constant hand. A lot can go wrong smoking brisket for 10 hours versus flipping burgers.

Now imagine doing so across four southern states, each with their own restrictions and reopening guidelines; a national beef shortage; employees who aren’t sure returning to work is even safe anymore.

Nashville-based pitmaster Pat Martin has earned national attention and acclaim over his career, with appearances on the Food Network, Travel Channel, Cooking Channel, CNN, and The Today Show. He began with Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint on Nolensville Road in the Music City and quickly developed a cult following from his West Tennessee whole-hog barbecue.

Martin’s mission to preserve the art led him to open restaurants across the Southeast, developing a pitmaster apprenticeship in each of his locations to make sure the talent pipeline remained strong. Each of his units cooks whole hogs daily, working with heritage-breed animals, and serving food until they run out. But even that heartbeat of Martin’s style has had to change due to COVID-19, as you’ll read below.

Three years ago, Martin opened Hugh-Baby’s BBQ & Burger Shop in Nashville and has debuted three since. Today, there are 10 Martin’s Bar-B-Ques, including venues in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, and South Carolina.

Martin chatted with QSR about his restaurants’ journey, which are all counter service, with pandemic conditions to date. And how he’s fought every step to keep the barbecue dream alive.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the COVID crisis, which feels 10 years ago. Was there a point when you realized this was going to be a major crisis? Do you remember what those early conversations were like?

We had our spring break trip to the Bahamas canceled and I realized that things were changing rapidly. When I started worrying about changing my own trip and cancelling travel, I knew that meant that people can’t travel here, and within a 10-day span it was like the business literally just dove right off a cliff. All of my restaurants are in neighborhood communities except for our downtown Nashville location, which was the real bellwether for me in the way of what was happening on a national level. Conventions were being cancelled, even March Madness was cancelled, and those were all big things that just don’t happen. That was the point, a sobering moment I hit, thinking “what are we going to do?” From there, I stated putting my plan together on how to pivot and adjust as best I could.

Within a week we were talking about furloughing staff. Everyone was in quarantine and we didn’t know if we were going to be able to stay open for off-premise dining or not. They announced overnight that restaurants would operate off-premise only and our business instantly dropped 60 percent. Martin’s and Hugh Baby’s were doing off-premise traditionally because it’s fast casual, tried and true.

Two big things happened then. I had to figure out how to go from doing 30 percent of what I was selling in off-premise to 100 percent, which has a huge impact on labor and facilities. We have drive-thrus at both concepts and that became a paramount focus for us when it came to consistency and speed. We couldn’t afford to make mistakes. It forced me to get back into the day-to-day of my operations. I put on an apron at each location and re-racked my model. Coupled with that challenge was the realization that I was going to have to painfully let several hundred employees go. That’s a horrible thing, because if you’re ever in a situation in “normal” life (pre-COVID) and you have to let a couple of good employees go because the restaurant is slow, that’s really painful. Put a couple of zeros on that number and it’s horrific. It’s gutting.

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What were some out-of-the-gate changes you made?

I tried to focus on any possible way I could to get my food in a customer’s hands. I would have looked at anything. We had to get really good at drive-thru. We had to be perfect. A drive-thru seems like common sense but a lot of people miss the point. We had to get our ticket times down to get people through the line. Adjusting the facilities for this new business model was one of the biggest changes. Our restaurant went from looking like a kitchen with dining room to a kitchen with a storage unit. You don’t realize how much space bags, clam shells, aluminum pans, etc., take up.

The biggest change, though, was that I had to completely re-engineer my labor model. Any time you have declining sales—whether it’s a normal seasonal dip or because of a once-in-a-century pandemic—the operators are supposed to manage those metrics. Just because you go down in sales, you can’t have a sloppy cost of goods. An operator’s job is to manage the metrics whether the sales are great or not. Just because they’ve dipped doesn’t mean you abandon that. There’s never an excuse to not manage the environment of your sales. Food and supply are mostly contracted—I knew when this hit that it would eventually affect the supply chain. The biggest adjustment was labor—even with furloughs we were down to just managers with cut salaries. I shoot for 23.5 percent all in labor and I had to re-engineer my labor model so I could operate on that metric. It took me three and a half weeks, but I got there.

Talk about the unique challenge of being a multi-state operator during a pandemic like this? How did you stay on top of all the different moving parts, from various regulations to shifting consumer behavior?

First thing we did was we got in our car a lot more often to be present in each store. Almost daily there was a new set of rules of the game and we just had to adjust accordingly. We had to take into consideration what was happening in each city, county, and state. Williamson County versus Davidson County in Tennessee was a challenge—the customer bases in those two counties are pretty different when it comes to political opinion. Politics definitely play a part in this and there are extreme camps on each side. It’s still a little bit like that. We had to re-rack and add several layers of training to the customer service part of it. Conversations slow things down, and we had to equip our hourly employees with the tools to handle people who are ticked they have to follow the rules, as well as the people who are mad people aren’t wearing their masks at the table.

The phases are ever changing in each city. Governors and mayors aren’t on the same page. These are difficult waters to sail through. I guess we’ve become numb and adjusted to the fact that we’re operating on a week-to-week basis on what the rules of the game are, so I have a policy for each phase. That’s what I’ve found to be the most effective way to lead the company. We’re in phase 2 in Nashville, so I want you to wear a mask until you get to your table. Once we get to Phase 3 you still need to wear a mask, we just get to have more of you in the restaurant.

The thing about this—a lot of things have hurt us—but every restaurateur is on the defensive, on their heels, reacting. We still can’t get on our toes since everything is reactionary. You’re danged if you do, danged if you don’t.

Jimmy John's Customers Dine At The Restaurant

How did you approach the reopening process, especially having a heavy Southern footprint? Every state was going at different speeds. Did you dive in once you could, or take a different approach?

We never had to close except for the downtown Nashville Martin’s and one Hugh Baby’s location. We were always open, just adjusting daily or weekly. Right at the beginning, in the first three weeks re-racking labor and facilities, was the macro part of it. From March to mid-April, were big, utterly giant changes in how we operate our business. Getting curbside, drive-thru, third party delivery right. Once we figured that out, micro adjustments started happening in April when cities and states were all going in different directions, that is still happening. Since then, it’s all different. It’s all reactionary. Every decision I’ve made is to keep my employees safe first, and then my guests, and to be part of the solution, and the solution is for everyone to stop politicizing this and get on board. We would be in a much better place than we are right now—our businesses would slowly be becoming healthier.

What are some challenges specific to barbecue in this kind of environment? Naturally, it’s generally a time-intensive process compared to, say, burgers. And brands have historically struggled to scale because of regional preference and difficultly predicting supply. What has that looked like during COVID?

The biggest thing that affected me was whole hog cooking, that was the gut punch. We had to go to cooking half hogs and at a few locations, or just shoulders, because we didn’t have the guest count needed to exhaust it. I don’t like cooking half hogs—it’s more of a romantic preference than quality. I don’t just reheat stuff until I’ve gotten rid of it, I sell it that way and that’s it. My cooking philosophy didn’t change because of the pandemic. When you start getting desperate and passing those inefficiencies to guests, that’s cancerous. But my hog farmers felt it, and then you get into supply chain issues. We buy from 21 hog farmers who’ve got hogs on the ground and I didn’t have an answer for them.

The other stuff really isn’t an issue because we are very, very analytical on using simple math to calculate how much to produce for each day. People’s retail habits are very consistent through days of the week and seasonality. Monday is a Monday; Saturday is a Saturday. We had to take a month to re-rack the trends and figure out what the volumes were.

How did you navigate the national beef shortage?

The beef shortage is something that I felt. I knew this was a supply chain issue and I knew it might last a while but wouldn’t be permanent. My background in fixed income and macroeconomics gave me enough sense that this was going to be shorter rather than longer in nature, and that supply and demand would end up correcting themselves. The last thing I want to do is pass the price on to guests, so we ate it and we didn’t raise the price. It hurt. But it was short-lived, only about a month or 6 weeks.

It hurt especially at Hugh Baby’s—that was a rough couple of months there. But you know, Hugh Baby’s is back where it was, flat, year over year now so were able to make a little money there. Martin’s is at 65–70 percent of what we were pre-COVID. We’re not making money, but we’re not losing money. I’m thankful I am in [quick service] and fast casual. Folks in fine and casual dining aren’t doing as well.

Slutty Vegan Owner Pinky Cole Poses

Zero in on the labor part. What are some ways you took care of employees?

We had closed down the downtown Nashville store and we basically opened it back up as an employee restaurant. We cooked a couple meals every day for them and their families. We were pretty hamstrung outside of just feeding them what we could. And this can’t be underestimated—we were in constant communication with them, in constant contact checking on them. What I didn’t realize then but what I am hearing from them now, is what that meant to them. It really solidified the culture that we have at both brands. They had a sense of security that their job wasn’t going away, that we were all in this together and we just had to get through it. My salaried managers took a cut, but my crew labor did not.

What is the status of your restaurants today? Have you noticed any disruption from recent case spikes?

At first, yes, but not recently. There was a time in May and early June, that if there was a restaurant with an employee that tested positive, there was rumor mongering and people blackballed the restaurant because they were too afraid to go in. Now they have this whole new industry of fogging restaurants when that happens, and you can reopen in a couple of hours. I think too that now people are so accustomed to it. They know they’re walking around people who have it every day. We’ve been very transparent about how we manage spikes or if an employee positive. We shut the dining room down and test all employees before reopening.

How have you approached staffing levels with re-openings? And did you apply for a PPP loan or other aid?

A couple of the businesses loans I applied for, but several of them I didn’t. The problem with PPP was that they were also changing the parameters daily. A lot of people were scared because they didn’t know exactly what they were signing up for. The banks didn’t know and couldn’t answer your questions. The fund has been very helpful especially for the hospitality industry, but we need more help. The RESTAURANTS Act of 2020 would help. We really need for it to go through.

We didn’t have to close and reopen, so ours was more of an evolution. I mentioned the labor model I hold to with staffing at any point—you staff according to your business. We started bringing our crew back as sales went back up.

What are some changes and safety protocols you’ve implemented?

There are a lot. We are actively trying to figure out how we can have a guest in the restaurant without touching anything, and that will be permanent. The obvious—masks, hand sanitizer, plexiglass, cleaning surfaces after a table is turned over—everyone is doing that. We are staffing employees at the front door so you, as a guest, don’t have to touch it to open it. Clearly all of the outdoor dining is important to note, that getting people to where they can eat outside—on our patio, on the hood of their car, wherever—is part of the insurance policy of preventing it. Spacing tables of course. We took all of our architectural plans and re-racked our dining rooms, getting the max number of tables in while maintaining 6 feet of distance and we were hard about that.

Our biggest hurdle right now is dealing with the flat cooks and fry cooks. We’re having to swap those guys out and double staff to allow for breaks because of the masks. We have extra masks for them, but the grease getting in there makes breathing harder and harder over time. That’s something we haven’t found a solution to yet.

Are there some changes you think will stay post-COVID? Are there others you think will drop off?

Some of the changes that stick won’t be mandated, they’ll be how we prefer to live as consumers. I think we will definitely have far more cleaning. I think we will see architectural changes to create buildings with smaller footprints and people will allocate for more outside dinning. If you wanted 4,000 square feet of space before, you’ll be able to get away with 2,500-3,000 or 50 to 75 percent of the size. It will be a cheaper cost of entry going into the restaurant business. There will also be a real effect on technology for innovation. You don’t hear about it as much as a vaccine or preventative measures like masks and sanitizing surfaces, but there’s change happening in the re-engineering of ventilation and air filtration.

I think the service model will change drastically. When fast casual was 70/30, I think it will become more 50/50 and I think quick service will become 80/20 and heavily weighted to allow for curbside and drive-thru. I think we will see real changes in third party platform delivery. Right now, they can charge whatever they want, but in-house delivery is coming because people don’t want to pay those markups that get passed along to the guest. The platforms will have to figure out a better set of economics for the operators. For a long time, delivery platforms that wouldn’t allow you to mark up your menu prices, you ate it. That’s gone.

Concepts that rely on buffet will be gone or have a serious dent until we can get robotics that can do that service. The open-air dining component is the positive perm change that comes out of this. You’re going to see a lot more open air al fresco dining because what we know now is that enclosed spaces—even with ventilation—are not as good as being outside.

Just generally, what would you say will be the biggest opportunity for restaurants on the other side of this?

There is going to be a lot of real estate available in regard to purchasing and leasing that you may have never had in main locations. The chains are going to pounce on those, but there will still be a lot of opportunities with that. There will be a big opportunity for us to be best in class in our communities, and competition with how we continue to learn how to pivot and how to get better and more efficient in giving you the same food. But people don’t go just for food. People don’t come here just because of Martin’s barbecue. It’s also the atmosphere. We’ve got to be able to bring that to people’s homes as best we can. A lot of people see this as a challenge, and they need to see it as an opportunity.

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