Organic Krush Eatery didn’t wait for anybody to blaze the trail. The six-unit brand, with five locations in New York, pivoted to pickup and delivery-only before Starbucks did in mid-March. It provided free PPE ahead of mandates. The company increased employee benefits and boosted hourly rates by $2 before it became a widespread practice.

Additionally, Organic Krush Eatery gave its managers four-day work weeks, introduced COVID-19 contact tracing, and planted an executive in each store to prevent cross contamination. Employees received free meals and cold-pressed juices to boost immunity, too.

After curbing expenses, just like countless restaurants, Organic Krush Eatery is poised to grow again, with three stores (two in Connecticut and one in Stony Brook, New York) on deck. It also launched an app recently and created a meal plan; brought touch-free pay devices to stores, Plexiglas screens, and HEPA filters.

To put it plainly, Organic Krush Eatery’s pandemic response was never restricted by the company’s size. If anything, it allowed founders Michelle Walrath and Fran Paniccia, who created the lifestyle eatery in 2014, to remain nimble week-to-week as the hits kept coming.

Walrath chatted with QSR about the brand’s response and employee-first direction, and what’s still to come on the other side.

First, tell us a little bit about the brand. How it was founded, how far it’s come. 

Six years ago, my partner Fran Paniccia and I were traveling around the East Coast, bringing our teen daughters to various concerts (Taylor Swift and One Direction were hot tickets that summer; awesome concerts even for moms!) Since we were always cooking for them at home, we didn’t realize how hard it would be to feed them well while we were on the road. It was really important to us that they eat chicken that was free of hormones, salads that were not laden with pesticides and French fries not cooked in GMO-oils. On the way home from one of these trips, hungry and maybe a little cranky, we had a moment where we said, well if it doesn’t exist, we should just do it ourselves—build a restaurant that only serves the type of food we would feed our families; food that is free of GMO’s, pesticides, food dyes, and fake ingredients.

Little did we know what we were getting into, but ignorance truly is bliss, and we decided just to go for it. Eight months later, partnering with Chef James Tchinnis of Swallow Restaurant in Montauk, we opened our doors in May 2015, at our first location in Woodbury, Long Island. The community came out in such support and in about a year we had a thriving business with like-minded customers, who only wanted to eat food that nourished at a deep level, and made them feel amazing upon eating it.

Take us back to the early days of COVID-19. What were Organic Krush’s first response steps? Talk specifically about the employee side.

We saw the writing on the wall late February and early March. We knew as little about this as everyone else, so we got our small, but talented executive team together and started daily meetings at 8 a.m. We actually kept a diary and also created a “lessons learned” document. We brainstormed ways of keeping our crew and leaders safe. First of all, we decided to fight to stay open and keep our people employed. That was our mission. Then we got to work. We re-forecasted the entire year financially and trimmed our expenses where possible. We agreed to close the home office, separate all executives and assign each to one store so we would not cross contaminate and if one of us would be at risk, we could keep going.

In the first week of March we had a full response plan in place that did evolve every day as news changed by the day, as you may very well remember. We immediately started to communicate with crew and guests on what we were doing to prepare through blog posts, emails and phone calls—in fact we went to take out and delivery only before larger chains did. We shared ways with our crew to boost immunity, to stay at a safe distance from guests and other crew. As our sales dropped as much as 80 percent, we kept our people’s pay whole. We provided free PPE before most did. We provided free cold pressed juice and a meal every day to boost immunity. We implemented a paid sick leave policy before it was mandated.  We provided flexible schedules through our scheduling app and worked around all uncertainty to provide our crew with a sense of security. 

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Organic Krush provided increased benefits and boosted hourly rates by $2 per hour, and was among the first to do so. What inspired the decision, and how was it received and implemented? How did you handle staffing? Did the company need to furlough workers?

As mentioned, we decided to fight to stay open. We knew that how we would handle this crisis would define us when come out. We saw this as an opportunity, but also felt we could help our crew and guests through this through health and wellness. Also, our people are at the core of what we do. They know our guests by name and are what makes up our tribe! We asked who would prefer not to work during this crisis and several part timers volunteered to take time off so we could redistribute those hours. Most of those have returned today. We stopped scheduling crew at multiple locations, so everyone got a “home store.” We created four-day work weeks for managers and consecutive days off for stability and quality time with family. We also did a weekly photo contest where our crew and their families could submit pictures of “best home cooked meal,” or “fighting boredom,” “how you stay fit,” and “me and my pet.”

The top three got picked every week by executive team and received an Amazon Gift-card in the mail. Our leadership team and hourly crew were very happy and thankful about how this has been handled and we know we grew our relationship because of this with crew and guests.

What were some other examples of support, such as four-day work weeks and free meals?  

The four-day work week was a way to provide balance for our crew, so that they could take the other three days to be proactively healthy: be with their families, cook healthy food, do their errands, get great sleep. Free meals are always a part of our crew’s day, but during COVID we added in a free cold pressed juice and wellness shot, in order to amplify the amount of nutrients they were taking in; when you flood your system with vitamin C and ginger and greens, for example, viruses have much less of a chance of staying alive; those nutrients enhance the immune reaction and help stave off illness. We also encouraged walk breaks in the sunshine (vitamin D is a huge immune strengthener) and we sent out weekly newsletters sharing bit and pieces of health coaching and lifestyle advice.

Also, elaborate on the COVID contact tracing and decision to plant one executive in each store to not cross contaminate. 

When we realized in early March that this virus might be here to stay for a while, we wanted to ensure support at all the stores. Each executive, from HR to Ops to Owners to Construction, took a restaurant and made it their own; this helped with communication and morale, and allowed us to be separate from each other (usually we meet daily but rotate among all the stores), so that should one of us get sick we would not affect another location. Did I mention we never once closed, not even for a day? 

What are some other ways the brand cut costs to stay afloat? 

We unplugged appliances that weren’t being used, turned off excess lighting (customers weren’t coming into stores), limited trash pick-ups, re-negotiated some contracts and monthly expenses, managed food costs very closely, and cut hours of operations by a couple hours. We also started other ways of generating revenues through hospital meal delivery, grocery delivery and delivering “survival kits.”

How has COVID inspired recent innovation? It sounds like the brand was an early adopter of some now common lifelines, like HEPA filters and touch-free pay devices. 

COVID inspired an even greater level of team work and communication. We had a daily ops call at 8 a.m. each day, discussing what we were reading and seeing as the most effective ways to manage a virus and person to person interactions. Viruses have always been around, and will continue to be around, and Krush has always placed a high emphasis on the ground rules of sanitation: hand washing, table and chair wipe downs, open doors for air circulation, and encouraging our crews to take great care of their health via clean food, sunshine, vitamin supplements, and sleep. Definitely things like HEPA filters and touchless pay will stay around, as they enhance the customer experience. We are also working on an exciting new APP that launches this fall. But overall, the fundamentals of health are what get us excited to be contributing to our crew’s lives and our guests’ lives.

What enabled Organic Krush to remain nimble and stay ahead of the curve?  

You’ve never met a team like ours—compassionate, experienced, thoughtful, great listeners, true team players. We are open with each other, and share what we know and what we are learning on a daily basis.

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Just generally speaking as a restaurant owner during this time, how do you sort out all the mixed messaging when it comes to safety protocols and what steps to take? How have some of these decisions been influenced by customers? Employees?   

Communication among our exec team and among our crew is critical, hearing out different opinions and then making the best decisions that day. We are nimble, and we encourage flexibility (and optimism) as job strengths. The common goal we all had was to do right by our staff’s health, and also create a great guest experience during a very stressful time in society.

Do you have a process in place in case an employee tests positive? 

Our executive team has had a process in place since second week of March. We had (and still have) a confidential illness tracker created by our VP of HR. We would do symptom checks (and still do) and when someone was not feeling well or showed the slightest symptom, they would be sent home to go see a doctor and get tested. If they tested positive or were recommended to isolate, they would get two weeks paid sick time. If they tested negative, they would get paid for time missed and be welcome back at work. This still holds true of course. We had contact tracing in place as early as the second week of March. We do symptom checks every day, take temperatures, ask questions and track it. We now even have Plexiglas screens where you order, implemented touch-free pay devices, installed HEPA filters in every store and every hour do “line drills” where we set an alarm. When it goes off we all stop what we are doing, sanitize counters, door handles, bathrooms, tables, wash hands, fresh sanitizer buckets and change gloves.

Are your dining rooms open? 

Yes—since mid-June! And our patios are in full swing too, tables are 6 feet apart, and we have a great system for safely re-setting tables as they turn over. You can even call your neighborhood store and make a reservation should you want to be guaranteed a place to hang out and enjoy your family and friends for extended time.

Health-forward brands and especially those with immunity boosting products have proven popular during the health crisis. Have you seen a boost in demand?  

Yes, because people so thoughtfully came out to support us, and they also wanted to feel great, mentally and physically, during such a stressful time; it’s no secret that cold pressed juices and immunity teas and clean food contributes to an amazing mind-body feeling. Now, we just have to spread that to more and more communities around our country; organic food heals and energizes, and everyone deserves access to that level of nourishment.

When guests approached our doors or phoned in during COVID, they were greeted with air hugs and air high-fives. We are in five different communities on Long Island, and one in Richmond, Virginia, and our underlying mission is to be the most delicious eatery serving food with the greatest love. It’s so easy to do because our guests are awesome, caring about what we care about, generating a higher level of health one community at a time.

What does Organic Krush’s growth trajectory look like today?  

We plan to open three locations in the next year. In the next five years, we will be in a few more cities and have 20-plus locations in the tri-state.

Do you see some opportunity on the other side of COVID? 

Boosting health ALWAYS. Food should always feel good when you eat it, never hurt, never disrupt. We will continue to spread the word about clean eating and continue to be creative as to how to adapt to changing environments. Connecting with organic farmers and even functional medicine practitioners go hand in hand on the journey people are taking to own their own health story. Organic Krush can be the bonding ground for our guests, crews, and all the amazing people out there growing organic food and helping people feel well.

Are there changes, like contact less payment, from COVID you see sticking? 

Yes—it improves the guest experience. Also, flexibility with guest, running food out to their cars, providing more space to dine, and even more diligent sanitation procedures are here to stay! And digital/off premise sales are here to stay. We implemented EMV devices that allow touch free payment, but we also enhanced online ordering, you can buy gift cards online now, and we have an amazing new APP in the works that will launch soon. Through this app you can order delivery, take out, but also dine in. We have enhanced our loyalty program for more and better rewards as well and behind the scenes have implemented digital ways to keep track on sanitation. 

Broadly, what might end up being the biggest lesson for restaurants to come out of the crisis?  

Communicate, adapt (daily if needed), find the positives! Not new theories, but guiding forces for us as we navigated dark times.

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