If you are a true restaurant person, and you know who you are … you might actually have welcomed the frenetic and wild creativity that was important in the omni-crisis called 2020. Although we aren’t out of the woods with COVID 19, our team was responsive and deliberate in its work to get PIADA moving in the right direction.

As a team, we always focused on building a strong foundation. The foundation is the most important part of the structure. Why? It matters because all that comes after stands on fundamentals that were laid methodically and with precision—the work we did pre-pandemic paid us back when the crisis hit.

By having well-functioning, purposeful departmental, inter-departmental and one-on-one meetings weekly, we learned responsibility and accountability, as well as how to stay engaged with each other while working on complex issues. Here are eight essential learnings from the Piada team:

Lean into your full team. Piada has intentionally built a strong culture of Trust and Communication. Our company is not about seasoned, high-skilled executives; we are guided by a gritty team of absolute beasts, who know how to leverage maximum creativity and ingenuity and respond rapidly when circumstances change. What was most important – we all were aligned and pulling in the same direction.

We played the hand we were dealt. We did a business analysis on what we (thought) we knew, what we were all feeling, and then looked at a way for Piada to fill the state of our guests’ needs at that moment. We knew Fast Casual would be well positioned to translate in the moment, because of the travelability of the food and adoption of food delivery with guests.

We pushed fast where we could. It is said that Hell has a special place for the undecided. We knew guests were unsure and apprehensive about going out of their home and making decisions to respond needed to happen quickly. We had been beta-testing curbside in a few stores, so we jumped in and rolled it out in four weeks to the entire system, communicating with our regional chefs and partners on wins and opportunities.

We respected the past but weren’t bound by it. Once upon a time we were apprehensive about going all in on delivery, and yet it suddenly it was our lifeline. How do you move it all from one small station? Simple, as our dining rooms were closed, we closed the to-go areas, and moved all the to-go food off the front line. This allowed us to increase throughput by 200% and minimize staffing, helping with team member social distancing and allowing us to build A and B teams for contact tracing.

Innovation wasn’t about the food. We focused keeping as many of our menu items as possible, but instead we turned to assuring excellence on delivery, grab and go, curbside delivery and window pick up in the locations that have it. The teams focused on operational and procedural tweaks to meet the guests where they were comfortable engaging with us and providing them with delicious, familiar food.

We spoke to emotional needs for the guest, and that meant fully addressing safety. There was one week that the chef and purchasing team spent 60 hours on the phones looking for PPE for the restaurants. This was a challenge, as one day it was secured, but then the next it was not available. We knew we couldn’t merely be “lip-service” about safety, we had to live it in our days.

We let people know we were open and ready to serve them. We spent as much in paid ads as we could possibly do, and we offered some very large discounts that drove early awareness of Piada locations being open in the first six weeks. It was a large risk to discount when sales were at an all-time low, but we felt like we were fighting for every guest who we could attract. 

We recognized when people were giving their all. Doing right by our guests meant caring for our teams. The pandemic was as much an internal one as an external one. And while we always can be better with this, we all have been working very hard to keep the guest happy. We recognized that this began with treating our teams with the same genuine hospitality, so that they are more likely to pass it along to the guests.

There are dozens of lessons in a restaurant company’s pandemic response – and we’re still identifying new ways to innovate. But at the heart of what we do is focusing on supporting people – both those on our team and those we serve—that’s the foundation that matters most.

Matt Harding is SVP of Culinary and Menu Innovation at Piada Italian Street Food.

Fast Casual, Outside Insights, Story, Piada Italian Street Food