Shortly after COVID-19 first started to spread in the U.S., restaurants sprang into action by supporting first responders who were tasked with fighting the virus in hospitals across the country. But as the pandemic dragged on, it became apparent that there was a whole other population of frontline workers who needed support: employees in those same restaurants.

Between putting themselves at risk as essential workers, abiding by more stringent cleaning and safety protocols, and serving as mask police for customers coming into their stores, restaurant employees have had an exhausting and stressful year. Now, nearly a year after the coronavirus drastically altered American lifestyles, more restaurants are doubling down on supporting the emotional, mental, and financial health of their employees. 

MOD Pizza is one such brand that has especially focused its attention on its workforce. The company’s business response to COVID-19 reads as those of most other foodservice brands—it introduced new cleaning protocols, launched curbside service, expanded to several delivery platforms—but its approach to its employees was anything but standard. One of the reasons is that MOD already has a unique approach to its workforce; through its “impact hiring” platform, MOD employs many people who have been incarcerated or homeless, or who have a history of drug addiction or mental disability. 

“We employ a lot of people who otherwise have barriers to employment,” says Scott Svenson, CEO and cofounder of the Seattle-based company that has nearly 500 locations. “We have maybe more at-risk employees than the typical population of people in our industry, and so we focused very clearly on, how do we take care of them? And how do we make sure that we help them through these difficult times?”

The company pulled some levers that were common across the industry, such as paid sick leave for anyone who was exposed to or affected by COVID. From there, though, MOD took a more aggressive tack. For example, with its Squad meal program—which typically offers employees a free meal during their shift—MOD extended the offering to all employees and their families, and changed it so that they could come in at any time for a free meal. Svenson says that was done in order to ensure that employees wouldn’t go hungry, particularly at a time when many of them had their hours cut back because of COVID.

MOD also ramped up its Bridge Fund, an emergency relief fund that has been available to employees since the company launched in 2008. Svenson says that in the first nine months of the pandemic, MOD provided $600,000–$700,000 worth of relief to workers in need, in the form of $500–$2,000 grants.

All of it, Svenson says, was a matter of putting action to words, of supporting the culture MOD had preached since day one. “We talk a lot about, how does our culture come to life?” he says. “Given our beliefs and given the decisions we’re facing, how do we show up and make the right decisions to serve our values and our purpose—not the expedient short-term of cutting costs to try to minimize the financial impact of the pandemic? Of course, we had to be fiscally responsible, but we also needed to get behind and invest in our core mission and our core purpose. And I think that sends an incredibly important signal to the organization.”

READ MORE: How MOD Became the ‘People Place’ for Pizza

One less-discussed aspect of the pandemic has been mental health and providing for foodservice workers who are tired, anxious, stressed, or depressed. Svenson says that as the pandemic has progressed, MOD has leaned more into taking care of the mental needs of its 10,000-plus-member workforce, not just the physical and financial needs. To do that, the brand has relied upon its store-level culture, which is especially communicated through general managers.

“That’s something we pride ourselves on, is really creating that family feel where that general manager cares about their squad not just as employees, but as people, and has their back and is there to make sure that we’re a positive force in their life,” he says. “That’s incredibly important to how our squad feels.”

Because of the nature of MOD’s impact hiring program, it has many employees who are recovering addicts or dealing with substance abuse. Svenson says this became an “unexpected challenge” that the company needed to solve for, as these employees were suddenly without their support systems, such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, because of quarantine and stay-at-home orders.

“We had a very enterprising and caring member of our team help us stand up virtual support meetings where we hosted them—it wasn’t a MOD-sponsored event, there are a bunch of rules around these support organizations where we can’t be seen as a formal sponsor—but they used the MOD community and they used the MOD platform to create virtual support meetings,” he says.

Culture has become a buzzword for the restaurant industry, and the return on investment in culture can be hard for many companies to measure. But Svenson says the return on the investment MOD has made in its workforce throughout the pandemic is clear: Taking care of its people, particularly in a time of crisis, leads to employees who feel like they’re part of a community and want to continue being a part of it for the long-term.

“The best way to have a productive workforce is to have a well-trained, well-tenured workforce. Retention leads to productivity and a well-trained, highly productive team that is engaged with who you are and what you’re doing and feels like they’re a part of something meaningful and something that has their back,” he says. “They’re going to deliver a better experience than somebody who is disengaged.”

For more insights from Svenson on how MOD is taking care of its employees, stream the podcast interview above. 

Employee Management, Fast Casual, Pizza, Restaurant Operations, Story, MOD Pizza