Roti, which operates across four states and Washington, D.C., will permanently shutter 14 of its 42 stores, according to The Chicago Tribune.

Most of the Mediterranean fast casual’s locations are in urban areas, which have been hit hard by the pandemic as downtown office employees work from home. CEO Justin Seamonds told the news outlet that revenue share of suburban units has increased by 50 percent compared to 2019. Fourteen restaurants are currently open for dine-in. The remaining 14—which have been closed since spring 2020—will open soon, as well.

Roti has stores in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York City, Dallas, Houston, and Minneapolis. The chain is known for its create-your-own bowls, salads, and pitas.

The 14-year-old chain was on a growth path prior to COVID. In 2018, Roti received a $23 million equity investment led by Chicago-based Valor Equity Partners. At the time, the restaurant had 34 stores nationwide. In February 2020, Roti announced the hiring of Justin Seamonds, who was tasked with strengthening the organization and positioning the chain for long-term growth of units, digital and delivery, and catering. A month later, COVID ravaged the restaurant industry. 

Despite the headwinds, Roti has seen success in some regards. Seamonds said delivery and digital channels now mix 50 percent compared to 20 percent last year. Additionally, in October Roti announced the reopening of its flagship Northbrook, Illinois, location, which is now equipped with a new design, an enhanced menu, and upgraded technology to streamline curbside and in-store pickup.

In connection with its reopenings, Roti conducted taste tests to gather feedback from new and loyal customers. Venecia Willis, the chain’s culinary director, then created a revitalized menu, consisting of “unique and bold Mediterranean flavors.” Staff then went through an extensive training program to familiarize themselves with the new menu and a “refreshed brand ethos.”

But challenges remain. Seamonds told the Tribune that 200 employees work in the 14 open stores, which is down from the 700 it had prior to the pandemic. The CEO would like to return to 500 to 600 workers as the other 14 locations reopen. Seamonds said that won’t be an easy task, however. Through a good part of the pandemic, unemployed workers received a weekly $600 boost to their unemployment insurance. President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package extended it through September at $300 per week. In addition, most Americans have received three separate stimulus checks, the most recent one being $1,400.

In response, chains are changing how they recruit talent. Seamonds said Roti is promoting its customer service training program, which promises to provide employees with skills that are transferable to other industries.

Whataburger recently promoted its general managers to “operating partners” and raised their salaries to six figures. Taco Bell said general managers as its corporate stores would have expanded leadership benefits, including up to four weeks of accrued vacation per year. These GMs also now receive four weeks of paid “baby bonding” time for new parents and guardians and eight weeks of fully paid short-term disability after the bird of a child.

Fast Casual, Story