Despite Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announcing restaurants could reopen dining rooms—with restrictions—starting April 27, many brands elected to sit on the sidelines a bit longer. At least in terms of typical service. For every brand, the motivation to stick to takeout and delivery differs. It could pertain to employee safety, customer safety, or simply feeling like more time is necessary to get a reopening strategy in order.

FOCUS Brands’ Schlotzsky’s is one of the chains that decided to hold off. Tory Bartlett, COO of Schlotzsky’s, chatted with QSR about the company’s strategy to date, and what’s still to come as the COVID-19 dynamic shifts daily.

What was your reaction to the Governor’s announcement? It seemed to catch much of the industry off guard.

We knew the announcement was only the beginning, making opening possible. We have always known that in order to reopen as safely as possible, we would need to wait until we have all the proper equipment, process and protocols in place at each of our locations. This is something we have been thinking about and working towards over the past few weeks.

So how did Schlotzsky’s start formulating a response? Did you give thought to reopening, or was it always clear the best decision would be to hold firm for a while longer?

There are many factors that need to be considered before we add dining room service as an option for our guests, and since we had been considering these things prior, it didn’t take much time to make our decision.

Essentially, why did the brand decide not to reopen dining rooms?

We have remained open for curbside pickup, drive-thru and third-party delivery in most locations, so we ARE serving our guests. In the best interest of our guests and team members, we decided collectively with our franchisees to postpone the reopening of many of our dining rooms until we have all the proper equipment and protocols in place at each of our locations and the staff is fully trained on any new procedures moving forward.

Talk about some things, operationally, you’d like to see the brand accomplish before that time arrives?

Throughout this pandemic, the health and safety of team members and guests remains top of mind. As we move to reopen the dining rooms, we will continue to fully implement enhanced cleaning and sanitation procedures and comply with all local and state guidelines. We will also introduce additional measures such as hand sanitizers for guests and making new personal protective equipment, such as masks, available for team members and signs that help guests do their part to socially distance.

More generally, what kind of cues is Schlotzsky’s looking for, whether it’s government directives, consumer trends, etc., to feel more comfortable proceeding?

First and foremost, we’re looking for clear guidelines that can be consistently followed in each market. When those are established by each state or governing authority, then we look to ensure we have the supplies and training to follow those consistently. Then we look to be sure our franchisees, managers, and employees are ready and feel good about reopening the dining room. 

Since COVID-19 began, how has the brand adjusted operations? What are some new guidelines on training, signage, supplies, and employee communication that have emerged?

Since COVID-19, we have enhanced sanitation procedures, increased the frequency of cleaning and directed crew members who are not feeling well to stay home. We have dialed up our drive-thru performance (as most of our stores have drive-thru), launched lunchboxes and family meals, added curbside, and leaned more into our pre-existing third-party delivery offerings to best serve guests.

What are some other operational pivots Schlotzsky’s has made?

Our biggest operational shift has been leaning into our drive-thru service. People feel confident and comfortable ordering and picking up food from their car, which for most is a safe spot. With the addition of our Safety Seal, sealing to-go orders customers we have limited the number of contact points between their order being cooked and getting the food in their car.

Personally, what are some ways you think COVID-19 has changed the restaurant already? And what are some ways you think it might alter the landscape for good?

There is no doubt the restaurant industry has dramatically changed with recent events that will likely affect operations into the future. For customers, best-in-class sanitation will be table stakes. Drive-thru will continue to be a big channel for us and we will continue to concentrate heavily on speed of service, third-party delivery options, labor efficiency, and reduced SKUs and menu offerings to optimize productivity and meet the changing needs of our guests.

For Schlotzsky’s in particular, what kind of behavior pattern changes have you noticed from customers?

With the majority of our locations having drive-thrus, we have seen our customers utilize this option more than before. We have also noticed our customers care deeply about our sanitation measures and we’re diligent about communicating the guidelines we are following from the CDC and other local and state authorities. 

When you do reopen, do you plan to take a gradual approach? What do you imagine those early days will look like?

When we reopen dining rooms, our approach to opening varies by location and the comfort of our guests. When each owner feels ready to open their dining rooms, the priority will be to protect team members and customers by following regulations and guidelines from the CDC and local and state authorities.  We foresee that social distancing will remain a permanent concern, requiring limited seating and removal of shared condiments and soda fountains. Heightened cleaning and sanitation procedures will remain a primary focus, of course. As a franchisor, we support our franchisees and team members by providing detailed training materials to inform and educate them on updated guidelines and procedures, offering detailed instruction, check-lists and resources to ensure that they are delivering the safest experience.

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