Checkers & Rally’s scored a key executive hire when Frances Allen joined the legacy brand in February. She arrived from Boston Market, where she served as CEO. Before, Allen spent four years as president of Jack in the Box and previously clocked time as chief branding officer and CMO at Denny’s, chief marketing coordinator at Dunkin’ USA, and also held leadership positions with Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications, Pepsi, and Frito-Lay.

Roughly three weeks later, however, Allen was facing down arguably the greatest crisis the industry has seen.

Right out of the gate, she realized Checkers & Rally’s and its 800-plus restaurants would need to take care of employees. They offered sick pay for any worker who stayed home due to COVID-19-related issues; closure pay for stores that had to shutter; and started expediting requests for aid from the company’s employee relief fund. Additionally, Checkers & Rally’s implemented royalty relief and deferred payment options for franchises.

Given its drive-thru heavy footprint, the brand has navigated the crisis differently than most. Here’s a look at how Allen has guided Checkers & Rally’s through it all, from day one to, hopefully, making it out on the other side stronger than before.

Take us through those early days. What was the Checkers’ teams’ early response to COVID-19 like? Did you have any idea it was going to be this severe?

As an executive team, we began to seriously discuss the coronavirus threat at the end of February, and by the first week in March, we had assembled a three-level response plan that we shared with our franchisees and operators. The first level response, which we implemented immediately, was to prioritize the health and safety of our employees and our guests, and we communicated health and safety best practices, promoted awareness, and added new procedures for even greater safety.

The second level of our plan focused on how to handle restaurant closures as a result of the coronavirus, and the third level plans for large-scale quarantine measures if required in a particular market or region. Since issuing that plan, the executive team continues to meet via phone every day, seven days a week, to meet the challenges of the day and anticipate what’s next.

I think this has gone on much longer and is more widespread than anyone originally anticipated, but thanks to our mostly drive-thru only restaurants, closed kitchens, and proven delivery systems, we’re fairing better than many others in the restaurant industry.

Our first priority remains the safety of our guests and our employees, and our second priority is to keep our restaurants open so we can employ our team members and feed our communities.

Where did the brand start responding? It sounds like employee care was a top priority, with sick leave and closure pay, as well as expediting requests from the CARE fund. Talk about those efforts and why they were critical.

The safety of our employees and customers is our top priority and we are doing everything we can in order to support our employees and our franchise community during this pandemic. We are providing sick pay for any employee who has to stay home due to a coronavirus-related health issue, and we are paying for closure pay if we have to close a store due to an employee testing positive. We have announced royalty relief and deferred fee payments for  franchise owners who need it and are expediting requests for aid Employee Relief Fund (CARE), which is our non-profit established to help any qualified employee within the Checkers & Rally’s system, whether an hourly or salary facing financial difficulties. 

In addition, we’re working with Key Grocery and Pharmacy Chains to connect furloughed or laid off workers with temporary employment with companies that are needing extra help as a result of the pandemic.  

[float_image image=”” width=”50″ link=”” caption=”Frances Allen also served as president of Jack in the Box from 2014 to 2018. 
” alt=”Papa John's Deliver Driver Near A Car” align=”left” /]

Checkers & Rally’s is uniquely positioned in all of this, being drive-thru-centric as is. How have you communicated this with guests?

We’ve been dominating the drive-thru scene since we were a small fry and these trying times are no exception.

During a crisis people tend to yearn for simpler times-and what is more simple than the American drive-thru hamburger stand? To make sure our guests know our drive-thrus are open to deliver comfort and value we’ve created a whole new visibility package for our system that points to our drive-thrus being open as well as the fact that we offer free delivery for the whole month of April and we have a convenient order ahead option. 

On our social channels we’ve been using the Keep Calm and Carry Out message to remind guests that we are still there for them even as restrictions cause other local eateries to close. You’ll be seeing a lot more of our Keep Calm and Carryout campaign and other creative messaging on our social channels in the coming weeks.

[float_image image=”” width=”50″ link=”” caption=”Getting the word out is key.
” alt=”Ziggi’s Coffee Drive Thru Location” align=”left” /]

Another way that we’ve been uniquely positioned is from our closed kitchens which means minimal opportunities for physical interaction. We had strong food safety procedures in place already, such as buzzer signaling the need to change gloves and wash hands every 15 mins, and we’ve added to them for extra protection. We’ve communicated our enhanced safety procedures via email, in social media and at the store level. We continue to make improvements with the safety of our guests and employees being our number one priority. Only this week we rolled out new procedures for making our interactions with guests completely ‘contactless.’ We have the advantage of closed kitchens, so the cashier is the final place where guests physically interact with crew. We now have gloves, trays and new procedures to remove that physical contact altogether.

Even so, what are some challenges the brand is facing? Are less people going out in general, drive thru or not? If so, how do you plan to weather the crisis?

Our mostly drive-thru only restaurants, closed kitchens and delivery partnerships with multiple national providers has really helped our brand to fair better than others during these difficult times, and the majority of our restaurants remain open. However, some of our restaurants, particularly in New York City, that are dine-in only have been hard hit. We are seeing reduced traffic, especially during late night due to curfews in various markets across the country, so we’ve cut back on late night hours in some locations. At the same time, we’re also seeing larger than average delivery checks as our customers stock up on meals, which is offsetting about a third of the traffic loss.

In terms of franchisees, what are some ways Checkers & Rally’s has lent operators a hand?

As we work with our franchisees through this crisis, the key is communication, communication, communication! We send our franchisees daily updates about our response to coronavirus-related issues, changing government mandates, information about the CARES Act and the latest tools from organizations like the National Restaurant Association. And as I mentioned earlier, we’re also offering our franchisees options on royalty deferments and reduced marketing fees, and for operators, we’re shipping items to restaurants that support our efforts to create contactless experiences like special gloves for cashiers and trays to hand out our to-go bags.

Talk about the community response so far.

We are a working-class brand operating in many instances in working class communities. We are grateful that so many of our loyal guests continue to support us during this crisis.  In return, we are doing everything we can to support our communities as they struggle through this crisis. As an organization, Checkers & Rally’s is partnering with No Kid Hungry to provide up to one million meals to kids in our communities who are going without am struck by the tremendous acts of kindness that we’re seeing throughout our system … Many of our franchisees are going above and beyond to give back. One of our franchisees in New Jersey, for example, is distributing thousands of free combo meal certificates to first responders and he’s delivering free meals to local medical centers. Another franchisee is serving free kid’s meals in his community.

What are your thoughts on how the stimulus package might help?

We are extremely grateful for the leadership of the National Restaurant Association as they worked with Congress to ensure restaurants would be helped during this crisis. We are hopeful that in the next few weeks our franchisees and our company restaurants will receive the aid they need to pay their employees and manage their businesses.

Lastly, generally speaking, what do you think the industry is going to look like on the other side of this? How will it change Checkers & Rally’s specifically?

In general, I think that the restaurant industry will manage through this temporary situation, and as curfews, stay-at-home mandates and other guidelines are lifted, I think we will see guests with “cabin fever” return to restaurants in large numbers. For Checkers & Rally’s, I believe we have an optimistic path forward, built on our drive-thru only concept, delivery program, and the assistance coming from the CARES Act. In addition, our leadership team, franchisees, operators and team members have shown tremendous dedication and passion for our brand and for serving our guests, and because of this, I believe we will emerge stronger than ever.

Business Advice, Fast Food, Franchising, Restaurant Operations, Story, Checkers/Rally's