Few industries have been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than foodservice, and as the crisis persists, it is becoming increasingly clear that consumer behavior is unlikely to snap back to “normal” anytime soon. Fortunately, a “new normal” that offers its own opportunities for growth is already unfolding, and some restaurant brands are making strategic pivots to make the most of those opportunities.

Chances are, this isn’t the first time you’ve read the word pivot in relation to restaurant operations over the past few months. To stay afloat while dining rooms were ordered closed across the country, restaurant brands have had to adjust their operations to find new ways of engaging with customers through digital channels and off-premise services. And in many cases, those pivots have not only staved off the worst effects of the crisis, they have also helped brands find new customers and forced restaurants to find new, more cost-effective methods of service.

Now, restaurant brands need to begin applying those same strategies to business development.

That begins with the discovery process. Historically, once a franchise candidate is in the pipeline, restaurant brands kick off the mutual discovery process with a series of phone calls and advisory meetings before inviting them to headquarters for an in-person discovery day. Now that in-person anything is a risky proposition, brands should make the effort to personalize the experience upfront with video conferences in conjunction with phone calls. By having face-to-face virtual interaction earlier in the process, brands can get a better sense of their candidates, determining who meets or does not meet the qualifications, or align with the brand’s core values. It will also provide a more intimate and engaging experience for candidates, allowing them to make a personal connection with the brand.

Then there’s discovery day itself, which for most brands will remain a virtual occurrence for the near future. Executive team members can conduct one-one-one meetings and even provide facility tours through a growing number of video-conferencing platforms i.e. WebEx, Zoom, etc. Informational pamphlets and booklets can be sent to the prospective franchisee ahead of time to provide context and supplementary information for the experience.

Of course, an effective discovery process relies on an attractive business opportunity, and video-conferencing or not, prospective candidates aren’t going to sign onto a brand that is not embracing growth and changes in the marketplace, which brings us back to those store-level operational pivots.

Drive-thru, delivery and pick-up services are no longer optional. Off-premises services are required. The question every restaurant brand needs to ask itself is not if, but how to implement those services. Whether by partnering with third-party services or building out your own off-site operation, you’ll need to operationalize those services quickly, safely and show prospective franchise owners how and why your strategy is primed for profitability.

Restaurant brands should also consider reevaluating their payment systems and processes. Bringing all orders under one single point-of-sale system and implementing “safety first” measures such as Plexiglas barriers, face coverings, and gloves will create a safer and more uniform customer experience. Streamlining operations and integrating a contactless experience not only makes life easier for multi-unit franchisees and employees but it enhances the bottom-line in the new consumer landscape.

Change is difficult yet inevitable. Traditional development professionals might lament the loss of long-established industry practices, but restaurant brands that embrace and cultivate the new environment we’ve found ourselves in will find no shortage of opportunities for growth.

Ursula S. Lane is the Director of Franchise Recruitment for Checkers & Rally’s. She is a member of the International Franchise Association (IFA) and Association of National Advertisers (ANA).

Fast Food, Franchising, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story, Checkers/Rally's