Church’s Chicken’s reopening guide was hardly a bulletin you slap on a wall in the. It was a full-on, 70-page manual. “And we’re 100 percent OK with that,” Pete Servold, EVP of franchise and company operations, wrote in a letter.
This has been typical of Church’s since the pandemic darkened dining rooms on March 17. The 1,500-unit chain (1,050 U.S. at end of 2019) was nothing if not thorough.
Thirteen days after closures rolled, Church’s allowed franchisees to defer 50 percent of royalties and ad fund contributions to bolster their cash position. The company deployed a “People First, Safety Always” directive it knew wouldn’t come free. But the play and investment was always long-term.
Church’s reported 36 of 52 weeks of positive sales in 2019—eight out of 13 periods. Just six months or so ago, it turned in its best comps performance in a decade and labeled 2020 as the launch date for a new, five-year strategic plan.
“We were substantially beating the industry and ahead of plan until several weeks ago,” CEO Joe Christina said in March. “But literally, from one week to the next, the world changed and we need to change with it.”
And that began with franchisees and making sure they could pay employees, serve customers via drive thru and digital, with advertising to back it up, and support communities.
Church’s hasn’t let up since.
In late April, the legacy chain introduced an appreciation campaign to recognize essential workers. Originally planned to land mid-2020, Church’s fast-tracked #OurTexasWay as a people-strategy initiative for a pandemic time. Christina and field-based leadership sent hand-written thank-you notes to employees across the system and postcards overseas (Church’s operates in 25 countries). The company brought T-shirts with “I’m Essential” messaging, as well as posters, into restaurants. On April 23, Church’s offered free pizza to all company units and fed more than 2,500 employees.
“There are big elements like employee relief funds, PPE gear, and masks to take home, and there have been smaller efforts like ice cream parties, appreciation days, T-shirt giveaways, and other gestures that remind our people that they do matter,” Servold said.
Franchisees expressed concern over having enough employees to satisfy restaurant-level tasks plus additional safety requirements, especially in the scenario somebody felt the need to self-quarantine. So Church’s corporate approved limited menus to simplify day-to-day operations. “Start with the people closest to you in your organization and let it spiral outward,” Servold said.
Church’s “refocused plan” has been three-pronged in recent weeks. The “People First, Safety Always” focus; a double-down on digital; and being “there” for guests with drive thru and delivery.
CMO Brian Gies says Church’s tried to set itself apart by rooting these efforts in brand identity. As much as it evolved to meet a new normal, the company, founded in 1952, relied on inherent competitive strengths and company culture. Take care of workers and franchisees so they could help guests through crisis times.
“One thing we really tried to make sure we did in all of this, is just focus on being useful,” Gies says. “And if that can help set us apart, if it can help consumers think positively about us to then influence their decision to come back more frequently or when we move to a less uncertain time, then I feel like we would have accomplished something.”
Here’s another foundational piece. In June, Church’s pushed forward a pre-COVID-19 initiative it’s started to call the “multifaceted HR revolution.” Karen Viera, SVP and chief people officer at Church’s, was already working with Beyond CorpComm to transform the company’s workplace and employment policies. It’s a process that stretches back to late 2019. But like many things in this industry, the pandemic dropped a cinder block on the accelerator.
From day one of the crisis, Church’s limited the number of employees at its Atlanta restaurant support center by allowing vulnerable workers—or those with vulnerable family members—to work remotely without any decrease in benefits or salary.
“When people are ready to go to restaurants again—whenever that may be—they’ll remember seeing Church’s going the extra mile for people,” says Pete Servold, Church’s Chicken EVP of franchise and company operations.
The corporate team was previously housed in two separate buildings and the test kitchen, supply chain, and R&D teams were on separate floors. Church’s decided to keep the test kitchen and R&D employees in place, but moved everybody else into a single building.
The change, while done under a COVID-19 umbrella, had other efficiency-minded goals that pre-dated crisis times. In the past, Church’s faced unnecessary delays in ad-hoc meetings and conversations needed for immediate decision-making, the company said.
Today, employees work on a new remote office schedule where some don’t come into the office at all and others rotate three days a week. The “distributed workforce” policy split up on-site and remote days by team, “ensuring that all staff members who work together in the same functional areas are together in the office on the same days,” Church’s said.
Groups take alternating days on-site and off-site, with all teams staying remote on Fridays so Church’s can deep-clean the office. The policy went into effect June 15 and allowed for better social distancing and time for employees to take care of family while adjusting to a strange, new world.
Church’s said a broader roll-out will test throughout the summer.
The company also created a “Business Health & Safety Guidelines” course required for all employees, at all levels of the organization. Its “Team Church’s” intranet site archives content and keeps resources, like CDC guidelines and workplace practice policies, available to employees. “The needs of workers aren’t the same as they were 20 years ago, or even two years ago,” Viera said in a statement. “We don’t have to limit ourselves with that kind of thinking. We absolutely can give employees more of what they want while still meeting and exceeding company goals. The technology and resources are there—and so is the personal commitment to make this new era work well for everyone.”
Getting digital, and serving the customer
Like many quick-serves, Church’s was well positioned from an asset standpoint to solve pandemic concerns. Additionally, the chain was an early adopter in many of the now-commonplace offerings. Church’s activated third-party delivery in 2018, order ahead, pay ahead in early 2019, and then expanded its to-go platform shortly after.
Digital ordering jumped 80 percent post COVID-19, with some units driving north of $7,000 in weekly sales through the channel alone.
Gies says within two weeks, Church’s added exterior merchandising, everything from rooftop banners to yard signs, to more than 80 percent of the system. Simple, yet critical advertising that told customers Church’s was open for business.
“What we didn’t want was customers navigating these uncertain times having to look for if the lights were on. Asking, ‘are they actually open? Is there a car in the drive thru,’” he says. “Again, keeping people first and front and center.”
Church’s shifted its media channel focus from broadcast to digital and made sure it was amplifying its to-go message. The company ran the effort through a new integrated platform for managing brand content, creative development, and responsive social media engagement.
For instance, with temporarily closures, of which Gies says there were not a significant number, listening capabilities allowed Church’s to make sure it was getting the right message to guests about what to expect in those markets. Timely and accurate news, with a solution behind it.
Returning to Gies’ earlier point about staying useful in guests’ eyes, Church’s leaned heavy into a comfort food with value positioning. It featured $20 Family meals and offered free handheld chicken pot pies with every bundle purchase. The shift in sales to Church’s family meals, primarily from drive thru, increased between 15–20 percent during the first two months of COVID-19, the company said.
Just recently, on June 25, Church’s launched “Smokehouse Season,” which has been a signature summer feature over the last four years. The Smokehouse Chicken is one of the chain’s most successful LTOs in brand history. The Bourbon Black Pepper iteration in 2019 boosted comps 4.2 percent in the first half of the promotion. Its accompanying “Bringin’ That Down Home Flavor” ad was ranked No. 1 among fried chicken brands to that date by Ace Metrix.
This year’s “Campfire” version differs in the seasoning but also in approach. Church’s created a family of four version that includes two half smokehouse chickens, six chicken tenders, large mashed potatoes and gravy, large coleslaw, and four honey-butter biscuits (starting at $20). The brand is also offering the product lineup for delivery, something it hasn’t done with an LTO before.
Gies says it was important for Church’s to promote some new news that wasn’t entirely tied to COVID-19 life. And yet something that’s also “familial” and speaks to a changing consumer’s needs. Namely, comfort, familiarity, value, and large portions.
“We serve abundant amounts of food for compelling value that has long been a cornerstone of our brand,” Gies says. “… Having that history and that heritage is something that absolutely has given us credit with those guests who already knew us, but also very favorably has given us credit with guests who are now just discovering us.”
Gies says Church’s is taking a very deliberate and cautious approach to reopenings. Servold wrote in his letter that some employees remained uncomfortable refusing service to guests without masks. So the company paused until its managers had a solution in place to move forward. Meanwhile, Church’s will continue to update procedures and evaluate, and operate through drive thru, delivery, and contactless pick-up at the door.
As for the 70-page reopening guide? Servold says the why behind the depth isn’t complicated. “Because our people have been at the heart of our decisions from day one,” he said. “As a result, we have had very little turnover. As an essential business, and as a restaurant brand that provides enough food to feed a family of four for just $20, we have even seen some restaurants hiring more people and giving more hours to existing employees who want them.”
“All those things do not go unnoticed,” he added. “When people are ready to go to restaurants again—whenever that may be—they’ll remember seeing Church’s going the extra mile for people. They’ll remember the employee in their neighborhood that felt safe and confident going to work each day.”