Fast Casual Leader: Follow These 4 Tips to Outlast COVID-19

    Efforts need to take place across all levels of the organization.

    A worker cooks a sandwich on the flat top at Penn Station fast casual.

    Penn Station East Coast Subs

    No one really knows what the new normal will look like

    There is not an industry in the U.S that hasn’t been affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants are certainly scrambling to survive, with an estimate that more than 20 percent could permanently close. It’s up to the leaders—at both the franchisor level, and perhaps more importantly, the general managers and managing owners at the store level, to provide the guidance needed to persevere in this international crisis.

    Safety first

    The most important thing for restaurants owners is to make sure their employees and customers feel safe. Franchisors should work closely with franchisees to ensure they understood the changes brought about from COVID-19 by recently enacted and updated local, state and federal guidelines set by health and government officials. This means many restaurants have been closed to dine-in business and operating for carryout only for several weeks now. Provide franchisees with guidance on how to review the numerous policies, procedures and standards to ensure employees and customers feel as safe as possible.

    Evaluate your operations, too. For example, our restaurant layout was conducive to social distancing between employees with different stations spread several feet from each other. If yours isn’t, check to see if you can adapt. Make sure managers are encouraging employees with any symptoms or possible contact with someone with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 to stay home to minimize risk.

    Communicate often

    The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are not hard to find. It’s all everyone is talking about. As a leader, you should compile useful information about how the pandemic and shutdown are affecting your industry and how your competitors are coping. For example, our vice president of operations and I send out daily memos to our franchisees. In these detailed memorandums, we include real-world examples of what is happening in our industry (restaurants closing, layoffs, expected sales decreases, government initiatives and mandates and much more) and specifically, what we are doing as a brand to help them survive and ultimately thrive. We do this to make sure they understand what they are up against by arming them with facts and useful data.

    Check your attitude

    Before you send out any communication, check your attitude. If you’re projecting fear, your franchisees, employees and customers will likely echo it. On the other hand, if you’re ignoring the circumstances to be falsely positive, you’ll do more harm than good when reality inevitably sets in. Be honest, be open and don’t leave out any critical information.

    Setting a positive tone may not be easy. COVID-19 is complicated, and the solutions aren’t simple. However, every restaurant has only two choices: battle through this crisis hour by hour, day by day and week by week, or quit and give up. It’s really that simple. Once you decide to battle, keep your glass half full and always stay in touch with reality.

    Adapt to survive

    Restaurant sales are down significantly, and we know this will continue for some time. No one really knows what the new normal will look like. That said, restaurants can take steps to combat the decline in sales and shift in operations as much as possible.

    Market aggressively. We created new family meal deals that we have never offered and are discounting more to customers for their benefit. We recognize a significant amount of people are out of work, and any small thing we can do to give back to the community helps. Additionally, this helps our franchisees improve their cash flow.

    Shift your operations by adding curbside, takeout only and delivery. We did not plan to add third-party delivery, but we have now rolled it out at most of our restaurants. These are unprecedented circumstances, so it’s important to make the necessary changes to survive and adapt to the changing consumer landscape

    We have already seen many competitive restaurants permanently close and expect more to do so. Some brands will not survive. Those that survive will have risen to the challenge, upheld their brand standards and battled every day for survival.

    Craig Dunaway is president of Penn Station East Coast Subs, a 310-unit franchise known for its hot and cold sandwiches, hand-squeezed lemonade and fresh-cut fries.