What were some out-of-the-gate changes you made?
I tried to focus on any possible way I could to get my food in a customer’s hands. I would have looked at anything. We had to get really good at drive-thru. We had to be perfect. A drive-thru seems like common sense but a lot of people miss the point. We had to get our ticket times down to get people through the line. Adjusting the facilities for this new business model was one of the biggest changes. Our restaurant went from looking like a kitchen with dining room to a kitchen with a storage unit. You don’t realize how much space bags, clam shells, aluminum pans, etc., take up.
The biggest change, though, was that I had to completely re-engineer my labor model. Any time you have declining sales—whether it’s a normal seasonal dip or because of a once-in-a-century pandemic—the operators are supposed to manage those metrics. Just because you go down in sales, you can’t have a sloppy cost of goods. An operator’s job is to manage the metrics whether the sales are great or not. Just because they’ve dipped doesn’t mean you abandon that. There’s never an excuse to not manage the environment of your sales. Food and supply are mostly contracted—I knew when this hit that it would eventually affect the supply chain. The biggest adjustment was labor—even with furloughs we were down to just managers with cut salaries. I shoot for 23.5 percent all in labor and I had to re-engineer my labor model so I could operate on that metric. It took me three and a half weeks, but I got there.
Talk about the unique challenge of being a multi-state operator during a pandemic like this? How did you stay on top of all the different moving parts, from various regulations to shifting consumer behavior?
First thing we did was we got in our car a lot more often to be present in each store. Almost daily there was a new set of rules of the game and we just had to adjust accordingly. We had to take into consideration what was happening in each city, county, and state. Williamson County versus Davidson County in Tennessee was a challenge—the customer bases in those two counties are pretty different when it comes to political opinion. Politics definitely play a part in this and there are extreme camps on each side. It’s still a little bit like that. We had to re-rack and add several layers of training to the customer service part of it. Conversations slow things down, and we had to equip our hourly employees with the tools to handle people who are ticked they have to follow the rules, as well as the people who are mad people aren’t wearing their masks at the table.
The phases are ever changing in each city. Governors and mayors aren’t on the same page. These are difficult waters to sail through. I guess we’ve become numb and adjusted to the fact that we’re operating on a week-to-week basis on what the rules of the game are, so I have a policy for each phase. That’s what I’ve found to be the most effective way to lead the company. We’re in phase 2 in Nashville, so I want you to wear a mask until you get to your table. Once we get to Phase 3 you still need to wear a mask, we just get to have more of you in the restaurant.
The thing about this—a lot of things have hurt us—but every restaurateur is on the defensive, on their heels, reacting. We still can’t get on our toes since everything is reactionary. You’re danged if you do, danged if you don’t.