QSR leaders may compete for market share, but they are pretty much in lock-step with each other when it comes to their feelings about how the last year has permanently changed the quick-service sector.
Since the pandemic hit in early 2020, nearly every restaurant brand — no matter their size — has had to improvise, get creative and adjust, and then repeat that cycle all over again as dining restrictions and lockdowns came and went. Recently, I had the opportunity to hold a virtual conversation with four industry leaders — who each hold top operational roles within world-class restaurant brands — to share insights into their journeys over the last year.
All four are CMX customers and include executives from Checkers & Rally's, Firehouse Subs, Buffalo Wild Wings, as well as Sizzling Platter, which manages hundreds of Dunkin', Little Caesars and Wing Stop locations. What follows are the three main points I took away, as well as an array of anecdotal information from these restaurant leaders, that I hope you will find as helpful as I have:
Quick business model shifts become S.O.P.
Late this January, analysts at NPD Group relayed that restaurant digital orders increased by 19% in January 2020 all the way to growth of 145% in December of last year, compared to 2019. Additionally, the company said that even before the pandemic those numbers were growing.
For Checkers & Rally's — with only 5% of its locations having dining room — delivery sales were already a big part of its business model. But, deliveries rose 50% due to the pandemic, and the restaurant chain redeployed one of its drive-thru lanes at its locations for delivery drivers to give them their own independent order pick-up lane, according to the brand's OPS Services Manager Danielle Williams.
Conversely, at Firehouse Subs, where drive-thrus make up only a small percentage of its locations, the need to also be nimble and adapt quickly became imperative.
"Typically, you'd like to do a little bit of a test market and then start incorporating others as they come about. But we had to hit the pavement and just go with it and put everything in there all at one time. "
"We ended up adding a curbside pickup to our destination set. Typically, an addition like that would take upwards of six months to test and validate. But we rolled it out in about two weeks and continue to refine our processes," said Rich Goodman, Firehouse Subs vice president of Operations Services. "In addition, like everybody else, our third-party delivery business grew dramatically last year. As a result, our off-premise sales grew very rapidly, much quicker than we expected."
The takeaway from these leaders clearly shows how the very business of being able to rapidly shift a brand's core business model to adapt to market fluctuations has now become standard operating procedure for most QSRs.
Premiums now put on health, safety
When making decisions about where to eat, today's consumers are not only basing their decisions on taste, but on hygiene, health and safety. In a recent Deloitte U.S. study, four out of five people said they'd "be more likely to patronize a restaurant if they knew what steps it was taking to enhance cleanliness, food safety or guest safety, and when they did, they would be willing to pay an average of 10% more."
As the pandemic took hold in the U.S., Buffalo Wild Wings took its health and safety efforts to the next level, with the use of additional Personal Protective Equipment. It also worked to heighten awareness among team members about the growing importance of topnotch hygiene practices.
"We made investments to give our guests the best experience possible in these challenging times," said Drew Roberts, Buffalo Wild Wings director of Brand Ops Performance. "We created floor stickers for social distancing and for takeout, and removed tables in the dining room so that the chances of guests being within 6 feet of one another is reduced or almost eliminated."
The brand also invested in guest relations.
"When we receive a guest comment through our system related to mask-wearing or lack of mask-wearing, or social-distancing, it gets addressed on a daily basis. We communicate that to field leaders and any gaps are closed quickly for us," said Roberts.
The cleaning products used at the chain are labeled and the staff is trained to fully answer any hygiene questions guests may have, Roberts added.
Meanwhile, at Checkers & Rally's, all employees were required to wear face masks and locations were retrofitted with acrylic glass partitions to limit contact between those taking orders and customers. Stainless steel shelving was also installed at the outside pickup window to further the contactless exchange of the drinks and bags of food. All purchases are placed onto the shelves for guests to receive without coming into contact physically with an employee.
"We also introduced a contactless payment method," said Williams. "We use a payment wand so our cashiers are able to extend the card-reader out to the guest to eliminate any contact. Greater distance is allowed between the guest and the staff as a result. "
Optimization through digitization
Studies from McKinsey have shown that digital transformation efforts have vaulted five years forward since the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. It's no surprise the restaurant industry underwent a sea change last year as it transitioned to digital applications.
Whether it's a policy and procedure manual, audit assessments or in- or above-restaurant checklists, digital transformation tools are displacing manual routines and that's having a major impact on the way business gets done.
"Before digitizing and automating many of our processes last year, about 80% of our routines were performed manually, using pencil and paper," said Isaac Morton, Sizzling Platter vice president of IT. "But as COVID-19 began to escalate, new processes emerged and became much more complex, driving us to significantly expand our use of digitization."
With 500 restaurants under its purview, Sizzling Platter has had to adjust for state and local variations in public health requirements, as well as changing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC).
"In some states, employee temperature checks must be performed daily and the results must be recorded," Morton said. "But in other states, they want us to do everything but temperature checks, because that's considered a part of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act medical information privacy protections).
"We use a technology platform that gives us real-time visibility into the data we need daily to know our COVID-19 operational guidelines are being followed for each of our locations. This allows us to move forward with the confidence that we are following the latest CDC guidelines and are in full compliance with state and local laws."
To take better advantage of real-time data, Checkers & Rally's recently moved to a new platform for managing food safety and brand standards, with detailed self-assessment forms.
"We took on the overall challenge of rolling out the platform across 850 locations all at one time because, due to COVID-19, we didn't have the opportunity to really do a 'slow roll,'" Williams said.
"Typically, you'd like to do a little bit of a test market and then start incorporating others as they come about. But we had to hit the pavement and just go with it and put everything in there all at one time. We pushed ourselves and it ended up working out quite well."
There's no doubt COVID-19's impact on consumer behaviors, preferences and expectations will be long-lasting, especially when it comes to service and safety. As we enter the second year of the pandemic, I, like many others, continue to be impressed and encouraged by the way the restaurant industry has responded.