Opening Restaurants During a Pandemic—It Can Be Done
There’s no doubt that all businesses dependent on interaction with the public, not just restaurants, have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t have to mean game over. As devastating as it is, the pandemic is a short-term problem and sustainable success in business requires long-term thinking. While it may require some adjustments to previously conceived plans, the current crisis should not put the brakes on overall growth, but rather just cause it to take place more strategically.
Surviving the pandemic, just like surviving before the pandemic, means giving your customers what they want and need. As a restaurant parent company, we consider our franchisees to be our primary customers and we’ve been working closely with them to adapt and innovate in this unprecedented situation. With nine restaurant concepts and more than 700 units around the world, we have an extensive database of practical knowledge to draw upon as we analyze what is and isn’t currently working to come up with strategic action plans that will allow franchisees to reopen safely in the face of continuing outbreaks of the disease.
When opening new units at this time, a good strategy is to capitalize on an existing, loyal fan base. For example, we opened two new restaurants in the last few months in Los Angeles and have another opening in the coming weeks. We have an established presence in the area already, so while there might be restrictions in place, people know of our brand and our premium food offerings. There is no introductory period. The locations provide more convenience to our customer base in the area and allow those who know of us, but have not had the opportunity to try our food to do so.
Do Better by Doing Good
As restaurant operators open new units it is important, especially right now, to demonstrate good corporate citizenship by giving back to the community. While our existing restaurants adapted to the new conditions and we opened new locations, we also made sure our brands were in the public eye performing good deeds. Throughout the LA area our “Fatmobile” made visits to local hospitals to prepare meals for the doctors, nurses, EMTs and other healthcare workers fighting on the front lines. Our mobile burger truck gave away over 35,000 meals in campaigns during April, May, and, most recently, in July and August.
Giving back or paying it forward in key markets where you already have a loyal following is important as it highlights your dedication to the community. That positive reinforcement can get people talking about your brand, encourage fans to come in more frequently and can be a real boost when opening a new unit in that market.
Expansion Plans Should Be Changed, Not Erased
Although new units in markets where you already have a presence make sense, that doesn’t mean you should ignore new growth opportunities. Even though dining options in most parts of the country are still limited, isolation has resulted in people seeking new experiences. Combine that with the reassurance that comes from comfort food and you could have a winning recipe on your hands. But in order to make a splash in your new market, first make sure that you are offering the right delivery options and then encourage trial takeout and delivery by offering introductory specials and other meal deals.
Another thing to consider in this environment that goes hand-in-hand are ghost and virtual kitchens. They solve the in-store social distancing issue of how to separate patrons in a dining room by either eliminating the dining room or allowing customers to order from different restaurants from one store front. Ghost and virtual kitchens allow patrons to order from the menus of their favorite restaurants to eat home through Grubhub, DoorDash or one of the other many delivery platforms. Even in areas where indoor restaurant seating is being permitted there are many people who are still seeking the to-go/delivery experience.
COVID-19 has hit the restaurant business hard, but this is a vibrant industry filled with creative people. The pandemic has made operating in a normally highly competitive business even more challenging, and when we come out on the other side it won’t be the same world. But people will still enjoy dining out or enjoying a meal at home that they do not have to prepare themselves. In the meantime, it’s up to those in the foodservice business to adapt, be good citizens who take steps to protect our employees and patrons, and above all do what we can to keep the economy growing, workers working and Americans well-fed.
Andy Wiederhorn is president and Chief Executive Officer of FAT Brands. FAT Brands is a leading global franchising company that strategically acquires, markets and develops fast casual and casual dining restaurant concepts around the world. The Company currently owns nine restaurant brands: Fatburger, Johnny Rockets, Buffalo’s Cafe, Buffalo’s Express, Hurricane Grill & Wings, Elevation Burger, Yalla Mediterranean and Ponderosa and Bonanza Steakhouses, and has more than 700 units worldwide.