Restaurant leadership through a global pandemic: 5 takeaways

COVID-19 ,

Source: Nation's Restaurant News

Lauren Bailey, CEO and co-founder of the Phoenix-based multiconcept group Upward Projects, said it’s time for restaurant operators to recognized that things are never going back to normal following coronavirus.

In a recent webinar on leadership, hosted by Nation’s Restaurant News in partnership with executive search firm The Elliot Group, Bailey compared the longing for a return to pre-COVID-19 days to moping after a bad breakup.

“It’s a bit like being broken up with and sitting around your house looking at pictures of your ex-boyfriend,” said Bailey (pictured). “But I’m not doing that. I’m not trying to get back to normal. I’m looking for opportunities in this. This is a perfect time. We have so much bandwidth just to try stuff … Why not lean into that?”

Michael Osanloo , CEO of Chicago-based Portillo’s, who joined Bailey in the webinar, agreed, saying, “I don’t want to survive this. I want to thrive.”

Both brands have private-equity financial sponsors. Founded in 1963 and known for its Italian beef sandwiches and hot dogs, Portillo’s is backed by Berkshire Partners. Upward Projects, which includes Joyride Taco House, Federal Pizza, Windsor and the ice cream shop Churn, has an investment from Brentwood Associates to grow the wine-café concept Postino.

The two CEOs described a different restaurant landscape on the other side of the coronavirus shutdown, one in which foodservice workers will all wear masks, tables will be much further apart, units will have to be “hospital clean,” and off-premise will play a bigger role.

Also, Bailey added, hopefully the ability to deliver alcohol will continue.

Moderated by Elliot Group CEO Alice Elliot, here are five takeaways about leadership through a crisis from the two CEOs:

Over communicate. Staying in touch with both furloughed and existing workers is key, and Bailey said it was important that communication was established quickly after the restaurant dining room shutdowns, and remain frequent and “from the heart.”

Bailey said she took advantage of multiple social media platforms to reach out to employees, including FaceTime, Google Hangout, Zoom and even “sending carrier pigeons” and writing notes.

Osanloo said Portillo’s did daily phone calls — seven days a week at first, and then moving to five days — as well as video chats, texts and visiting restaurants. “People are scared. Even 24 hours of radio silence is going to be threatening,” he said. “I try to be very thoughtful about listening, as well as providing vision and guidance.”

Embrace change. If there’s one thing Osanloo (pictured) hopes to take away from this crisis and cultivate, it’s the ability to pivot and execute quickly, he said, which is not always easy for a 55-year-old brand.

Portillo’s, for example, has historically done about 50% dine-in and 50% drive-thru business. But the chain was able to sign on a new delivery partner in two days, and then within a week also began implementing in-house restaurant delivery.

Osanloo noted that the regulatory environment through the crisis has been constantly evolving, and that’s likely to continue as restaurants reopen. “We’re trying not to make long-term decisions,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to change your mind when you have new facts.”

Take risks. And don’t worry about being perfect. Bailey said she looks for an entrepreneurial spirit in team members — people who show grit, flexibility and perseverance, who embrace chaos. From those team members come great ideas, she said.

The wine-café concept Postino, for example, took advantage of relaxed alcohol delivery laws to launch a Volkswagen bus to deliver booze, which has been dubbed the Wine Wagon.

The Wine Wagon has been such a hit, the chain is looking for two more. “It turns out, a lot of people are looking for a visit from the Wine Wagon right now,” she laughed.

“It’s about how do we make people feel good,” Bailey added. “The opportunities are endless. Yes, our restaurants are closed right now and that stinks. But there are endless ways to do that, and to monetize it, and I’m like, bring it on, baby, let’s do it.”

Elliot (pictured) added that traditional advice is to avoid risk during chaotic times when there’s no clear compass point. “But if there ever was a chance to do something unique and creative, it’s now,” she said. “You want to ensure people will want to come back and be part of the magic.”

Find the new normal that’s right for your brand. “Delivery was already on fire and it’s here to stay,” said Osanloo. “But I suspect there will be a lot of restaurant companies that will explore self-delivery. Some of the margins that some of the delivery companies can charge don’t make sense for a lot of restaurant companies, and it might be more efficient than a third party.”

Bailey said her concepts also launched delivery with three platforms during the shutdown. But even after restaurants can reopen, she expects consumers will be slow to come out. So her restaurants are working on catering options for to-go food that guests can share in someone’s home.

Rest assured that dining out will come back. “People are going to want to break bread with friends and family in a social setting and having a server take care of them, listening to music in the background — just all the great stuff that comes with dining out,” said Osanloo.

Register for part two of this webinar series on May 7 2 ET to learn more lessons in leadership during a crisis.