Fresh spearheaded vegan and vegetarian cuisine before it was an Insta-worthy millennial trend. This plant-powered frontrunner has a twenty-year history in the Toronto restaurant scene. The owners, Barry Alper, Ruth Tal and Jennifer Houston, are trailblazers in many fields — vegan cuisine, sustainability and scalable business strategy, to name a few. But, technological innovation? Yes, on every level. Progress has been stitched into the fabric of Fresh, an approach that has aided agility, even as a large organization, with 300+ employees across 8 locations. We spoke to Barry Alper, CFO of Fresh, about how technology, including solutions like Wagepoint payroll software, have proven invaluable in a year where change has been the only constant.
Where’s the off switch?
On that fateful Sunday afternoon in March 2020, the Fresh team heard the news that shook every restaurant in the country: Dining rooms would close the next day. With no time to deliberate, they had to make some difficult decisions. “We realized that while it was unlikely we could retain our entire staff, if we worked quickly, we could ensure our team would be at the front of the line for emergency relief benefits,” Alper recalls. Enter Wagepoint, the cruise control of online payroll software that helped Fresh process and pay 350 employees every cent they were owed within a single business day – an extremely impressive feat.
“Our people are our most important asset,” says Alper. Wagepoint was a trusted tool as Fresh managed the ebb and flow of re-hiring 85% of their workforce. By building the initial Temporary Wage Subsidy (10%) into its software, Wagepoint also made it easier for employers like Fresh to take advantage of these relief efforts.
Meanwhile, scheduling and communication platform, 7shifts made implementation of health and safety training and protocols to protect their staff seamless. 7shifts also helped Fresh guide their team through the step-by-step application for benefits. Add to that constant communication through the program and a free Fresh meal a day during furlough, and it’s easy to see how these technologies empowered Fresh to care for their community in a time of crisis.
As the challenges of the pandemic unfolded, these two software solutions were essential as Fresh dexterously navigated each change of course.
‘It’s not life without Covid, it’s life with Covid’
While technology had helped Fresh preserve their staff and business, the team knew they had to optimize the changing customer experience of eating Fresh – be it dine-in, pickup or delivery. And so began the Fresh app build: A complex project that many businesses would outsource. But the Fresh team took this on, hiring a Marketing Operations Specialist, Jenny Ha, to develop a best-in-class, full-service app, loyalty program and two-way communication platform, with options for contactless payment, pickup and delivery.
The investment paid off. While restrictions have fluctuated over the last eight months, physical distancing is now a constant in our day-to-day, yet Fresh’s connection with their customers is stronger than ever. The data available gives the menu development team a keen view of what customers are looking for, and the rewards system lets Fresh grow and strengthen their community.
Alper succinctly notes that Fresh’s core values can be counted on one hand: Dynamic, transparent, vibrant, aware and community-focused. These principles are evident in every part of the business, from the menu to the team’s leadership through crisis and their use of technology. There are a growing number of cloud-based solutions available in the restaurant space, but a fear of the unknown and a dread of the complex or clunky has kept many owners from adopting these vital tools. .
Undaunted, Fresh has embraced Wagepoint, 7shifts, Spiffy, the Fresh app, Slack, social media, WhatsApp and Google Sheets to ensure their entire team knows what to do, as well as when, why and how to do it. In fact, Alper says Fresh’s ability to integrate technology into their relationships with their staff, customers and suppliers is the one element he wishes more people knew about the company, and what he believes has formed the foundation to their success. After trialling a number of applications, Fresh chose their tech stack carefully and strategically. “To me, streamlined software solutions should be user-friendly, efficient and scalable.” Just like Wagepoint, “the Apple of payroll”, Alper quips. He’d encourage fellow restaurateurs to use these tools. “They save time and money, freeing up resources to focus on what counts — your people and your future.”
The human touch
As Alper says, no one thing will destroy a business, but there’s also no silver bullet to success either. While the Covid-19 pandemic has posed untold challenges, Alper and the Fresh team resolved to prioritize their most valuable asset to make it through — their people. Midway through this tumultuous year, Fresh appointed a Diversity and Inclusion Manager, Gertrude Lung. This was an internal promotion to a senior role within the organization, with the strategic goal of having tough conversations.
“We can’t be afraid to ask questions, even if the answer is something you don’t want to hear,” Alper continues. “Fair hiring and open communication are vital to a healthy working environment, yet bias is inherent in all of us. Understanding each other is a great investment, and the best companies going forward will address this need. How we treat each other is of the utmost importance. It’s worth it. This is not an expense, but an investment in your business, your people, society and the culture.”
In the past year, Fresh opened four new locations (three takeout only) and launched their own retail product line and meal kits, available soon through PC Chef online and in-store at Loblaws. What does 2021 hold? “There are a lot of great things we’ve learned and a lot that will stay with us,” says Alper. “To me, that’s the exciting part ahead. There’s so much we’ve experienced now that means we know how to do things better.” Hindsight may be 20/20, but a Fresh pair of eyes is the best way to look at the challenges that lie ahead.
In support of leaders like Fresh and all restaurants, cafes and bars looking to equip themselves with the tools to empower their workforce and navigate change, both Wagepoint and 7shifts are offering the first three months free for any new customers. To get your first three months of Wagepoint free, click here. To get your first three months of 7shifts free, click here.