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The Year That Changed Our Industry: RC Show Speakers Share Experiences and Advice for Moving Forward

With every passing day, and now almost a year later since the coronavirus pandemic forced 10,000 restaurants to close their doors permanently, restaurateurs continue to look for new ways to pivot and survive.

According to Carl Heinrich of Richmond Station, his restaurant’s model is completely different post COVID, but its core values have not changed.

Speaking on stage at the upcoming RC Show 2021 ONLINE LIVE event, Heinrich is just one of the many “Ones to Watch,” that have come out of the COVID-19 plexiglass bubble a little stronger on the other side, sharing their insights into how COVID changed the industry and what they have done to remain relevant, create new revenue streams and ensure their doors remain open.

By creating a takeout program, combined with take-away meal kit experiences and online events, Richmond Station has built up its virtual  portfolio, finding a way to connect with patrons without asking them to leave their homes.

Carl Heinrich of Richmond Station

“The world is a bit different now, and we’re a bit different, too. Our team loves to cook, loves to teach and loves to host, so we have found a way to connect while everyone stays home. [With virtual events] the possibilities are limitless,” shares Heinrich.  

Chipotle Mexican Grill followed along this path by relying on their company strengths, which included its people and its technology. Adding group order functionality to the Chipotle app and opening more restaurants with a Chipotlane–a digital drive-thru of the future–they were able to “double down” on digital and technology prior to and during the pandemic, tells Scott Boatwright, Chief Restaurant Officer, Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Scott Boatwright, Chief Restaurant Officer, Chipotle Mexican Grill

But what about businesses not already actively engaged online, in delivery or to-go pre-pandemic? For casual dining chain FAT Brands it was harder to pivot as delivery was not such a natural evolution.

Despite entering into 2020 with ambitions of dramatic growth, Fat Brands found themselves “in the first 90 days having to play defense on behalf of franchisees instead of offense,” says Andy Wiederhorn, CEO of FAT Brands. 

As a NASDAQ-listed global franchising company, FAT Brands will survive, but not without losing a few locations in the process. With the “downhill side of COVID” finally in sight, Wiederhorn shares that making short-term plans to get through the next 4-6 months is key to putting COVID in the rear-view mirror and coming out with minimal scars. That, and putting customers first, should be on everyone’s priority list.

“Customers supporting local restaurants is a critical element in helping operators survive. At the end of the day, our restaurants are most definitely small, locally owned businesses,” he says. 

Andy Wiederhorn, CEO of FAT Brands

While some brands slowed down last year, for Voodoo Doughnuts, the pandemic forced them to accelerate plans for bringing their brand online. Voodoo’s goal for 2020 was to slowly introduce credit cards in store, but those plans were quickly fast-tracked according to Voodoo Doughnut’s CEO Chris Schultz.

“We strategically closed three of our shops in the US temporarily… and introduced delivery without creating complexity, doing our best to deliver on the customer experience. We leveraged the best practices of our peers in planning our delivery rollout. Rather than roll out all platforms at once, we worked one at a time, using key learnings with the next partner,” Schultz describes.

Like Richmond Station, Voodoo believes COVID-19 did not change how they look at their business–it simply added complexity. Leaning on the strength of Voodoo’s managers, particularly in their flexibility, and letting great leaders step up at all levels was imperative for Voodoo’s survival and success. 

Chris Schultz, CEO of Voodoo Doughnut. Photo via Voodoo Doughnut

“Some days are good, and some are bad [in terms of sales] – that is the ebb and flow of our business. COVID-19 is just another variable. Stick to your core and how you built your business,” is Schultz’s advice.

But it wasn’t just restaurants that were impacted by the coronavirus; the entire hospitably industry continues to face challenges at every turn. Working traditionally in the live event industry, COVID put a full stop to Juiceworks’ business on March 13, 2020. Its President, Jonathan Auger, started looking for opportunities to utilize their skill sets in other ways.  

Pre-COVID, Juiceworks’ core business was in building portable/temporary kitchens. Adjusting to the lockdown they naturally found ways to stay relevant, expanding offerings to include several turnkey solutions for restaurateurs to use their kitchens to expand, test and reach new markets. They also introduced a rapid and accurate screening product that will allow restaurants to safely open by denying access to individuals exhibiting symptoms of influenza or COVID-19.

Jonathan Auger, President of Juiceworks

While many businesses trying to survive COVID found solace in digitizing their businesses, globally-recognized franchise Domino’s Pizza took the opportunity to re-examine the foundations it laid out when it first started its business, giving it a chance to really live out two of their core values: “do the right thing and put people first,” Domino’s Chief Executive Officer Ritch Allison explains.

In addition to revamping 60 years’ worth of standard operating procedures in about six weeks, Domino’s franchisees worldwide took the opportunity to “Feed the Need,” with every store donating at least 200 pizzas each to frontline workers, hospital employees, first responders, small businesses and people in need. More than 10 million slices of pizza were shared in the few weeks of the campaign, building morale internally.

Ritch Allison, CEO of Domino’s Pizza

Allison’s advice for those struggling, “Be creative, be patient, don’t give up. While we may be competitors, we are all part of an industry that we love. I personally love going out to eat at restaurants, as many millions of people do. Once this crisis is over, your customers will come back to you.”

With constantly-changing rules and restrictions, it’s also important for restaurants to know exactly where their businesses stand and how they’re able to serve customers while keeping them safe. For Brenda O’Reilly, owner, Chef and namesake of O’Reilly’s Pubs in Newfoundland & Labrador, this was challenging, but essential. 

Brenda O’Reilly, owner of O’Reilly’s Pubs

“Not having control over the destiny of my business was really hard,” says O’Reilly. “Getting through this means really knowing your numbers daily. Putting health and safety first, staying positive, finding joy in the small things and being thankful [also helps].” 

O’Reilly invested in her business to redesign the dining room, putting in booths, walls and more to ensure COVID restrictions were followed. The Pub also expanded its outside dining at three locations, pivoting to take-out and delivery, as well as at home offerings like several other restaurants across Canada. This solidarity and shared challenge is echoed in O’Reilly’s advice for other restaurateurs. “Reach out to someone, a mentor to talk. We are all in this together.”

More solution-based food and beverage content can be found at the upcoming RC Show 2021 ONLINE LIVE taking place virtually February 28 to March 3, 2021.

With the theme of “Feeding the Recovery” in mind, the RC Show aims to unite the industry by inviting chefs, baristas, bartenders, sommeliers, foodservice operators, distributors, brokers, retailers and buyers to join forces and Rebuild, Reinvent and Reconnect the industry like never before. 

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