For all industries, and especially restaurants, navigating the turbulent waters of the COVID-19 pandemic has been like sailing a ship by looking at the stars. There is no road map to this situation, and all brands have been required to pivot in some way.
While we have seen many businesses forced to close their doors, others have thrived. In fact, for some companies, this may be the greatest opportunity they’ll ever have for growth and innovation. Whether your business is fighting for survival or excelling, it’s important to make sure your brand doesn’t morph culturally into something you don’t recognize at the end of the pandemic. Now is the time to hold your core values closer than ever to make sure you don’t lose control, even as you must make changes to survive in today’s new environment.
Communicate more than you think you need to, and then communicate even more.
It’s cliché to say communication is critical for success in business, but it’s true, especially during times of crisis. Even if you think you are already a good communicator, it is possible to perfect it even more. Redefining communication has been crucial since March. For example, Penn Station has sent weekly—and sometimes daily—memos to franchisees with relevant and timely information they need as it relates to COVID-19 and the brand. This increase in both the frequency of our communication and the level of detail in our communication has made a huge difference.
Excellent communication can actually free up time in your schedule, allowing leaders to work more on the business than in the business. With more time working on the business, leaders can both ensure the brand’s standards are still being met, and at the same time, plan for the future.
Maintain performance evaluations and training.
Safety came first and continues to come first, with COVID-19. In March, we didn’t know much about the virus, but we quickly learned ways to protect employees and customers through things like proper handwashing and sanitation, mask-wearing, and social distancing for crew and guests. If you can safely do so, keep your employees in the field to make sure your brand standards are being followed. By making sure bad habits don’t creep in, you protect the value and equity you have built in your brand.
Put in place an ownership mentality.
Instilling an ownership mentality in front line leaders can be a great way to motivate them. For example, for 35 years, Penn Station has required franchisees to share profits with their general managers and offer equity to their managing owners. That ownership mentality has been crucial to our ability to thrive this year. When general managers treat a business like they own it, it sets it up for success. Strong leadership at the top can drive sales, especially during hard times. If an ownership mentality is not already part of your culture, think about ways you can incorporate it.
Make changes with careful consideration.
We have seen brands change their offerings in many ways as a result of COVID-19. Curbside pickup, limited menus, take-home meal kits, and delivery have all become popular since March. Many of these changes are good. Penn Station added third party delivery after COVID hit, and it has done well for us. That is partly because our product already lent itself well to delivery—we had even introduced a new menu with cold sandwiches and wraps right before the pandemic—and partially because operationally our restaurants and employees were already set up to take carryout orders. Thus, while it was a big change for our brand, it still fits with our core values and didn’t require employees to learn new skills or franchisees to order costly new supplies to accommodate the shift. We were able to pivot and bring in new customers and still use our strengths as a brand. These are the kinds of brand changes that are valuable and smart during COVID-19.
If you maintain your core values while you respond to the effects of COVID-19 on your business, you’ll come out of the pandemic with a stronger, better brand but not a different brand, and that is the key differentiator. If you make huge changes that don’t fit your brand long-term, you may survive the pandemic, but you may not recognize your company when it is over.
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