‘Adapt’ Becomes the Mantra for Culver’s Franchisees
As the COVID-19 crisis swept across the country, franchisees in the Culver’s system said adaptation every week, day and hour became the practice across the brand.
The Sauk City, Wisconsin-based concept with more than 720 locations was one of the Franchise Times 2020 Zor Award winners. We caught up with franchisees to see how they and the brand responded to the crisis and this new normal.
Like everyone, the company took a sales hit, but because it was already doing a large portion of sales via drive-thru, the concept bounced back quickly along with the rest of the quick-serve restaurant segment.
“I thought about that many times. I never really knew I’d think I was so blessed to have a drive-thru,” said Arizona-based, two-location franchisee Carissa Rose. “That is key. I would be singing a completely different tune without that.”
Baron Waller, a four-location franchisee, shared Rose’s appreciation for having that key, socially distanced outlet. It meant change, not a pause.
“You can’t even imagine how happy we are that we had it,” said Waller. “We’re pretty much back to normal, but the focus is more on the drive-thru. It was just adapting.”
For Culver’s that adaptation meant a lot of things. Masks and gloves and expanded cleaning for one. Additional, concise training from the corporate office was something Rose said she was especially thankful for in the confusing early days of the crisis.
“One thing I really appreciate is the cleaning videos, so we were re-watching all the handwashing and safety videos and they came out with a special COVID-19 two-minute video that drove home how to keep customers and employees safe,” said Rose.
The company also rolled out aggressive precautions, beyond state guidelines and CDC recommendations.
“Everybody was fearful, everyone was like, ‘What is going on, what are we going to do?’” said Waller. “Culver’s didn’t even allow takeout, they completely shut our doors because we wanted to keep the crew safe. We didn’t know how this was transmitted and it was important to make it as safe as possible.”
That was big change for a concept with a very high portion of dine-in business, table service and a fairly unique consumer experience among QSR. That was especially tricky for Waller and his Chicagoland locations.
“It’s an urban area, so people take busses and walk, it’s just that type of area. In the beginning, when we were so reliant on the drive-thru it affected us so much because we didn’t get that walk up traffic,” said Waller.
But he and other area operators found a way to adapt with a simple doorbell. The front door stayed closed, but he said he installed a doorbell and put up a menu. Customers simply ring the bell, an employee takes their order and then hands the food out.
“In the beginning we had one or two people per day, now we see like 40 people. That’s a drastic improvement in the city,” said Waller.
He said as nearly all the sales went out the drive-thru, that had to adapt as well. Culver’s has about a four-minute ticket time. That’s almost a full minute longer than McDonald’s given most items are cooked to order. In a dense area with a smaller parking lot, that adds up. Typically, restaurants have four stalls where customers wait for their food. Waller said he was able to add six more stalls and has employees directing people and talking them though the process. He said his locations have stayed within four or five minutes and guests are understanding.
“Not only did we adapt, but so did our guest,” said Waller. “People understand that they have to wait a little bit. I think people are a bit more patient.”
They’re also spending more per visit. Rose said in conversations with customers, they are thinking further ahead than the typical QSR visit.
"I would say the most interesting trend I noticed is the amount of food people order. It’s not just I’m going to get my lunch, it’s I’m going to get my lunch to eat now and I might order a salad to take home for dinner. Or I’m going to take home salad and these burgers so we don’t have to leave the house again,” said Rose. “It’s pretty consistent, the people coming through for lunch are also thinking about eating later.”
Now, as Arizona, where Rose operates, is reopening she said the company has done a good job of preparing. The signage, she said, has been on point and clear. And that’s an issue across the restaurant industry, as consumers are looking for peace of mind and simply where to go and where to stand.
“It’s all branded, clearly communicated. It lets the guest know what we’re doing and communicates to them, it’s making sure we’re all on the same page. The signs will be on the doors, the decals will be on the floor. It’s just making sure it’s all communicated clearly and consistently and on brand,” said Rose. “I feel like if you go into my stores, you know what’s going on, you know where to go and what we’re doing.”
Waller said there’s a detailed plan in place for Illinois, too.
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