As Restaurants Reopen, Employee and Guest Safety Comes First
Jackmont Hospitality, the Atlanta-based operator of 36 TGI Fridays restaurants, many of them in airports, laid off about 2,000 members of its 2,300-person team in mid-March. It was, and still is, an incredibly difficult situation to manage, said Charlye Batten Miller, Jackmont’s director of human resources, and as her focus shifts to the reopening process she made it clear that safety must be the priority.
“Safety for our team members and our guests,” said Miller, which for Jackmont has meant purchasing a full complement of personal protective equipment to deploy in its restaurants, along with infrared thermometers to take the temperatures of employees before each shift. It’s also meant waiting.
Jackmont could have reopened its Georgia TGI Fridays locations for dine-in service in April but decided to hold off. “We waited because, as I mentioned, we’re proceeding cautiously,” said Miller, who noted just two of its restaurants have reopened their dining rooms. “We want to learn from other operators who did open right away.”
“Learning” is the operative word for navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and attendees of today’s Franchise Times webinar were able to learn from Miller and several others as they discussed “The New Normal in Hiring, Restaffing and Keeping Employees Safe,” the third session in the second round of Restaurant Recovery Week.
For Wyatt Batchelor of MBN Brands, which operates Jimmy John’s, Burger King and IHOP units, and employed close to 500 people in 32 restaurants pre-COVID, he took a “tactical pause”— something he learned as a former U.S. Army Ranger— before making any big decisions. He used that time to create a playbook, work with his partners and suppliers, and “methodically” approach the reopening of dining rooms.
“The way we look at it, we only have one opportunity to make an impression on our guest” and to ensure they feel confident that they’re dining in a clean and safe environment, he said. In addition to guidelines provided by state and local officials, Batchelor noted that placards on tables list the contact information of MBN’s managing partners “so if people have a health or safety concern, they can contact us.”
Chris Murphy, executive VP for national sales at Alliance Payroll Services, advised operators to take this time to learn from their existing employees—and adjust accordingly. When it comes to hiring, “work with your high talent people and talk to them about what’s it going to take to attract” more high-quality workers. A lot of talented people are out of work right now and are evaluating what they want to do next, Murphy noted, so now is the time to focus on recruiting.
Operators can also use this time to reevaluate training, again with input from employees. Look at all your training processes, Murphy said, “and ask your front-line team, what was frustrating?” and “how can we improve?”
At Chicken Salad Chick, the 155-unit franchise where Mary Lou Atkins is director of human resources, the brand has been learning from its franchisees and its employees. Franchisees, she said, immediately got creative, putting up tents in their parking lots to serve as pop-up drive-thrus and planning “community drop-offs,” where they’d take online orders from areas normally not served by the brand, then offer pickup from a designated location. In one instance, a franchisee planned a drop-off for Thomasville, Alabama, a small town more than an hour’s drive from the nearest Chicken Salad Chick, and had 10 percent of the population—about 400 people—place orders.
Learning from employees, meanwhile, has meant listening as workers have shared how they’re stressed out, worried about getting sick, or about coming to work and then exposing a family member to the virus, said Atkins. “So first and foremost, we want to make sure they know they’re appreciated,” she said, and that appreciation flows through all levels of communication.
Check out the full webinar, moderated by Franchise Times Senior Editor Beth Ewen, for more insight from the panelists, including their advice for rehiring employees in this new normal.