As the restaurant industry returns to the generally slower winter months, Cheba Hut is making some updates to prepare for the first winter with COVID-19.
Chief Relationship Officer Seth Larsen said the company has a handful of initiatives to make things easier in the several cold-weather markets and "Chebafy" the experience as consumers settle into their pandemic routines.
Of course, social distancing will continue, but Larsen said some new signage and operational tactics will help make things a little less grim.
"When we came out with our plan, it was at the height of the pandemic, and some of our design wasn’t Chebafied. Now it’s a bit different environment. We want to continue with increased sanitization and social distancing, but we can brand that a little bit. Some of our signage is a little beat up after six months and people are seeing the same stuff everywhere," said Larsen. "I think you have to be brand aligned. At the time, when we rolled everything out, it was a little more totalitarian, more to just get the job done."
Totalitarian and the brand's pot theme don’t exactly carry the same vibe. Larsen said the company is still working on the designs for the more than 30 locations, but a key goal is to make the in-store experience a little more fluid. When the concept changed things up, like many restaurants, it was moving unused tables around to a very obvious corral for diners.
"I think people coming out to restaurants are mindful about social distancing but they don’t want to be herded like cattle either," said Larsen.
With a lot of locations in Colorado, he said they’re lucky to have ample patio time, but that still means a little extra forethought as many markets remain limited on indoor dining.
"Just like the Zoom stock shot up, I think if you have stock in patio heaters, you’re doing well right now," said Larsen.
More heaters, more tents and expanded patios where possible are all part of the winter plan. But he said that’s a store-by-store consideration given what the location is like and the municipality's rules.
"We’re still optimistic, but no doubt about it, with the weather turning in some of our markets, we need to transition some of these diners inside," said Larsen.
A robust and visible sanitization schedule will continue, but more bar seats are coming out of storage. Larsen said that’s been a key part of the brand, being able to come in for a few drinks with friends. That hasn’t changed, but the social aspect has.
"People want to go out but they want to go in their pods of four to six, so we’re looking to accommodate that," said Larsen.
He said it’s a balance of making room for them, maybe splitting up some more communal dining areas that the concept is known for, but also keeping space open for those pods. With more bar seating, solo diners can get back to their bartender banter or a single lunch without taking up a six-seat booth.
Keeping the staff safe as more people come inside has been a top consideration, too. Larsen said they have plexiglass dividers in place at the line and a new air-filtration system. The system cost about $2,000 for each restaurant, no small investment even as sales at Cheba Hut have returned to pre-pandemic levels.
"I think that it helps; I think it makes the employees feel good," said Larsen. "And it’s not only a good investment during a pandemic, but in general. It takes some of that Cheba funk out of the air as well—we make awesome sandwiches but you might not want your work shirt smelling like Cheba Hut after lunch."
He said that kind of perspective has been useful when looking at the business during the COVID-19 crisis and going into the winter months: How will an action improve the business for the long-term, and not simply be a reaction to the news of the day.