As Franchises Prepare to Reopen, Expect Scrutiny
Captain D's is working closely with franchisees on plans to reopen dining rooms at locations in states such as Georgia and Texas, says COO Andy Castle.
In Georgia, restaurants can reopen their dining rooms at 50 percent capacity. In Texas, which will allow dine-in service starting Friday, May 1, the rule is 25 percent of the pre-COVID-19 seating level. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, operators must limit customers dining in the restaurant to 10 patrons per 500 square feet of space.
These are just some of the safety protocols Andy Castle and his team at Captain D’s are collecting as they formulate their own reopening plans and guidelines for franchisees. Captain D’s, a fast-casual seafood chain based in Nashville, could have reopened dining rooms at more than 100 locations in Georgia, another 73 in Tennessee and, come Friday, 16 in Texas, but Castle said the brand is taking its time to ensure company and franchisee stores alike are prepared.
“We want to provide an environment for our guests where we can make sure they feel safe,” said Castle, chief operating officer for the 500-plus unit brand. As state governments rolled out restrictions and stay-at-home orders in recent weeks, all of Captain D’s restaurants remained open for curbside pickup, drive-thru service and delivery, and Castle noted they’ve already implemented enhanced cleaning procedures and are working with suppliers to source washable, reusable face masks.
“Face guards, gloves, sanitizer stations, markings on the floor” to match social distancing requirements, these are all part of Captain D’s dining room reopening plan, said Castle. “It’s a lot,” and checklists are being created with individual state requirements. The company also has franchise operations consultants across its markets who are driving—“At this point, we’re not comfortable putting people in airplanes,” said Castle—to restaurants to help franchisees prepare. Some, he said, are working toward opening this Friday.
As inquiries come in from operators who want to reopen their dining rooms, Castle said they understand the need for a prudent approach. “We’ve encouraged them to allow us to consult with them—it’s a brand issue as much as it is anything else,” he said.
Lorne Fisher, CEO of franchise public relations and marketing firm Fish Consulting, said close consultation and communication with franchisees and all stakeholders, including employees, customers and suppliers, is crucial as businesses begin formulating their plans to reopen. “And safety has to be the main message,” he said. “Lay out a detailed plan of what you’ve done” to implement new safety protocols, “how operations are changing, how you’re being proactive.”
Even if a solid strategy is in place, brands should expect scrutiny, likely at a national level, if they choose to be among the first to reopen.
“We caution clients not to be the first because of the media onslaught that follows,” said Fisher, pictured at right. Franchisors and their franchisees need to think about the risk, assess the expected scrutiny and be prepared to answer questions without being defensive or reactive.
“Most local media in states like a Georgia or Tennessee, the media isn’t coming at this in a celebratory fashion,” said Fisher of coverage as states lift restrictions. “They’re coming at it with scrutiny because many think it’s too soon.
“Everyone is watching the first one … and they need to be prepared.”
Whether or not customers will return to eat their meals inside the restaurants is yet another unknown, Fisher and Castle both said.
Before the pandemic, 50 to 55 percent of sales at Captain D’s came through the drive-thru; that number is now at 90 percent, with the remainder being curbside and delivery orders. “We’re unsure when our guests are going to want to come back into our restaurants,” said Castle. While employees have been talking to guests who visit the drive-thru and gathering some anecdotal evidence, “it’s really more of a moving target,” he said.