Restaurant CEOs Discuss the Return of Dine-In Service
A webinar screenshot. Left to right: Peter Cancro, Joe Koss, John Hamburger and Chris Newcomb during a webinar April 29 titled, "Restaurants: How Do We Redesign Our Future?"
It didn’t take long for John Hamburger to get to the question that was likely on everyone’s minds: “When do you see people feeling comfortable coming back into the restaurant dining rooms?”
Moderating a webinar, “Restaurants: How Do We Redesign Our Future?”, Hamburger, the publisher of The Restaurant Finance Monitor, a sister publication to Franchise Times, posed that question to three restaurant CEOs whose brands collectively have more than 2,500 locations across the U.S.
“I think people are ready now. They wear the masks, they bring their little tube of Clorox wipes, they don’t touch the handles … everybody is really, I think, pretty focused on it,” said Jersey Mike’s CEO Peter Cancro, referencing new health and safety measures adapted by consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I feel that people are more than ready. Here comes May, and the Jersey Shore, people want to come out for day trips and I believe they will.
“In my mindset, I think we’re going to move quickly back. Restaurants are going to have to, you know, instead of having seats for 100 maybe they have to have seats for 40 or 50, spread them out, of course, everyone gets that. So, we feel it’s going to be a positive summer coming.”
Jersey Mike’s, Cancro noted, is in a better position than many restaurants, with a majority of sales already coming via takeout and other off-premises channels. And at 1,200 square feet, most stores only have about 24 seats.
For Newk’s Eatery, however, “60 percent of our sales are dine-in, so it was devastating for us,” said CEO Chris Newcomb. Still he, too, was optimistic about the months ahead.
Based in Jackson, Mississippi, and with most of its stores located in southern states, Newk’s is beginning to reopen restaurant dining rooms as states ease restrictions. Four locations reopened in Atlanta earlier this week, with a few more expected to join them in the coming days.
“Sales have been slow but steady,” said Newcomb, and while in Georgia restaurants can only reopen their dining rooms at 50 percent capacity, “that’s a start.”
“But all of our restaurants have patios,” he continued. “We’re hitting May, it’s patio season down here in the southeast and everyone wants to sit on the patio and they’re big and spaced out. And so that’ll be good. I think most people are going to want to get out of the house and come to Newk’s. It’s going to be a gradual shift, we’re not sure if they’re going to come soon or rather over time.”
Without drive-thrus, Newk’s restaurants implemented curbside delivery during the initial wave of dine-in restrictions, something Newcomb noted has been “a huge growth vehicle for us” and is “here to stay” even after dining room limitations are lifted.
Culver’s CEO Joe Koss was a little more tempered in his response.
“When we closed our dining rooms it was the flip of a switch, you flip the switch off,” he said. Culver’s closed all its dining rooms in mid-March, shifting business to drive-thrus at its 700-plus locations. “I think coming back, it’s going to be different. It’s going to be more like a dimmer switch that we turn up over time. The guests will slowly come back into our dining rooms.
“We hope there’s still a place for in-restaurant dining, to be a gathering space, to be that space you celebrate a team victory or another celebration … but we know for the near term it’s going to be different and it’s going to take time,” he continued. “For our guests, they’re going to have to understand social distancing, fewer tables in the dining room and the fact that we might not have self-service items in the dining room, to start.”
• To hear more from Cancro, Newcomb and Koss, including their thoughts on the Paycheck Protection Program, new health and safety protocols, and future franchise development, listen to the full webinar recording.