9 more lessons in leadership for a post-COVID restaurant industry

Torri Donley

Maybe the best thing you can say about 2020 is that it will soon be over. But it ain’t over yet. In addition to over 200,000 deaths and loved ones left behind (with ten times as many broken hearts), we still have to navigate massive unemployment, unpaid rents, social-justice protests, […]

Maybe the best thing you can say about 2020 is that it will soon be over.

But it ain’t over yet. In addition to over 200,000 deaths and loved ones left behind (with ten times as many broken hearts), we still have to navigate massive unemployment, unpaid rents, social-justice protests, and a presidential election whose aftermath has the potential to make the coronavirus impact look positively quaint in comparison. Heck, I won’t even be turning my clocks back on November 1 because I don’t want to save another hour of this miserable year.

And 2021’s arrival does not ensure better days for the restaurant industry. Disposable income levels may not return to 2019 levels until late 2022 or 2023, according to many financial analysts. In the meantime, strategic clarity requires us to be focused and flexible, and to pursue the bright spots.

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Three foodservice brands who have led the way in these trying times — Chipotle Mexican Grill, Wendy’s, and Blaze Pizza — have insight to share that we all can benefit from going forward. I asked leaders at each company to share three lessons in leadership they’ve learned since March 2020.

Scott Boatwright, chief restaurant officer at Newport Beach, Calif.-based Chipotle, said: “Lead. Show up and show empathy. Ensure you have a strong presence and stay closely connected to your people– especially those in the field who are at the heart of your business. Engage your teams early, often, and with compassion.

“Next: Listen. Effective communication is equal parts giving and receiving of information.  Share that information efficiently and actively listen for feedback. Based on what you share, hear and see, evolve your programs and protocols as needed to best serve your stakeholders.

“Finally, live. Since this is a time of deep unknown, embrace reality as it is, not what you want it to be. Invest in creating an infrastructure that is open to innovation and mirrors your rapidly evolving environment. Then provide your teams with the support, direction and tools they need to be successful and thrive amid change.”

Mandy Shaw, the CEO of Blaze Pizza out of Pasadena Calif., shares these three lessons: “The coronavirus deeply reinforced many things that I’m a firm believer in. They just became that much more important during a crisis. First, transparency and frequent communication are critical. When you let team members, franchisees, and board members know that you will communicate what you know when you know it, you build an immense amount of trust when you follow through.

“I’ve also learned that people don’t recall vast amounts of knowledge when they’re under high levels of stress. So you must communicate frequently and repeat yourself more often than you think. Make sure the messages are being heard and absorbed by the people most looking for your guidance. Your authenticity and integrity are key when it comes to reassuring teams.

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“Second, I figured out that people needed empowering and encouragement to lean into what I coined a ‘get-guerilla’ mindset. Speed to decision making and the ability to bend pre-existing rules has been paramount to not only surviving but thriving as we came through the crisis. You cannot sit around admiring the problem when you should be finding ways to recover and drive sales!

“Last, I learned to lead messaging with humanity. At the end of the day, the guests in the restaurants, your team members and everyone involved in the business has been deeply affected by this crisis in some way, shape or form. Families had to unravel and re-learn entire support systems nearly overnight and then were hit hard again this Fall when many schools opted for distance learning. Personal illnesses happened and lives were brought to a halt, marriages postponed, travel plans erased, and most importantly, social justice moments became very raw and intense.

“So even our consumer-facing communications were empathy-based. The more you acknowledge the challenges people face, and they understand that you ‘get it’ and want to help them find a way to navigate successfully, the more passionately invested they become in the leader and the brand. Your teams will do amazing things and take better care of guests too because they feel like more than a cog in a corporate wheel.”

Colin Kelly, the director of operations in South New Jersey for Briad Wenco LLC, helps operates 40 Wendy’s restaurants on the East Coast. He shared these three lessons: “The first thing I learned is that as a supervisor of district managers I may have less impact than I thought I did!

“For the first time in my career the onset of the pandemic locked me out of our restaurants, and I was initially unable to be on the front lines when I wanted and how I wanted. But it showed me exactly why high performing district managers get the results they do. They stay steady, use what they’ve learned and just lead through a crisis. The ability — or lack of ability — of the district manager to keep their restaurant teams focused, engaged, and confident in times of crisis is the key to success. Restaurant teams that were able to focus on what needed to happen today while building tomorrow’s schedule — without being sidetracked by all the ‘what if’ situations — outperformed the locations that worried more than they focused.

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“Second, I learned to value all our partners more. When a pandemic makes you experience ground beef shortages, delivery abnormalities, and extreme difficulty getting replacement parts for equipment, we need to not just appreciate and value the team in the restaurant but to teach those teams how important all of other partners are too. The maintenance guy who fixes the air conditioning has always been an unsung hero, but when he does it during record sales periods and your entire crew is wearing masks and handing food out around a plexiglass barrier he’s even more of a hero. The guy who drives the truck overnight with all of our food and supplies and the people who get those supplies loaded onto that truck are just as important to our operation as the crew member cooking the food. One break in the chain can cause unbelievable hardships for our entire industry and the customers we serve. Never underestimate those heroes that populate our supply chain.

“Finally, I learned that people really do appreciate what we do in our industry. I think we can become a bit cynical that complaints go farther than compliments, that customers have low expectations and are hard to please, and at times maybe we focus more on guest service metrics than actual guest service. But the public at large has been grateful that we’ve been here to serve them during these trying times. I’ve had many conversations with people who genuinely care how we’re doing, who’ve told me how they love the food, and how happy they are that we’ve been open. QSR is a familiar staple of American culture and it combines both comfort and comfort food for a dining public that needed some trust and solace. We should all take a little time to focus just a little less on the complaints and appreciate all the people who are just so happy we’re here, that our restaurant leaders are leading, that our supply chain found a way, and that our awesome burgers made their day a little better.”

Jim Sullivan is the author of the bestselling books Multiunit Leadership and Fundamentals. He conducts monthly virtual leadership seminars and webinars for dozens of foodservice and retail brands. Join his 400,000 social media followers at LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and Sullivision.com.  

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