“I think the trends are positive, or it makes sense for the brands that are really investing time and resources to go after them,” Tracy says. “And we've had some early ideation on both ghost kitchens and on virtual brands, and we think there's going to be some opportunity for our brand in that space. But again, we're in the very early stages. We're expending resources on some high-return initiatives, such as expanding that not-yet-fully-mature off-premise business while frankly helping our system maximize their unit level economics so they can come out of this pandemic stronger than they were going in. But largely we'll continue ideation on that. We think it makes sense for brands that are in markets that support those initiatives. But again, we operate in some smaller markets. We’re somewhat contained geographically, and we'll just have to see how that transpires in the future.”
The brand has come a long way in just nine and a half months. Tracy notes that before COVID, Huddle House was beginning to implement online ordering, albeit to a small portion of the system. That included the early stages of integrating third-party delivery, customizing the mobile app, and upgrading the technology stack in restaurants to support those functions. The plan was expected to take about a year, but once the pandemic hit, Huddle House was forced to act creatively and swiftly.
The brand found ways to modify its software to support older technology stacks at the start of COVID. At the same time, Huddle House rapidly advanced the rate at which it rolled out upgraded systems to execute the full version of Olo, the digital engine that powers the chain’s online ordering platform. All of that was cross-functionally supported by marketing, training, and operational departments that designed and distributed the necessary processes and procedures.
To ensure health and safety, Huddle House uses sanitary sealed packaging and QR codes on tables so customers can read menus digitally. Kitchen display systems are out of the testing phase and will be required for all new builds, conversions, and remodels. However, operators are allowed to install them at any time they choose for a relatively low cost.
To market the changes to consumers, Tracy says Huddle House used the typical print, digital and social channels on a national basis. But he regards local operators as having the most significant influence on spreading the word.
“Our franchisees, our company operators, and really, a lot of the general managers in the restaurants use their own social media networks to reach more and more and more people,” Tracy says. “They use their local contacts. We operate in small communities, so a lot of the folks in our restaurants go to the same schools, the same churches, the same grocery stores as everyone else in town, and there's a lot of grassroots marketing of their own to get the word out in their market.”
Tracy expects off-premises as a percentage of total sales to decline as dining rooms reopen, but he also believes the channel will continue to be much higher than it ever was pre-pandemic.
The COO says that going into COVID, Huddle House was a stout brand with a loyal customer base and talented franchisees. As the chain transitions to a post-COVID world, whenever that may be, he thinks Huddle House will be even stronger with a broader, highly engaged consumer base.
“It'll be across all revenue channels,” Tracy says. “And off-premise helped us certainly expand that and reach guests more frequently and more conveniently. Then I believe we'll couple that with an extremely competitive and very enticing franchise investment opportunity, which I think is going to position us for growth long into the future.”