Yet these efforts weren’t the only way Texas Roadhouse supported its employees. Doster says the brand’s other top priority was securing protective gear, such as masks, gloves, and even goggles, even before any mandates about such equipment were passed. The company also rolled out temperature checks and symptom surveys to help keep employees safe, as well as educated staff about how they can wash hands, wear masks, and take other measures to stay safe at work and at home.
Next, Texas Roadhouse turned its attention to protecting employees' livelihoods by expanding operations. In the first few weeks, 100 percent of the company’s business pivoted to off-premises dining. While this meant employees—which the company calls “roadies”—who were hired to be hosts or servers found themselves suddenly delivering orders to the parking lot instead, many responded positively to the shift.
“The change required our roadies to change occupation and mindset, but everybody rose to the challenge and had fun with it,” Doster says. “We had speakers in our parking lots playing the country music we’re known for, and our employees even did line dancing in parking lots to recreate the energy and excitement that guests would get in the restaurants.”
Additionally, Doster says operators of corporate stores are treated as owners of their restaurants and were given the freedom to decide how their locations should function during COVID. This meant that in addition to takeout, some Texas Roadhouse stores also set up tents in their parking lots for outdoor dining. Doster says a few locations even had more tables in their tents than they did in their dining rooms—a boon for workers, who Doster notes have been tipped generously by guests during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, during supply chain interruptions, other store leaders used their distribution capabilities to open farmers markets to sell produce, toilet paper, paper towels, and even raw steaks or drinks to consumers who were unable to find such supplies in local grocery stores.
“We’re based in Louisville, Kentucky, but we have stores all over the world,” Doster says. “Kent often says ‘I’m not going to sit here in Louisville telling people how to run their businesses.’ We have smart, hardworking operators, so we gave them freedom to figure this out for themselves, while supporting them with the resources they needed to do the job. Then we took the best ideas and shared them with other stores to help make each location successful.”
Now, as the world turns its attention to vaccination and a post-COVID future, the Texas Roadhouse team plans to take some of the lessons learned in the past year with the company into the future. First, Doster says he expects the brand’s rapid transformation over the past few months, particularly regarding off-premises dining, to serve as proof of what can be accomplished in a short time.
“It’s amazing how much has changed in just nine months,” Doster says. “Normally if we were doing something like adding partitions to booths, we would have tested the idea out at four or five restaurants and then rolled them out to other stores eight or nine months later. But COVID has compressed that timeline, and I hope we’ll keep operating at this speed.”
So far, the brand is continuing at this quickened pace. Doster notes that one restaurant just installed a drive-thru window, a first for the 27-year-old sit-down chain, and it’s already added a new “sanitation coordinator” position at each restaurant. Texas Roadhouse plans to continue examining how labor is divided at stores, shifting more workers into to-go services. Notably, Doster says the brand will also add a “to-go coordinator” as a new position in stores, while some locations may explore adding permanent outdoor dining options, such as patios, or carry out alcoholic beverage orders depending on local regulations.
Yet Doster says no matter what the next year looks like for Texas Roadhouse, he’s certain the one element of the brand that won’t change is its commitment to supporting employees.
“One of our managing partners said it best: ‘Hospitality is our job, but serving others should be our passion’,” Doster says. “We’ve always been a people-focused company, and we’ve always talked a lot about partnerships, but I think throughout this year, our employees saw us fighting for them, and I think it made a real difference in their lives, just as they’ve made a real difference at Texas Roadhouse.