Additionally, XRG didn’t pare down any of its menus. It’s even kept up the chef’s special quarterly program it’s always used to introduce new items or bring back past favorites.
“They still have their brands,” Sharpe says. “The brands they’ve grown up with, that are loved, that they’ve been around. Brunch. Taco Tuesday. Things they can count on.”
“If we have to make some changes and it’s a little more expensive, in the long run guests will appreciate it and they’ll come back and we’ll win on volume,” he adds.
Sharpe sees it this way. In our daily lives, COVID isn’t just the invisible enemy. It’s affecting everything even when we can’t connect the dots. Why is the dry cleaner late? How long will it take to ship a package?
Restaurants can fall into this habit or they can navigate around it, he says. “I say this to my team all the time: Leaders solve problems. They don’t make excuses. I really believe that. … We have solved problems. Guests are counting on us to. The last thing anyone wants to hear when you go out to eat at one of our restaurants or any restaurant is, we can’t do that because of COVID.”
Sharpe has held firm to this north star during some challenging turns. Roughly 90 percent of XRG’s business in California. The same percentage is in casual dining.
The company was down as much as 90 percent in sales early on when the on-premises game went dark. It clawed its way back to 65 percent or so of prior-year business before outdoor dining and other options progressed the system to single-digit declines in early February.
Naturally, it’s been a twisted experience since tied to California’s regulatory flip-flops, including an outdoor dining ban that took effect in early December and waged in the courts.
Sharpe says XRG spent significant capital trying to ensure it had sufficient outdoor space, something it saw coming over the summer. And it led to strong results. XRG was actually up in sales in August, September, and October over 2019 levels. It then had to pivot again with the December change and try to survive a strange, eight-week stretch.
But it’s essentially back across the system and XRG has returned to “full strength,” meaning California units at least have outdoor options and the balance of the company’s Midwest and East Coast stores boast some combination. Right around Valentine’s Day is when XRG started to make noise again, Sharpe says.
“I think we have a better chance here than most and I think that the key to success, again, is exactly what we did in July [with the outdoor patios]. Just be ready. Be staffed,” Sharpe says. “Make sure your space is inviting to your guest while maintaining all the protocols.”
The labor part has been critical. XRG brought back more than 90 percent of its temporarily furloughed employee base and hired additional workers to ensure each restaurant was fully staffed, trained, and ready to go when mandates allowed for it. The company didn’t close a single restaurant or take on new debt during the pandemic. It also ensured field ops teams and managers all received bonuses, whether stores hit typical metrics or not.
Not one manager was let go in the past year. This was key not only because it helped XRG operate skeleton takeout and carryout-only crews when needed, but also because it kept active lines to hourly employees open. These same managers are the ones who reached back out when the time to reopen began and staffing levels needed to rise.
“It’s a long-term look of how to solve a problem versus how do we look today,” Sharpe says. “Not that it wasn’t nerve wracking the entire time—it was. But I think it was the right thing to do.”