In June, the chain had reopened a sizable set of dining rooms, with to-go operations in place at all locations. Aside from ensuring safety in its sprawling network of restaurants, Red Lobster was also facing the monumental task of bringing employees back to work. Through the shutdown, the company was able to keep some of its directors of operations and team members working thanks to off-premises platforms and the Seafood for Heroes program, a seafood-centric meal drive for hospital workers spearheaded by the Napa Seafood Foundation. That program helped Red Lobster retain certain staff for the eventual reopening of its dining rooms.
Chili’s was in a similar position to Red Lobster and other chains at the beginning of the pandemic, when it was forced to furlough half of its hourly team members. But by June, the brand had reopened more than 80 percent of its dining rooms, with more than 870 of 1,060 company-run restaurants open for in-store business.
Those rapid reopenings have required a quick re-staffing of restaurants to ensure operations run smoothly for returning guests. Rick Badgley, Chili’s executive vice president and chief people and administrative officer, told FSR in May that the combined use of a government relations team and an industry relations team allowed Chili’s to stay on top of various government regulations and reopen stores quickly.
"When we’re ready to go, literally the next day, we are open for business and staffed," he said.
The quasi-open phase
Big Whiskey’s, a 14-year-old, 14-unit American restaurant and bar chain, also faced hiring hurdles upon reopening. For the Ozark, Missouri–based brand, the process of re-hiring and re-training existing staff was coupled with hiring and training new employees for two new franchised stores that opened in the midst of the pandemic.
“[Our new franchisees] are some of the most optimistic people; they’ve put their heads down and worked through this and rolled with the punches,” says Paul Sundy, founder and COO of Big Whiskey’s. “Don’t get me wrong; it hasn’t been easy for any of us, any of our people. But this is just what we do in the restaurant business.”
The company opened one franchised store in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 12, and one in Hoover, Alabama, on July 3. Three more franchised stores are slated to open by year-end. Similar to other brand execs, Sundy says paying attention to the varying regulations in different markets is key to reopening (and opening) safely. But offering extended training for all staff has also been integral to the process.
For the Tulsa store, Big Whiskey’s began training new employees on increased safety protocols in May, weeks before the store opened in June. Hoover team members started training nearly a month ahead of their store’s July 3 grand opening. And all units, both new and old, have a staff member newly trained and in place for sanitation duties only.
Xperience Restaurant Group (XRG) in Cypress, California, runs 60-plus units of Mexican restaurant concepts El Torito, Chevys Fresh Mex, Sol Mexican Cocina, Acapulco, Sinigual, Solita, El Torito Grill, and Las Brisas. Unlike Big Whiskey’s, the group isn’t kicking any new stores into gear right out of the gate. But, similar to Big Whiskey’s, resuming business post-pandemic for XRG includes a new, in-depth training program. XRG CEO Randy Sharpe says the process still feels like “a brand-new restaurant opening.”