The CEO of an eatertainment restaurant group offers tips for weathering the dine-in ban.
For many restaurants, including those that had never offered off-premises options before, carryout and delivery have become a life raft over the past week. The revenues may be a fraction of what the business normally turns out, but it can mean the difference between keeping the lights on and shuttering the business, at least temporarily.
But what about the restaurants that are deeply rooted in the dine-in experience? One industry hit even harder than foodservice is live events, from professional sports and concerts to movies and theater plays. For so-called eatertainment concepts that incorporate those elements into the restaurant setting, the coronavirus is a double blow.
“We built the company specifically around experiential dining. It’s not just about food; it's about a dog park, concert venue, bowling alleys,” says Kyle Noonan, cofounder and CEO of FreeRange Concepts and executive board member of the Texas Restaurant Association.
Based in Dallas, the restaurant group comprises three distinct brands: Bowl & Barrel is a restaurant-plus-bowling alley; Mutts Canine Cantina is both a libation-serving fast casual and a dog park; The Rustic marries foodservice and live music; and The General Public, while a bit more conventional than its sister concepts, thrives on in-person business thanks to its positioning as a community-focused neighborhood restaurant and bar.
“The state of Texas has banned all restaurant dine-in; it’s allowing takeout and delivery,” Noonan says. “Our business has effectively gone to zero. We have takeout and delivery, but it’s pennies to what we do dining-wise.”
Despite the dismal circumstances, he is staying hopeful; it helps, of course, that he and his team have already implemented a plan to maximize the restaurants’ closures and come back even stronger. Here’s how Noonan is responding to the crisis along with some takeaways that could help other operators.
1. Re-imagine your closures as new-store openings
As of right now, our strategy is to keep team members’ morale as high as possible. We're trying to treat this as we would a new-store opening, from a marketing standpoint, a preparedness standpoint, and a training standpoint.
We’re using this time to retrain staff, market in the local community, and get the building tip-top shape again so when we’re allowed to open, we’ll hopefully be in a great position.
2. Take a deeper dive into employee training
Instead of a surface-level knowledge, let's really educate our staff to an even greater degree. Take, for example, our wine program by doing a deeper dive, a team member can become more of an expert in that area. We’re trying to heighten our service-training during this time so that we become a little bit more efficient, a little bit better. So much of what we do is keeping the team engaged, keeping people excited and feeling like there's progress being made instead of just being stagnant.
3. Check with your landlord
I know a lot of landlords, and the smart ones understand the situation. They would rather not collect rent for two months and then have the business reopen under full strength as opposed to the business stay dormant and then go away entirely. Most of the landlords I've heard from are forgiving or deferring the rent for the time being. It's in everybody's best interest to do that even though nothing has been officially mandated.
4. Remember that you’re not going it alone
This is the first time that the government has effectively shut down an entire industry since Prohibition. Industries have gone out of business based on innovation, but we went from a busy weekend to no business at all come [the previous] Monday.
The Texas Restaurant Association is pressing hard at the federal and state level to put things into action and codify things. The situation just happened so fast that nothing has officially been done yet.
5. Be ready for pent-up demand—and cleaner customers
There's going to be such pent-up demand that customers will be eager to get back to eating at their favorite restaurants or going to their favorite concert or whatever it might be because I think we're all going to be stir-crazy by the time this is stabilized. The good news is that there is going to be a heightened awareness of social distancing and a higher level of cleanliness from the consumers.
6. Keep your head up
As an industry, we’re scrappy and clever; we’ll figure out a way. Yes, it’s going to be a challenge, but when things come back online and the situation starts to stabilize, the consumer is really going to want to go out and enjoy being out. By nature, humans are social beings; as long as we’ve been on this planet, we’ve done things in groups and packs.