Shuckin’ Shack's Bill Bartlett.
Shuckin’ Shack

Bill Bartlett, chief operating officer at Shuckin’ Shack, a 16-unit oyster bar franchise, offered insights on how emerging franchise brands are setting a new industry standard for innovation. 

How Emerging Franchises Weathered the COVID-19 Storm

With new visions of how to best serve today’s customers, upstart brands had a blueprint for dealing with unforeseen events.

Here’s the big lesson COVID-19 taught restaurant operators: if you want your restaurant to grow, think small. At least, think smaller. And faster. And nimbler.

In short, think more like an emerging franchise. That’s because the only thing that’s not small about these upstarts is their ambition.  

At Shuckin’ Shack, our North Carolina-based oyster franchise with 16 locations scattered across the eastern seaborn, our stores were able to withstand the worst of the pandemic because we had laid the groundwork to be responsive to unforeseen crises back when we launched our first restaurant in 2007 —not in March of 2020. That groundwork is part of our DNA as a brand, and it’s part of every emerging chain’s DNA.

Smaller, emerging franchises have a different way of looking at their businesses —everything from training employees to perfecting the menu is thoughtfully planned and executed. It’s a less-is-more ethos that allows emerging chains to react to a situation on the ground, whether it’s a pandemic or simply rolling out a new menu item system-wide.

Here are four key ways that emerging chains set themselves apart.

The Concept: Points for Originality

What sets a restaurant apart from the competition? That’s the first and most important question operators need to ask themselves. Let’s face it: there are a lot of burger joints in the world. Does the world really need another? Possibly. But operators that have a clear vision and distinct point of differentiation immediately stand out in a sea of sameness.

Emerging chains are often the ones forging ahead with new and fresh ways of seeing the world. For example, our experience at Shuckin’ Shack of bringing high-end seafood into a casual atmosphere meant we didn’t have much direct competition. Customers could easily find one or the other, but no one had married the two. People can feel comfortable coming into our restaurants wearing shorts and flip-flops but they will still get a high-end meal of fresh, top-quality seafood. As a seafood restaurant, we were swimming against the tide, so to speak.

By the same virtue, competition is emerging on every corner all the time. Franchise owners are competing against the new, flashier restaurant that opened across the street. They are competing against third-party delivery. They are competing against at-home meal kits.

The solution is creating an experience that can’t be replicated anywhere else. It’s crucial for emerging chains to make the dining atmosphere one-of-a-kind and something that customers will keep coming back for. And one essential piece of this puzzle is finding the right staff.

Staff: Teach How, But Also Teach Why

As restaurant operators, it’s our job to create engagement and excitement with guests, and that comes largely from the energy of the staff. Owners need to dedicate time and resources to finding the right people and, once they’ve built a strong team, trust the process and let the personality of the staff shine through. Not only will guests find greater satisfaction, but so will team members.

Emerging brands are the ones who are re-writing the playbook on employee training. In other words, the days of servers greeting guests with scripted, phony banter is over. Guests are searching for authenticity both in their food and from those who serve it.

Shuckin’ Shack has found success in helping our team members not only understand our processes, but also the logic behind everything that we do. From there, they can use their own judgment and let their personalities carry them through the day. We want interactions with our guests to feel genuine.

Of course, this makes the hiring process a more crucial part of operations. If a restaurant claims to have a party atmosphere, you need to find a way to identify employees who know how to act as party hosts. 

After the shutdowns, when we were able to open our dining rooms at a limited capacity, it was wonderful to see customers coming back and specifically looking for their favorite servers.

The Menu: Focus, Focus, Focus

Emerging restaurant franchises are not trying to be all things to all people. Neither is the menu. Restaurants should make it clear to the consumer what to expect. In our case, we’re called Shuckin’ Shack. With that name, we better have the best, freshest oysters in town. If that means that we need to pare down our menu a bit so more energy and care can go into our oysters, that’s okay.

That being said, you shouldn’t be stubborn. A great steakhouse is also going to have an amazing salad. It took us a few years to get there, but eventually, we put a burger and a BLT on the menu. They’re not seafood, but they do help us reel in customers, particularly at lunch, and allow us to better serve larger groups where not everyone is a fan of fish.

A small, streamlined menu allows you to keep the menu fresh and focus on executing each dish to perfection. Additionally, a smaller menu allows restaurants to propagate new items through the system much faster than larger concepts. Smaller chains are proving to be successful because they don’t have the same command-and-control issues as the giant operators; smaller chains can be nimble and have the flexibility to keep pace with consumer tastes without chasing the latest fad.

Store Footprint: Size Matters

Part of why emerging brands are changing the restaurant industry is the simple fact that they’re choosing smaller operating sizes. A smaller footprint not only lowers costs but it also has other brand-centric payoffs: it creates a more consistent customer experience.

When we first opened Shuckin’ Shack, a smaller size seemed like the obvious way for us to go. We wanted a manageable space that still felt like it was a part of the neighborhood dining experience without feeling like a fast food concept.

During COVID-19, we found that smaller sizes did have a few drawbacks. For instance, we struggled to find storage space for the additional to-go packaging we were using to keep up with takeout orders. And now, as large chains like Starbucks and Chipotle begin to design digital-first concepts, some may even consider our stores, running from 2,600 to 3,000 square feet, to be slightly large for the industry. Only time will tell.

But that’s exactly the point. In an industry where change is now a fact of life, emerging chains like ours are designed to change right along with it; we are charting a successful course for others to follow.

Bill Bartlett is the Chief Operating Officer for Shuckin’ Shack Franchising LLC. Bill leads the Shuckin’ Shack team as an operational leader and cultural mentor, providing financial accountability to the team while overseeing all day-to-day operational performances. Involved in all aspects of operations, Bill spearheads the training evolution that Shuckin’ Shack is bringing to the hospitality industry by providing genuine engagement from staff members and a simplified logical approach to creating superior customer experiences. Bill builds on a foundation of knowledge built over years of experience as a leader of start-up companies, turnaround ventures, franchise organizations and as the COO of major hospitality companies. Over the course of his career, Bill has opened over 160 restaurants on seven different continents, developing a wealth of knowledge that only time in the industry with front line experience can bring.