James J. King treated COVID-19 as a catalyst to reinvent his restaurant group, Titan Hospitality. He even opened a fresh concept, Smashing Grapes Kitchen + Wine Bar, in a former Greene Turtle sports bar in September in Annapolis, Maryland.
King’s approach took historic hospitality anchors—culture and work ethic—and infused them with innovation. Namely, a focus on building systems to offer contactless experiences to guests while making sure Titan Hospitality’s workplaces matched a changing sector. King’s investments helped the company, which also operates Blackwall Barn & Lodge, Blackwall Hitch, and a Roy Rogers in Gambrills, Maryland, retain more than 350 employees as they look to the near- and long-term future of running concepts in transformative times.
King chatted with FSR about Titan Hospitality’s approach, why it’s worked, and what it’s going to take to thrive on the other side.
Let’s go back to the early days of the pandemic. Early on, how did your restaurants respond?
We immediately changed course to a “carry-out” model. We had to close in-house dining for two months and had to adapt to carry-out and delivery as our new business model. This involved changing the menu to items that traveled better, adjusting our labor force and bringing on technology that would assist us in efficiency and productivity.
How big of a sales drop did you witness? What were some other initial challenges?
We saw an 86 percent drop in sales overnight. The most difficult challenge was adjusting our expenses to meet our revenues. This included intense and lengthy negotiations with our banks, landlords, and vendors. It took weeks and months to re-negotiate terms which was incredibly difficult while trying to juggle a complete business model overhaul.
Talk about the investments to retain employees. Where did you begin?
We focused on our leadership teams throughout the company. We decided to make an investment in our corporate support team, general managers and executive chef’s. Knowing eventually, we would have to rebuild the businesses back to a business model, that while may never look the same, would be more reminiscent of our pre-Covid model. We knew that in order to do that effectively, we would need a strong support team to help us rebuild. We also felt it was simply the right thing to do with many of these staff members having their own financial obligations at home, we wanted to support them too.
What kind of pivots did the restaurants make, starting with technology and providing a contactless experience? Walk us through those changes.
We implemented several new technologies to the various operations. We started with QR codes for our guests to view our menus. They could simply scan a code to have our menus pop up. This enabled the guest to use their own personal devices and not have to handle our menus. We also launched several new delivery systems that we had not previously used. We recognized that we needed to fight for our market share in every and all revenue avenues. We went from one delivery service to four overnight. As we re-opened, we saw that many consumers still wanted to physically view our offerings, so we invested in iPads for each restaurant that could be sanitized between each use. These iPads were loaded with all of our offerings from menus, wine lists, daily specials, and brunch highlights. This also gave us the flexibility to change our menus as we battled through nationwide shortages in certain products and drastic price increases in others. We were able to stay nimble and adjust our offerings daily without suffering from expensive printing costs weekly.
“There is no question that things will get worse before they get better.”
What systems did you implement to make the guest experience better?
I think the QR codes combined with the iPad gave guests a completely different experience. Not only did they feel safer, but they could browse at offerings throughout the course of the meal. They could look for that next signature cocktail they wanted to try or start browsing our dessert menu as they nibbled on their appetizers. They did not have to request a specific menu or wait for a server to suggest a dessert. All of our offerings were at their fingertips and they could pace their meal and their choices on their timeline and not ours.
How about the work environment for employees?
We immediately communicated best practices from the CDC and the local and state health departments in our region. We were one of the first companies to mandate face masks and disposable gloves for all of our employees before the various government jurisdictions mandated those guidelines. In addition, we implemented mandatory temperature checks several times throughout the course of an employee’s shift. Each employee complied and quickly understood the importance.
Talk about opening Smashing Grapes Kitchen and Wine Bar in September, in the heart of all this. What were some challenges unique to the times?
Opening a new restaurant in the midst of a global pandemic is not for the faint of heart! Challenges included major delays in sourcing furniture, lighting and kitchen equipment as the shipping industry was severely affected by the pandemic. Hiring was twice as hard as in normal times and creating a menu with unique offerings while vendors ran out of stock on the most basic of items created daily hurdles for my operations and culinary teams. We persevered through the challenges and found that the general public was overwhelmingly supportive and pleased to have a new dining option in the region.
How are you approaching the winter challenge? What advice would you offer to fellow restaurateurs?
There is no question that things will get worse before they get better. The combination of colder weather and losing outdoor dining, the rise and spike in cases across the country, which is driving consumed confidence to all-time lots, will prove challenging for the most seasoned of restaurateurs. The positive news is that with the recent vaccine developments, we believe that there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I would urge fellow restaurateurs to buckle down, cut expenses, hold on to any cash savings they may have and focus on the guest experience with everything they have. No amount of marketing and advertising dollars are going to drive business into your units, only providing a great experience and hoping that those individuals will share their experience and keep customers coming through the doors.
Generally, what are some survival tactics you’d suggest operators invest in?
We have found the only way to survive is to get more out of your salaried positions. Gone are the days of managers floating around the dining room and checking on a guest’s experience every now and then. They must be hostesses, dishwashers, cooks, servers and bartenders. If you are going to make the sacrifice paying large salaries throughout this pandemic, you must find a way to boost their productivity. If they are willing to roll their sleeves up and perform the job duties of two or three hourly employees, it’s worth the investment.
Which of the COVID innovations do you think are here to stay?
I think the boom in delivery is here to stay. For fine dining and family-casual dining this was less than 1 percent of revenue, now it’s closer to 10 percent. While I believe many consumers are itching to get back out to restaurants and bars, trends and habits are hard to break, especially when they increase convenience for the consumer. Offering delivery services is here to stay and operators will have to get good at it to compete!
What do you think about the conversations revolving around federal aid right now?
There has been a lack in communication between local, state and federal decision makers in my opinion. The Federal Government was too slow to act and when they did, unfortunately, the support programs were difficult to apply for and were extremely cumbersome and offered little assistance. A dedicated restaurant recovery program is needed and needed fast or this will be an extinction event for the industry. Congress needs to put partisan politics aside and act on behalf of the citizens. It is in everyone’s best interest to act swiftly, decisively and in a manner that gets restaurants through the next five months, not five weeks.
Say a year from now, what do you think the industry will look like?
My hope is that a year from now, restaurants will look very similar to the way they did a year ago. However, unfortunately there will be much fewer of them. I believe people are creatures of habit and they are social beings. They want to be out and they want to be seen. People want to meet friends and family to engage in meaningful dialogue in a face-to-face setting. While the younger generations will naturally adapt easier to items of convenience such as delivery, pick-up, Zoom and social media, there are still millions of Americans that want to share a bottle of wine, discuss the happenings in their lives, share stories and do so in a nice environment. I do not believe that will ever change. However, people’s expectations will change and those who are not executing at a high level will struggle next to those who focus on the guest experience from the décor on the walls, the cleanliness of the restrooms and the quality of the food and service they offer. In a tough economy, people expect more for their hard-earned dollar. If you can deliver on that expectation, you will survive and likely thrive as the pandemic winds down and life gets back to the new normal!