As more states lift restrictions on dining rooms, Chili’s parent Brinker International is swiftly adjusting.
Rick Badgley, executive vice president and chief people and administrative officer, says the company developed protocol weeks ago on what needs to take place in a restaurant before reopening. This proactive approach has allowed operators to reopen as soon as a state permits.
More than 600 company-run units have welcomed back dine-in traffic, which accounts for more than half of the Chili’s and Maggiano’s corporate fleet (Brinker ended Q3 with 1,060 company-run Chili’s and 52 company-run Maggiano’s locations in the U.S.).
“We have a government relations team and an industry relations team that is staying ahead of it, understanding what the sentiment and the current direction is by state and local municipalities,” Badgley says. “We have a good chance of anticipating. And when we’re ready to go, literally the next day, we are open for business and staffed.”
To ensure safety, employees are required to wear masks and gloves. They also must wash their hands for at least 20 seconds every 30 minutes and after touch points like holding a credit card or changing gloves. Any worker who shows symptoms is not allowed to work until he or she is symptom-free for at least three days. If an employee does test positive for COVID-19, he or she cannot return to work for at least 14 days.
Surfaces are sanitized every 30 minutes and sanitation stations have been installed at every entry point of the restaurant. Tables and chairs were removed to achieve social distancing and extra staff added to takeout areas and main entrances so customers don’t have to touch door handles.
Badgley says parking lots have become the new dining room at reopened stores.
“We’ve leveraged our no-wait technology that we use on busy times,” Badgley says. “When you’re on a wait, we keep people in their car and we text them … We’ve extended our hospitality and our guest relations right into the parking lot be it with to-go and curbside or be it with guests coming into the restaurant if there’s a wait with limited capacity that we see on the weekends.”
Brinker is leveraging tabletop technology and emailed surveys to gauge how customers are responding to the adjusted environment.
Badgley says the company is receiving nearly 25,000 surveys a day in addition to calls on its 24/7 guest relations line.
“The general sentiment that we’ve seen both on social media and the feedback mechanisms that we have is how impressed [customers] are with the steps we have taken with both team members and guests,” Badgley says. “There’s been a few exceptions where there’s been questions, but most of the time, we’re seeing guests being overly impressed with what we’re doing. We like to think that we’re taking that one extra step beyond CDC guidelines within our restaurants.”
Along with hundreds of reopenings, Brinker has brought back 40 percent of the roughly 30,000 employees it furloughed after nationwide dining room closures began in March.
Some in the industry have voiced concern over employees preferring to stay on unemployment benefits as opposed to returning to work, especially since some are making more than they did at their job. The CARES Act added $600 in weekly payments on top of state benefits, which is set to end July 31.
There is debate among Republicans and Democrats as to whether that will extend further. In a $3 trillion bill introduced by House Democrats, the benefits would extend until January 31, but the legislation has been widely viewed as a nonstarter by the GOP.
From Brinker’s perspective, Badgley says most employees are excited about returning to work.
“Do we have pockets of cases where individuals have extenuating circumstances? Absolutely,” Badgley says. “Have we heard stories of folks that are leveraging the state and federal supplement? They’re making those choices. That tends to be the exception. I give credit to our culture that we’ve built over the last 45 years and the relationship that our operators have with our team members. It’s been pretty remarkable to see. We have certainly experienced some of that, but it’s certainly not the rule of thumb.”
As employees return, there’s also growing concern about business liability, such as worker’s compensation claims related to COVID.
On May 18, President Donald Trump and his administration held a roundtable discussion with several restaurateurs about needs in the industry. RBI CEO José Cil raised concern about what he described as “frivolous” and “unfounded” lawsuits and the need for federally backed business liability protection. The idea is supported among Republicans, but not by Democrats.
Badgley says Brinker can’t control what lawyers do in the future. He does know that each restaurant is taking the proper measures to protect employees and customers.
“And when there is a concern within a restaurant, if we have a situation, we will close down a restaurant for cleaning,” Badgley says. “So we take proactive measures. We understand on the back end there could be some of that, but we’re going to play offense, not defense.”
Badgley says Brinker has learned two main lessons from the pandemic. One is the value of its investment in technology over the past five years. The other is the resiliency of the brand’s culture including employees at the restaurant support center, field workers and hourly/salaried restaurant employees.
Furloughed workers retained health benefits and didn’t lose access to their anniversary gift or their rewards card, which provides a 50 percent discount on in-store purchases. Brinker also set up a relief fund and spent more than $15 million to support hourly workers it couldn’t schedule.
He adds that all of those measures were kept in place to make sure employees knew they were still a part of the Brinker family.
“Even today, as we experience people that have direct [hardship]—either they’ve contracted COVID or they have it in their household, we have made sure those individual team members, on our benefits team or not, are taken care of so they don’t experience hardship,” Badgley says. “I think when we look at this and how we remain strong through this and how we’ll be strong on the other side is that our culture and our commitment to our team members is really what stood out.”