UNO Pizzeria & Grill CEO Erik Frederick is ex-military, which means taking care of his people is in his DNA just as much as accomplishing any mission.
So Frederick was intrigued when a woman in his neighborhood started a Facebook page to disseminate information about COVID vaccinations. He knew that his workforce—whether it’s older workers or those who use English as a second language—sorely needed updates on regulations and how to set up appointments. Frederick also realized that employees need more than just a blast of information—they also require in-person or virtual guidance through the entire process.
With his “no person left behind” mindset leading the charge, Frederick was inspired to start an internal concierge service that helps employees secure and attend vaccine appointments. The help desk is bilingual, and affects company-run stores, as well as franchises, the UNO Foods manufacturing plant in Massachusetts, and the corporate office. Based in Boston, the brand is oversees roughly 90 company-owned and franchised stores across 18 states and Washington, DC.
The help desk is composed of employees who volunteer to set up appointments and sit side-by-side with coworkers while they search for information. Those who can’t commit to the help desk are still assisting restaurants in their area, Frederick says. In some cases, workers are reimbursed for transportation to vaccine centers if they aren’t able to get there by themselves.
To further encourage vaccinations, UNO is providing a $50 gift card to those that receive doses.
“I would argue the No. 1 thing you’ve got to have to do this is you just have to really, really care and be the kind of person who’s resourceful enough to say, ‘OK, beyond going to the state’s website, what are the other places doing and what are some of the ins and outs?” Frederick says. “Like in Massachusetts, we’ve got some towns that are really hard hit that regardless of your age or morbidity or other things, the town has health centers where they’re literally open to the community to get vaccinated because by and large they’re a COVID hotspot.”
The CEO says the service is heartwarming and also heartbreaking, depending on the perspective. He cites one example where the service helped an employee who had been qualified for over a month. The CEO was told by the help desk volunteer that the worker probably wouldn’t have received a vaccine without the new program because he just didn’t know where to turn. Frederick notes that desk workers can refresh computers and be on hold. The same isn’t true for hourly employees, let alone having access to a constant barrage of information.
In late March, the service was piloted at the manufacturing plant, which happens to be in one of Massachusetts’ biggest COVID hotspots, according to Frederick. In a matter of days, the help desk assisted 87 percent with signing up for a vaccine appointment. Several were already eligible, but didn’t have the means or the knowledge to obtain an appointment.
Frederick says volunteers have taken the new service and ran with it. He notes one woman routinely posts to a private Facebook group and another worker in Florida has helped many in the region. In a lot of ways, Frederick feels like all he did was light a match, and the whole service just accelerated.
“It’s one thing for the executive level to say, ‘Hey, what a great idea this is and everything,’” Frederick says. “It’s another thing when your shift supervisor is saying ‘No, man, you got to do this. Here’s the deal. And forget you’re hearing the story about some guy in Wyoming getting [COVID] two months after. Focus on affected people are dying until they get it.’ That’s been a huge thing for us.”
“One of my standard lines, I borrow from a doctor friend of mine, ‘Yeah, it’s an experimental drug,” he continues. “‘You know what else is experimental? Getting COVID.’”
UNO is part of a larger trend in the U.S. The White House announced Monday that the country is averaging 3.1 million shots per day in the past seven-day period. On the weekend, more than four million vaccinations were administered, a new high. More than 40 percent of adults have received at least one shot and almost 25 percent are fully vaccinated. Seventy-five percent of seniors have received at least one dose, and more than half are fully vaccinated. A Gallup poll shows that people’s satisfaction with the vaccination rollout grew from 34 percent in January to 68 percent in March. In September, 50 percent were willing to get the vaccine; now 74 percent are willing to receive it.
For restaurants in particular, many have announced incentives for employees who receive the vaccine, although that wasn’t the case in the very beginning. In January and February, many brands were still deciding what to do, and UNO was no exception. Frederick says that when leadership spoke about it, the reward was a no-brainer. There was a discussion about whether to tie a specific “by this date” to it, but that opened questions about timing of eligibility and some employees preferring to take a wait-and-see approach. So, the restaurant nixed that idea.
The brand also talked about making the vaccine mandatory, but Frederick says that would be impossible to enforce. It also didn’t jibe with UNO’s culture, the CEO explains.
“If you want to lead change, if you want to get things done, it’s almost lazy to rely on mandatory when we really wanted to more or less gain market share,” Frederick says. “We really wanted to convince people that, ‘Hey, this is a good thing to do. It’s a safe thing to do.’ And look, it’s not just for you, it’s for your coworkers and our guests and all that, too.’”
Frederick says that as more get vaccinated, the industry is heading toward an era of pent-up demand. And UNO is in the process of preparing for that boom, which the CEO says should happen sometime during the summer. Concerning his own employees, there is no set goal for how many he’d like vaccinated—he just wants as many as possible to receive it.
He hopes other chains will pick up UNO’s program to help restore faith and confidence in the industry.
“I do think that this is going to be a really good retention tool for us, just as people say, ‘Well, I work for a place that really cares about me and are willing to do this and put resources up against it and all that kind of thing,’” Frederick says. “And so we do hope that that reverberates with our associates. And then look, as the word gets out and they talk to their friends and bring them into UNO—not every place is like this. And so, if that just adds one more sort of brick in our culture of a great place to work and everything, then even better.”