Don’t use the word “unprecedented” around the O’Charley’s office.
The word—which has been used ad nauseam to describe the COVID pandemic—is outlawed at the company, says Craig Barber, CEO of O’Charley’s. Mostly because the word isn’t strong enough to aptly characterize what the U.S. has navigated in the past few months.
Unimaginable is closer to the target.
“No one on January 1 said, ‘Hey, about the end of the first quarter, no one can be in a restaurant,’” he says.
Barber points to March 11, when the NBA suspended its season, as the day America received its reality check. In the following weeks, the impact hit the restaurant industry like a freight train.
For O’Charley’s, the answer to what comes next was simple—embrace the challenge.
The 160-unit chain started morning calls seven days a week in which leadership discussed ways to adapt and react to changes. Barber compares the experience to hockey, in reference to Bill Foley, who chairs Cannae Holdings (majority owner of O’Charley’s) and owns the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
“We talked about where the puck is going and then we had to adapt to where might the puck then bounce,” Barber says. “It if deflects off a stick, it deflects off a skate, it deflects off a body, what does that mean? So for us as a management team, it really became trying to get to where we needed to be, but also adapting to where things would adjust.”
The good news is, O’Charley’s was prepared for off-premises with the partnership of online ordering platform Olo. The brand pared down its menu and reduced staff to roughly 4,400 to properly execute off-premise only. The maneuvers proved successful as off-premises grew five times what it was pre-COVID.
Before the pandemic, O’Charley’s was scheduled to roll out family meal deals in mid-April, but the company moved the release up a month to give consumers choices.
“It was the ability to say how can we meet a need, make it simple—you can call us, you can go online, however you want to access us—and we’ll provide you with a family meal,” Barber says. “… What we found was, the consumer—because they were house-bound, now homeschooling, not allowed to go to the office, had to wear their masks, etc.—they just wanted a meal that was easy, and we provided it. That particular element became a huge advantage for us.”
Beyond operations and sales, O’Charley’s made it a priority to serve the community.
The restaurant launched a “Hometown Heroes” initiative to support healthcare workers and first responders. The O’Charley’s food trailer traveled directly to hospitals and police and fire stations to serve free meals.
The company also partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank to help families and recently began the O’Charley’s Songwriters Café fundraiser series to benefit the Folded Flag Foundation, a nonprofit that benefits military families.
“We’re excited to be doing what we do,” Barber says. “We do it because we love to do it, and we have a great amazing team that loves to serve. And so when we talk about the Hometown Heroes piece, that is not just a cute catchphrase—that’s who we are. Not because it makes us heroes, but we’re celebrating those who are heroes.”
Restaurants have now reopened at 50 percent capacity. While that is progress, Barber explains that 50 percent doesn’t directly translate to half the restaurant because tables are 6 feet apart to ensure social distancing.
He recalls visiting a store in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where there was a wait mid-afternoon because the restaurant was unable to fill all the seats due to restrictions.
“We’re doing the best we can to make that the best possible wait experience, but it’s a different world,” Barber says. “We’re not trying to diminish the responsibility we have generally, much less the compliance side, but it’s challenging.”
With ABRH, LLC—parent of O’Charley’s—spanning more than 40 states (O’Charley’s in 17), remaining consistent across the system is another challenge.
“The issue is, how do you balance all the different states and particular localities?” Barber questions. “… We’ve got 95 counties [in Tennessee] and 89 of 95 have one rule and the other six have different rules. So how do we provide the right experience to our guests within the construct and restrictions of what it is we need to do? So we’re trying not to diminish the great experience from a food standpoint and a hospitality standpoint.”
Sales aren’t what they were last year, but they’re back to a respectable level, Barber says. In addition, O’Charley’s built its workforce up to 11,600 by the end of June.
Communication was key as the management team spoke with workers each week about where the company was headed.
Barber says there were some challenges with the labor process, but that came as no surprise. He notes that a small percentage of workers preferred to remain on the enhanced unemployment benefits from the federal government.
But the O’Charley’s leader says that was the exception, not the rule.
“Everybody’s choice is their choice, and we’re not at all disrespectful to that,” Barber says. “But the reality is, most of the people we’re blessed to have working with us, they love to serve people. We would find that most, not all, but most people came back to work because they wanted to work and serve people and that’s who they are.”
Looking ahead, Barber says the conversations in the media around the spike in COVID cases has changed O’Charley’s trajectory, but not to a bad position.
It doesn’t matter what television channel they watch, he knows consumers are going to react to what they see and hear. And if he’s being honest, the future is difficult to predict at this point.
All O’Charley’s can control is maintaining its promised standard of service.
“It is what is,” Barber says. “I think it’s going to be that way for a while, and our responsibility is to make sure we meet the needs of our customers and do all we can with what we have.”