Bring it on, 2021.

If you would have told me when I went home on March 16, 2020, that 15-plus months later we would still be in a sort of post-COVID limbo, I would never have believed you. To think that over a year would go by before most states returned to some semblance of business as usual, or that restaurants would still face capacity, hours of operation or indoor dining restrictions, or that in 10 states people would still be required to wear masks indoors if not fully vaccinated, would have been unheard of. And yet, here we are, in the summer of 2021, in just that situation.

As many other restaurants did during the pandemic, Smokey Bones quickly learned to adapt to a brave new world. We followed the CDC guidelines and each of our states’ leads, shut our dining rooms when necessary, did what was best for our guests and employees while fighting hard to keep our business upright. We were fortunate to have been on the leading edge of the virtual restaurant movement, having launched two virtual brands—The Wing Experience and Burger Experience—in 2019, which gave us a bit of a head start with the rapid shift to off-premises dining. We launched an early ghost kitchen just mere weeks into the shut down, which extended our footprint into a new market. Leveraging the strong partnerships we already had in place with our third-party delivery providers, we were able to grow our reach and awareness, even despite scaling back on marketing and paid media. We even offered to-go alcohol where allowed by law, as many states relaxed liquor laws to help struggling restaurants survive, and leaned into individually wrapped meals to be more COVID-friendly to the few groups who were still gathering.

Now, midway through 2021, we’re happily seeing a bit of light. States are opening back up, and following a year of being cooped up and confined, consumers are spending upwards of 20 percent more than they were this time in 2019. Some of that is undoubtedly due to stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits, but some reflects a pent-up desire to reconnect with other people, to live life to its fullest, to savor every moment. Those restaurants who were fortunate enough to survive and even thrive throughout the past year—and I know there are plenty who were not so lucky—are benefitting from this resurgence of socialization.

But we’re not out of the woods yet, nor are we without our challenges. In the wake of the crisis, which left so many people without work, the country now faces widespread hourly labor shortages and supply chain challenges (wherefore art thou, chicken?) that make meeting this heightened consumer demand difficult. The irony is not lost on me.

We are not alone in this, as the entire industry is grappling with similar struggles. We are, however, continuing to adapt and evolve how we show up in the world, as a restaurant, as a company, and as a brand, to be the type of place where people want to dine, where they want to work, and with whom they want to partner. Here are a few examples:

Staffing: We’ve all lost restaurant employees in droves since the spring of 2020. Some left the workforce altogether, others moved to the on-demand economy, still others have been subsisting on unemployment benefits. It’s been a battle to staff our stores properly, and raising wages has only helped marginally—plus that brings with it another slew of challenges.

While we can’t control the external forces at play, we can focus on making our work environment as positive, empowering and appealing as possible, by celebrating the people who make every day possible. That starts with embracing the core principles of “humancentric leadership.” We are always thinking about our people as the business moves and grows; they are the soul of the Smokey Bones brand and the foundation of our success. We honor their uniqueness, encourage their creativity and value their contributions. As leaders, we know there is a ripple effect of the decisions we make, and we consider the human impact of those decisions as well as the manner in which they are made and carried out.

We also support our workforce with generous benefits beginning on day one of employment, including Basic medical, prescription drug, a la carte hospital, illness, and disability benefits, scholarships for all employees and family members, benefits and discounts on thousands of companies’ products and services, legal, and mental health services.

Our efforts to create a culture of collaboration and a safe space for individuals to be themselves seem to be paying off; for 2020, we earned the highly esteemed accolade of a Great Place to Work-Certified company. And we still strive to be better every single day.

Supply Chain: The pandemic drove off-premises ordering like never before, and had the unintended impact of creating a comfort food frenzy. With that came a cult-like craving for chicken in all its forms: wings, breasts, burger patties. Add to that the labor shortage at processing plants and a series of early spring storms, and suddenly the country is dealing with a tight (almost short) supply. As a business that prides itself on its smoked and traditional bone-in chicken wings (and other mouthwatering meats as well), we’ve found ourselves struggling to meet guest demand. We’ve looked for new suppliers, tried a whole-bird buying strategy, but this is not even a problem that money alone can solve; trust me, we’ve tried.

The show must go on, however, so we have found ways to pivot in face of these product issues. A few weeks ago we started offering whole wings, which are just like our usual drums and flats, except still connected together—with a wingtip at the end. We’ve had fun educating and entertaining guests with these new offerings, which are available in all the same sauces and rubs as our original wings. Additionally, we have made our boneless wings even more accessible, by adding them to our weekly Monday BOGO wing offer. We expect that chicken inventory will eventually return to normal, and hope that our guests will stick with us till then, and maybe even find some new ways to enjoy the bird in the meantime.

Investing for Future Growth: While we’ve been working to shore up our current business, we’ve also been committed to building for the future. We recently refreshed our brand positioning to encompass much more than barbecue, while being laser-focused on one thing: meat. Juicy, delicious, tender, magnificent meat. “Meat is What We Do,” we proudly proclaim, and support that claim with a range of slow-roasted, smoked, fire-grilled or fresh-out-of-the-fryer meat-driven dishes. From barbecue to steaks, burgers to wings, sausage to seafood, we have a meat to make anyone’s meal complete. And our guests seem to be responding in kind.

Additionally, we are meeting our guests where they are outside the four walls, be that online or on their devices. Technology advancements have been key to our growth in driving native online revenue for our core brand, as well as building and propelling our virtual brands to success. We continue to invest in the area, as we are driving incrementality and additional occasions through these channels.

We may not have the perfect recipe for success quite yet, but we’re getting closer every day. And we’re never too proud to pause, retrench, re-strategize or pivot. If there’s one thing the past year has taught (or maybe just reminded) me, it’s that leading a restaurant brand—like any business—requires a thick skin, a willingness to listen, an ability to adapt and an acceptance that change is inevitable. But by leaning into that change, we just might find ourselves better off than where we started.

I’m excited and cautiously optimistic for the road ahead.

Bring it, 2022.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Expert Takes, Feature, NextGen Casual, Smokey Bones