The chain recently hired a franchise director to spur expansion. 

Woody’s Bar-B-Q has been determined to not allow the COVID crisis to ruin its 2020, especially since this year marks the brand’s 40th anniversary. 

The 15-unit legacy concept has leveraged a strong off-premises program and menu innovation to maintain sales and keep customers engaged. Helping that cause has been the state of Florida, which is the home for all the stores except for one in Pennsylvania. The Sunshine State hasn’t had any capacity restrictions for restaurants since September. 

The pandemic hasn’t halted the chain’s charitable efforts either. In early October, Woody’s held a silent auction and art show that raised nearly $6,000 for the Tim Tebow Foundation’s Anti-Human Trafficking Ministry. The company also held a “God Bless the Blue” event in November in which first responders received a free meal. 

Facing the most challenging environment in four decades of operation, president and co-founder Yolanda Mills-Mawman chatted with FSR about how Woody’s have navigated the murky waters. 

Nine months into the pandemic, how has business recovered at Woody’s? What trends are you seeing? 

We’ve managed to stay on track thanks to several factors—online ordering and deliveries have remained steady, and we’ve witnessed the growth of our to-go orders, curbside pickups, and drive-thru traffic for those locations that offer drive-thru. Ever since the pandemic first hit, we’ve encouraged our franchisees to maintain a regular social media presence to build an audience and promote any specials that might drive traffic.

What type of growth have you seen with digital channels? How has off-premises performed as dine-in guests have returned?

We have always had a robust catering business and that has virtually dropped off altogether in light of the pandemic. We partner with several food delivery services systemwide like GrubHub, Uber Eats, and DoorDash, and we’ve seen a steady flow in that arena, but we’ve witnessed our greatest growth in to-go orders, drive-thru, and curbside pickup. Our web traffic is definitely up thanks in large part to a greater social media presence. Visitors to our website can view our menu, visit our individual location pages, find the closest location, place an online order, shop our online store and more.

Since the pandemic, the industry has seen an acceleration in ghost kitchens and virtual brands. How has Woody’s leadership approached those ideas and do you see it becoming a part of the brand in the future? 

We are always willing to be innovative for the benefit of our franchisees and briefly dipped our toe in the virtual kitchen “pool.” Unfortunately, we found that it required too many inventory items, too long a commitment and too large an initial investment to see it through. Now that restaurants are back up to 100 percent capacity where our locations are based, we can provide food for delivery in-house while serving our dine-in customers. We have no interest in exploring virtual kitchens further at this time.

Explain how Woody’s approached LTO’s and menu innovation amid the crisis. In a time when many concepts limited menus, what pushed Woody’s to unveil new product news? 

Limited time offers have always been a part of our marketing mix. Pandemic or not, we’ve found that you have stay in front even though sales may have slowed down. People want to have options and the more enticing the product, the more likely we are to drive traffic to our locations.

Since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order in September, have restaurants returned to full capacity? How did operators adjust? 

Our restaurants have been back at full capacity since Florida entered its Phase 3 reopening in September. Before that, we had to survive dining room closures followed by 25 percent capacity, followed by 50 percent capacity. To do so, we ramped up our relationships with food delivery services, promoted curbside pickup and takeout orders, and brought our A-game to social media. Some even added outdoor dining, when able. As dining rooms slowly opened, we had 20 percent of our order in-house and 80 percent to-go. Now that our dining rooms are fully open, we are witnessing the shift slowly going back 50-50 dine in and takeout. Pre-pandemic, those stats were typically 75 percent dine-in and 25 percent takeout.

In the scenario that more restrictions come, such as closed dining rooms, how are operators preparing? 

What we’ve been doing to date has worked well for us. If dining rooms close again, our franchisees will continue to push online ordering, delivery, takeout, curbside pickup, and drive-thru on social media channels and through signage. We celebrated our 40-year anniversary in 2020, and while it wasn’t the year we hoped it would be on many levels, we are blessed with a loyal fan base. Our slow-smoked meats and comfort food sides are something our patrons crave and a shut-down isn’t going to stop them from getting their favorite dishes.

Explain Woody’s growth strategy. What are the goals for 2021 and a few years beyond? What are the targeted markets? 

We’ve hired a new Director of Franchise Development, industry veteran Roger Flynn. In tandem with our corporate office, Roger is eyeing national expansion with a primary early focus in the Southeast including Florida where our brand is based. He is looking into second generation spaces to help lower initial franchise costs and shorten the startup schedule. Less time spent on construction means more time to open your doors and start smoking great barbecue.

How much interest is the brand drawing from existing and prospective operators?  

Our lead generation and interest from prospects has remained high. Although, we’re finding many of those prospects are striking a wait-and-see stance in light of COVID-19.  Many of those leads are 6 months out or longer from beginning the franchise process.

Will the growing demand for convenience shift how Woody’s designs future stores in terms of takeout areas and square footage? 

We have begun introducing a quick-service model in order to have a smaller footprint and lower overhead for incoming franchisees, although some still want the original full-service model. What we’ve learned from the last almost nine months is that outdoor seating and drive thru options can prove game changers, so we’re encouraging all future franchisees to incorporate these two things into their location whenever possible. 

This year, Woody’s is celebrating its 40th anniversary. What are the main advantages to operating a legacy concept during a global pandemic that newer brands may not have? 

Name recognition and consistency have been our saving grace this year. If someone is going to invest in a meal, drive out to pick it up and bring it home, they want to know that meal is going to be great. Our recipes have stood the test of time for four decades, and we’ve built a solid fanbase in all that time. I can’t imagine trying to survive during the pandemic with an unproven, unknown concept. My heart goes out to everyone in our industry who is struggling or has had to make the difficult decision to close their doors. Even long-standing concepts have had to walk away. It’s heartbreaking, and my co-founder Woody and I look forward to a return to better days for our industry—and our world—very soon.

Chain Restaurants, Feature, NextGen Casual, Woodys Bar-B-Q