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3 operators weigh in on quick pivots, resiliency and what ‘normalcy’ really means now.

Full-service restaurant operators share leadership lessons learned during the pandemic

3 operators weigh in on quick pivots, resiliency and what ‘normalcy’ really means now

My last three columns have focused on lessons in leadership since the onset of COVID-19 from a variety of foodservice multiunit leaders. We’ve collectively learned that even a global pandemic can have silver linings if you’re quick enough, smart enough and adaptable to change.

Since the majority of the people I featured in previous columns worked in quick-serve and fast-casual segments, I thought you might also appreciate some feedback from full-service independent operators who have admittedly had a harder row to hoe relative to keeping their volume high, restaurants full and team members engaged.

Mark Cumins is the co-owner of Homegrown Hospitality in Charleston, S.C., which operates ten unique concepts in more than 20 locations throughout Georgia, South Carolina & North Carolina. Most of the restaurants are full-serve operations.

He had this to say when asked about lessons learned from COVID-19: “We learned many things since March 2020, but the biggest lesson for me was that volume can hide a multitude of sins. Our team has made our customers happy for over 35 years and we were fortunate that those customers kept us busy and growing.

“But when the coronavirus hit and the brakes went on, we were forced to look hard at our procedures, people, and process. We also closely examined the value each of our venders were providing our company compared to our competitors and colleagues, both before and after the pandemic. When it’s always busy it’s easy to assume you’re also operating at peak efficiency, but you’re not.

“If there is a silver lining in COVID-19, it’s that it uncovered inefficiencies in scale and systems that we’ve had an opportunity to correct and improve. And I’ve also learned that it’s up to every leader to be diligent in the pursuit of all the tools available to us and then applying those tools to make our systems run better and our teams and customers happier.”

Mike O’Donnell is the chief operating officer of the Cunningham Restaurant Group (CRG), which owns and operates 33 full-service restaurants with 14 different concepts in Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons in the past nine months, but here are three that I will hold on to,” he said via email. “First: There is no such thing as too much communication. Prior to the pandemic, I would email a weekly message to our executive team (C-Level and Directors) that recapped the prior week’s financials and other notable operational items. The executive team would typically truncate that information and download to their line management.

“From March 16 – 18, all restaurants in our operational states were closed by governor mandate.  We switched to our ‘carryout only’ business model on March 19.  I started a direct, daily email communication with our everyone in management, from the executive team to the store managers to our office team.  It felt like the right thing to do to simply expedite the communication process, and nearly nine months later, I continue to email this entire group on a daily basis and it has kept our team nimble, informed, focused, and accountable.  The feedback made it quickly apparent that the entire team welcomed and looked forward to this daily communication.

“Second: Resiliency. Plan your work and work your plan but be prepared to change that plan, daily if necessary. Never in my career have I experienced the curveballs, business disruptions, and constantly changing mandates and requirements like we have during COVID. The strength of any organization is the team that supports it, and I’m fortunate to be surrounded by some amazing people in our organization that worked tirelessly to implement changes on the fly so we could stand a fighting chance of survival and success.

“Here’s just one example of that commitment to do what it takes.  In 2019, our carryout sales by location averaged just $4,000 per week. We felt the tide turning toward increased carryout and one of our 2020 company initiatives was to implement an online ordering platform with an expected rollout date of Aug. 1, 2020. 

“Then, COVID hit and shutdowns were ordered within 24 to 48 hours. In just two weeks, and at warp speed, we transformed to a carryout-only business model where we successfully rolled out our online ordering system to each of our 14 concepts, implemented a curbside carryout and contactless program to accompany the online ordering system, and utilized technology to text every carryout guest to confirm they enjoyed a positive carryout experience. As a result, our restaurants averaged $11,000 in carryout sales for the first few weeks of the carryout only business model and grew to an average of $19,000 towards the end of dining-room shutdown.

“The third lesson learned is that some innovations proved to be a better way. I laugh now when I hear people hoping to return to ‘normalcy.’  This is normalcy and, while we may eventually obsolete things like face masks, sanitizer and social distance, there are simply some better ways that have come out of the pandemic.  For example, increased cleanliness standards and being mindful of touching others, surfaces, etc. are a better way.  After all, every winter brings a flu season, and when we are finally all vaccinated or immune to COVID, other seasonal illnesses that plague our teams due to the guest-facing nature of the industry can be minimized by keeping additional cleaning and sanitizing in play.  Another example comes from our carryout only format. 

“Packaging of food to-go, pre-COVID, was a lot different than now.  Gone are the flimsy Styrofoam containers and now our carryout containers allow beautifully presented food to remain intact for the ride home. 

“Finally, all hospitality teams value guests…at least they thought they did.  But, when your very existence as a business (and your livelihood) relies on guests choosing you, week after week, because they want to support your survival, it is truly humbling.  Restaurant teams should try to remember the feeling of true gratitude for every order and every guest during COVID.  The level of appreciation for your community’s support at an impossible time should reflect in everything you do in the future and never go back to ‘normal.’”

Creighton Smith is the general manager of Hotel Boulderado and president of Concept Restaurants and Hotels in Boulder, Colo. They operate three hotels and nine restaurants in Colorado.

“It’s been a very tough up-and-down year to say the least,” Smith said. “Our business volume seems to be at the mercy of government officials’ decision-making and circumstances beyond our control, even when our safety protocol is above established standards.  

“This week Colorado went to level red and all indoor dining is now closed, and hotel occupancies have slipped back below 20%. We are now 100% takeout/delivery and catering only. We had to regretfully lay off many team members we had worked hard to retain.

“I expect more challenges ahead and zero percent of it is any fun.

“One thing for sure I’ve learned about leading through a pandemic is this: Our team is amazing, humble, kind, focused and resilient. I never knew just how tough hotel and restaurant people really were until COVID hit.

“Another thing I’ve learned is not to take for granted is the importance of pivoting swiftly to incorporate the things we weren’t doing sooner, like get into the takeout/delivery business big time while business was still thriving.

“Last, I’ve relearned the importance of teaching unit managers how to lead, teach, reassure, reinvent, sell and stay calm/not panic. Where our individual leaders go so the company goes. Leading by example and keeping a steady hand on the tiller is so very important now, more than ever.”

Jim Sullivan is the bestselling author of Multiunit Leadership and Fundamentals. His clients include Panera, Domino’s, Texas Roadhouse and McDonald’s. You can learn more at or access his leadership insight daily with his 400K followers on LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.

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