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Flanigant's casual-dining chain in South Florida does curbside pickup during the coronavirus pandemic
Industry leaders discuss how to staff and manage a restaurant while coronavirus regulations are constantly shifting.

Restaurants Rise: Experts discuss how to build a flexible workforce during the coronavirus pandemic

Regulations that change frequently means operators and their staff need to adapt quickly

The coronavirus pandemic and the ever-changing regulations that have come with it have made the task of staffing restaurants properly, which is difficult in the best of times, an even more daunting task.

But many operators rose to the occasion, shifting their business models and figuring out what staff it needed at what times. Outside service providers also have been on-hand to provide technical assistance to restaurateurs in facets they might not have experience in, such as delivery.

In a special summertime session of the Restaurants Rise digital summit on how to build a flexible workforce, Peter Bruce, supervisor of restaurant operations for 23-unit Flanigan’s, a casual-dining chain in South Florida, shared how he continues to juggle the different regulations in the four counties where he operates while keeping his customers and workers happy and safe. And Steve Holmes, co-founder of the staffing software company ShiftPixy, discussed what other solutions are available to operators.

Bruce said that Flanigan’s, known for its baby back ribs, has had to implement new systems as new regulations come and go.

“The restrictions and mandates that are pushed upon us are different from county to county,” he said, including different curfews and hours they were allowed to be open, mask wearing, social distancing, whether customers could dine indoors or not and to what capacity the restaurants could be filled.

“We had a multitude of different systems that we’ve implemented,” and they continue to be improved upon, Bruce said.    

At first, they could only do delivery and pickup. Bruce said the company was able to keep many of its employees working at that time by shifting their roles and having them deliver the food.

An initial benefit of that was that their servers were already familiar with Flanigan’s food and its takeout packaging.

“We were able to load maps onto the computers at the stores and [the servers] were able to figure out the delivery address,” which they kept within three miles of each restaurant to ensure that the food was delivered hot and fresh.

“We had such a great work team at Flanigan’s,” Bruce said, that they were willing to deliver, take phone orders, pack the food or whatever else was required. “It was very easy to attain,” he said.

Cross-training was already part of Flanigan’s practices, so the staff was used to wearing multiple hats, he said. “We’re consistently training and cross-training,” he said.

“Curbside [pickup] took on a very large role for us when our dining rooms were closed,” more so than delivery, Bruce said. “A lot of times the customers got a little cabin fever and they wanted to get out and get to a [restaurant], and the way our curbside works, they never had to get out of their cars.”

But demands have ebbed and flowed as regulations have changed, with dining rooms being closed again in some counties, and face masks being required outdoors at some locations, even while the guests are seated, until their food arrives.

Bruce said that meant the supervisory team had to have “a great communication highway where we’re consistently staying in touch with all of our managers and general managers, keeping them up to date with the latest curfew mandates, social distancing mandates, capacity mandates. Their schedules are constantly changing, and the reason they’re changing is because their mandates are changing.” Restaurants that might have been able to stay open until midnight last week might now have to close at 10 p.m., for example.

“We had to create new traffic patterns in our parking lots because they couldn’t come in the building. … Our team members were out in the hot sun, bringing the food to them, getting their order number, getting the payments from them.”

They created to-go pickup stations and point-of-sales systems outside to follow social distancing mandates. “And as this rolled and kept on going, we improved upon them. We’ve really streamlined this.”

They also created “outdoor dining rooms”  with tents in the parking lots with marks where tables had to stay to make sure everyone was socially distanced.

The changing regulations required “creative scheduling, I would say,” he said with a laugh, including shifting staff to the new revenue stream of curbside pickup. He added that curbside pickup volume changed based on the changing regulations with regard to dining room capacity.

“We have created such an efficient system there that when they hand out a new mandate it’s just us turning left and turning right and turning left and turning right. It’s a bit of a juggling game, but we’re doing it very well.”

The result of Flanigan’s flexibility has helped them develop a new customer base of guests who used to go to other restaurants that weren’t able to pivot as quickly to the new realities, Bruce said.

He said that as regulations change, they look at recent data to anticipate how much staff they’ll need where. So if a dining room is returned to 25% capacity, for example, Bruce and his team look at what the demands were the last time they were at 25% capacity.

“They do have empirical data they can go back to.”

He said scheduling “is on a sliding scale” based on the changing regulations. “There’s always work to be done,” he said. “We may not be able to maximize everybody’s schedule to the full potential that we would like them to be at, but if we utilize a little bit of each person, everybody wins in the end.”

Flanigan’s has stopped doing delivery now that table service is available, because, Bruce said, they want to focus on their guests at the restaurants. They haven’t used third-party delivery because they’re not comfortable with how those deliverers would handle the food, he said.

He said that Flanigan’s uses social media to keep its customers aware of changing regulations, and Holmes of ShiftPixy said that people are increasingly making dining decisions online.

He said that fact “necessitate a digital transformation. It’s no longer [just] an option. This is about preserving relevancy and becoming more agile.”

One area where a digital presence is important is delivery, he said, which many restaurants farm out to third-party delivery companies.

He pointed out that, while many restaurant segments have suffered during the pandemic, pizza delivery has flourished — up 140%.

“We believe it’s because they own that customer engagement in all these off-premise opportunities,” he said, adding that that reality will continue after the crisis is over.

That’s in contrast to using third-party delivery, which Holmes said leaves 35% of customers unsatisfied, of which 80% blame the restaurant, not the delivery company.

“We see quite a bit of brand damage that has come along with it,” he said, adding that third-party delivery is less profitable, and that those companies keep restaurants’ customers’ data.

“If you’re not learning anything about the people buying your product, and you’re paying for the privilege, are these services really working for you, or are you working for them?” he said.

Holmes said 70% of customers surveyed said they’d rather have their food delivered by a uniformed restaurant employee than a third-party delivery worker. He said he believed that was because customers trusted restaurants to deliver their food safely.

He said ShiftPixy provides technology that allows restaurants to manage their own drivers — as well as other functionalities such as enabling digital marketing and allowing customers to order and pay electronically.

Holmes said that bringing delivery in-house can drive customers to restaurants’ own loyalty and rewards programs “and the ability to connect the user, incentivizing the user to connect with you and order with you.”  

On top of that, he said managing your own delivery is more profitable.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

This is part of special coverage of the Restaurants Rise digital summit taking place online throughout July and August, powered by Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. Register for live sessions or on-demand replays at The Summer Series continues Aug. 5 with “How to reach local diners in a dynamic market.”

Title sponsors for Restaurants Rise include Campbell’s Foodservice, GrubHub, Idaho Potato, ShiftPixy, Wisely and Impossible.

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