Frances Allen, CEO of Checkers and Rally’s, who previously led Boston Market, started as CEO on Feb. 17. By Feb. 28, she found herself developing a COVID-19 response plan for about 900 Checkers and Rally’s restaurants. NRN senior editor Nancy Luna recently spoke with her about that process for an episode of Nation’s Restaurant News’ podcast Extra Serving. Highlights of their conversation are below. Listen to the full podcast. >>
How are you doing? How’s your staff?
I really do want to start by saying how proud I am of all our store-level crew who show up every day to make sure that restaurants stay open and that we can feed our guests and that our employees can continue to earn wages.
Talk about what your first few weeks were like and how you had to pivot once this coronavirus outbreak escalated in the U.S.
Like any incoming leader, I had a 100-day plan all mapped out before I got there. I knew that I needed to spend the first four to six weeks listening and learning from all different functional areas. I wanted to tour markets, meet our crew, talk to our customers and, of course, actually go and work in a restaurant.
About 11 days after you started you were thinking about an emergency response plan; talk about that.
I think we were all starting to realize that this had come to the States because we could look at what happened in China. I was looking back at my first email to the team and I said, “We need a response plan to this crisis, and we need to look at it on different levels,” which was, literally, 11 days after starting.
Since then, we have set about developing a response plan. Level 1 was assembling a task force, provide health and safety best practices to our restaurants (we enhanced some procedures) and then it was really about awareness and communication. Level 2 was what happens if we have to close the restaurant because someone has tested positive for the virus. Level 3 was what happens if we have to put a whole region or market into quarantine.
So, Level 1, we created the protocol and the task force, which is basically my executive team. We have daily calls seven days a week and we have a news czar who does an amazing job of pulling together what the local mandates are along with what’s happened that day, what we should be thinking about, what’s in the press. She compiles that all the night before and the following morning, we have our calls and we make decisions and we decide things that we need to address, and we review our action plan. Then we get a daily communication out to the entire system to let them know what’s going on.
We have two main priorities: The safety of our guests and employees and keeping our restaurants open so we can employ our team members and feed our customers. While we have an advantage that we’re drive-thru only and we have these closed kitchens, we’ve wanted to continually make sure that we heighten those safety procedures. We started with extra sanitation, extra hand sanitizer in the back. New procedures around refills, for example, we want to refill any customer’s drink, but we won’t take the cup inside. Instead, we’ll give them a new cup.
Last week [at drive-thrus] we implemented a new procedure so the taking of cash does not involve the physical touching of hands anymore. The passing of food is done via a tray so we’re always looking at different ways we can make it contactless. Most recently, we have the mandate about masks so at some markets, masks are now mandated, which is difficult to get a hold of. There’s a little bit of a moral dilemma because you want the best masks to go to the medical field, but we’ve managed to get a hold of some cloth masks that we’ve sent to the markets that have the mandates in place and all our hotspots.
So you really had this response plan in place in early March.
I have the most amazing team because they’re so responsive. For example, the mandate about the masks in San Diego came out on Thursday and by Friday we had secured 10,000 masks. Our COO was in the stores on Saturday measuring the walk-up window for a plexiglass solution that at least creates a barrier between the cashier and the customer. Our belief is that there’s a desire for contactless and the concern about people’s health is going to continue once people are allowed back out of their homes and resume their normal lives, so we want something that’s a bit more long term.
How much longer can the stores operate amid ongoing stay-at-home orders and business restrictions?
Our partners are being very good and being true partners. Many of our landlords and our franchisees’ landlords have allowed them to defer rent payments. We’ve deferred royalty payments when people are having a hardship. We’ve waived marketing fees for March and April so we’re doing everything we can to help our franchisees and keep them informed.
Where it is impossible to keep the restaurants open, we’re paying closure pay for our employees. We have a foundation where employees can apply if they’re having a really hard time, and one initiative that I’m very excited about is with the Global Marketing Retail Association.
They’ve identified a need in grocery to have more temporary workers because their workload has increased because people do not want to shop at grocery stores themselves, they want to order ahead, so you need pickers, shelf fillers, etc., so they are looking for temporary workers and, of course, the restaurant industry employs 15 million workers.
Do you see consumer behavior changing in the long term?
I think people are going to be very conscious of wanting to see cleanliness and visible signs of sanitation. We’ve been handing out wipes to customers at the drive-thru and I think that’s something that people are going to want to see continue. They’re going to want to see gloves on cashiers which we haven’t traditionally done because we’re very manic about anybody touching food in the restaurant with gloves on. Obviously if you’ve been handling cash with your bare hands, you’re going to wash your hands and put gloves on to handle food, so we’ve actually got different colored gloves in the restaurant to make sure that safety procedure is in place.
This is part of our Stories from the Front Lines series.
Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @fastfoodmaven