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Rob Gifford, president of the NRAEF, and Charlie Morrison, CEO of Wingstop joined Group Publisher Sarah Lockyer and the NRAEF Charlie Morrison scholarship award winner for a conversation on leadership during coronavirus.

Leadership in the era of COVID-19: What’s next? Authenticity, resilience and personal development

‘Good can come out of this,’ NRAEF president Rob Gifford said during a Restaurants Rise leadership session that included comments from Wingstop CEO Charlie Morrison; the executives and a rising star hospitality student discuss how leaders are resetting the table during the pandemic

When the restaurant industry gets rocked by natural disasters and long economic downturns, most leaders have a game plan.

But when the coronavirus pandemic crippled the economy, leading to restaurant closures and widespread layoffs, the industry had no playbook.

“It’s unprecedented. Therefore, you don’t plan for this,” Wingstop CEO Charlie Morrison said during a Restaurants Rise session titled “Leading with Purpose.” 

The digital community event, organized by Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality, provides restaurant industry executives with solutions to combat the challenges of leading a company during the COVID-19 crisis.

Morrison was joined on the panel by Rob Gifford, president of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and Laken Wagner, a hospitality student at Kansas State University and the NRAEF 2020 Charlie Morrison Scholarship recipient.

Sarah Lockyer, group publisher for Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality, led a discussion aimed at inspiring industry leaders amid a prolonged pandemic.

Most importantly, the panel discussed what the restaurant industry might look like once the pandemic is over.

Leaning on values

Morrison said the Dallas-based fast-casual chain leaned into the company’s values throughout the crisis. That meant maintaining the brand’s entrepreneurial spirit, while also having a little bit of fun along the way.

“The culture of your organization is so critical in terms of making sure you have the ability to have open and very effective dialogue with your teams,” Morrison said.

Though corporate teams are working remotely, Morrison said it is crucial to stay connected. At the start of the pandemic, he created a 20 to 25 person task force to meet virtually, sometimes twice a day, to figure out “changing trends” and how to make adjustments.

Those messages then got relayed immediately to franchisees to ensure each restaurant was getting consistent information on rapidly changing events.

The main message was to adapt because “we don’t know when this is going to change.”

Communicating daily with employees and franchisees gave the team a “sense of comfort,” Morrison said.

It also gave each restaurant the confidence and empowerment “to go out and make decisions and do things that were really effective for us to be able to pivot as quickly as we did.”

And Wingstop was effective.

In its latest earnings, Wingstop reported a 31.9% increase in domestic same-store sales – a surge driven by the company’s previous investment in its off-premise channels.

That led to Morrison’s next leadership move: giving back.

Helping a hurting industry

At the onset of the pandemic when restaurants were temporarily closing and furloughing workers, the NRAEF created the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund in partnership with Food Network star Guy Fieri.

Gifford said the foundation had never run a relief effort before, but something needed to be done to help thousands of workers left without work. Thanks to Fieri, industry leaders and foodservice suppliers, Gifford said in a “short time” the relief fund ballooned to nearly $22 million.

As soon as those funds came in, they “went back out the door to individuals” in need. About 43,000 grants were given out. Of those, nearly 60% of the recipients were female and about half were people of color.

“There's not a place in this country or an age demographic that hasn't been impacted by COVID,” Gifford said. “And we've been really honored and blessed and pleased to be able to lead in some small way.,”

Gifford gave a shout out to Morrison, whose company gave in a big way.

Wingstop donated $1 million to the relief fund.

Morrison said it was a “very easy decision” to make.

The economy was in free fall, and many people in the restaurant industry were affected by the immediate shutdown that occurred.

Yet, while all this hurt was happening, Wingstop was “fairly well insulated” thanks its solid digital business which made advancements that would normally take two or three years to implement, Morrison said.

“To our surprise, quite frankly, we saw growth during this time frame. And our franchisees enjoyed the benefits of that growth with us,” Morrison said.

Morrison said he and his team reflected on what it means to benefit in a crisis. That led to one question: “What can we do to share some of the benefit we had?”

Though the “restaurant business is highly competitive,” there was no hesitation from Wingstop’s board or franchisees to give back to the industry.

“People needed help,” he said. “Our heart goes out to those who are truly impacted, and we want to do what we can to make an impact in the community.”

The Future of the Industry

Both leaders on the panel, as well as the Restaurants Rise audience, were heartened by comments made from Laken Wagner, a senior at Kansas State University.

The hospitality student gave her perspective about what she’s seen working at a restaurant this summer. Her employer, like everyone in the industry, quickly shifted to online orders at the start of the pandemic; then, when it was time to reopen, she and the rest of the staff learned new protocols aimed at helping stop the spread of the virus.

“It’s really strange to see how things are changing but at the same time, it brings me a lot of hope for the future,” she said. “Because it really shows that our industry is capable of adapting to what's going on in the world.”

Gifford said developing young talent like Wagner is important as the industry needs people who are well trained, flexible, adaptable and racially conscious.

“It’s an interesting time now,” Gifford said during his closing remarks. “It’s an opportunity for personal development. It’s an opportunity for authentic leadership.”
And, when we get to the other side of this pandemic, Gifford said consumers will see an “industry that is more resilient, more equitable, more exciting and more customer focused than it ever has been before.”

“Good can come out of this, and ultimately it will.”

This is part of special coverage of the Restaurants Rise digital summit taking place online Aug. 11-13 and Aug. 18-20, powered by Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. Register for live sessions or on-demand replays at

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

Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @fastfoodmaven

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