As part of Nation’s Restaurant News’ Stories from the Front Lines series, Eric Wyatt, COO of Boston Market talked with senior editor Joanna Fantozzi about how the more than 400-unit chain is striving to put people first during the coronavirus crisis. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation.
You were named CEO of Boston Market one month before the coronavirus crisis hit. How did you handle that?
I think there really isn’t a playbook for what we’re experiencing right now. I have been utilizing the resources we have in terms of my support group: my CAO and CFO have been instrumental in supporting how we lead rather than just trying to do everything myself. We do things like have field communications on every level, as well as our support center. To your point, this has certainly been a challenge as a new CEO but one that as long as you’re taking care of your people and ensuring they know you’re behind them, you’ll get through it. I found myself in stores this past Friday supporting our store teams by wearing gloves and masks and helping them with large catering orders for the Easter weekend.
Editor's note: This interview was conducted while Eric Wyatt was interim CEO of Boston Market. On May 18, Randy Miller was named president and Wyatt was moved back to his former role of COO.
Have you had to implement layoffs and store closures?
We had to take unfortunate but necessary measures to reduce our support center staff and field area manager roles. We closed a handful of restaurants across the country in the past 30 days to ensure we were operating the locations that made the most sense for us. We still have around 300 stores open and operating, and we just had a record-setting Easter holiday weekend in sales. We anticipated an uptick with so many people staying home, but we did not anticipate the extent that we had. It was our best Easter in company history. It really was great to be able to provide for the consumers and be able to support our employees with more hours and the ability to support their families with family meals.
What has been the biggest challenge?
The first challenge was working through that initial sales decline as consumers were asked to stay at home. Our sales are about 30% down from what they were the previous month. We had to make sure we had the right balance of employee staffing and management oversight to support our stores. Once we got a handle on that, it helped position us for growing sales. The trend has actually been improving in relation to our competitors, especially the full-service restaurants. We’ve been able to execute a bit better because we had delivery and drive-thru in place already.
Can you describe your marketing strategy during this time?
We’re working on making sure we’re meeting consumer needs through increasing our marketing efforts: Utilizing text, eblast, our VIP email list and other online components to provide offers that are more family oriented. Our family meals are in abundance in terms of serving size and are ideally set up for leftovers. We’ve been able to approach through a marketing standpoint to let customers know what family meals we have.
How do operators need to respond to this industry threat?
The best thing you can do is pivot as quickly as you can to meet consumer needs. I wish I had a crystal ball to predict how we come out of this, but for those that stay the course and keep food safety at their highest possible levels, it’s possible to come out of this.
It starts and ends with people. I think consumers will remember how you treated them and your employees during this crisis, and they will remember long after it’s over. We’re not perfect. We’re learning along the way. It’s like building the plane while you’re flying it.
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]