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Panelists from left to right: Alice Elliot, Claudia San Pedro, Kim Malek, Barry McGowan

Claudia San Pedro, Kim Malek and Barry McGowan of Sonic Drive-in, Salt & Straw and Fogo de Chão voice optimism for restaurants on panel moderated by Alice Elliot

The experts said the coronavirus pandemic is driving innovation at their brands

“It’s an exciting time for our industry,” said Barry McGowan, CEO of the Brazilian churrascaria chain Fogo de Chão, striking a positive note as he and other participants in a panel on restaurant leadership discussed what they’d learned and how they’ve adapted during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I believe pre-COVID we were in this renaissance of making things better, more convenient [and using] technology,” McGowan said. “I think COVID has just accelerated a lot of those things for all of us.”

He was joined by Claudia San Pedro, president of quick-service burger chain Sonic Drive-In, and Kim Malek, president and CEO of avant-garde ice cream concept Salt & Straw, in a panel moderated by Alice Elliot, founder and CEO of The Elliot Group executive recruitment agency.

“Our business has rebounded really nicely,” Malek said, asserting that ice cream is “the perfect antidote for this pandemic.”

But to propel the business forward she and her team have been working on an omnichannel plan to develop e-commerce, direct-to-consumer and third-party delivery models. “Those businesses have skyrocketed for us — they’re up over 300%, and it’s a really good start, but what we don’t want to do is just offer what we offer in our stores everywhere else. So we’re working really hard now on innovation,” although she said she wasn’t ready to reveal what those products were yet.

San Pedro said Sonic’s nature as a car-side delivery concept made it well primed for the pandemic, and they had just introduced order-ahead technology and had launched a marketing campaign promoting that before the pandemic. As a result, the chain has seen double-digit same-store sales increases despite some issues with supply chain and staffing.

But she said Sonic’s customers’ needs had changed. While the chain’s traditional draws have been quality, speed and value, she said they needed to set aside the need for speed to make sure that their customers, starved for companionship while sheltering in place, could get the attention they needed. She said they simplified operations where they could, “so our team could be as friendly as possible.”

She said Sonic also took the unusual measure of letting their franchisees change their hours of operation. Breakfast had slowed down as fewer people were commuting, but business increased at lunch, afternoon and dinner, she said.

But McGowan cautioned against simplifying the customer experience too much, especially at an experience-focused concept like Fogo de Chão.

“We’re all focused on how we do we reduce cost, lower burn rate due to COVID and really focus on revenue. It would have been easier to eliminate a lot of things and make it simple,” he said, but customers would notice, and would not accept the pandemic as an excuse for a sub-par experience.

So instead, they’ve just rolled out a new cut of meat, a porterhouse steak, as part of their all-you-can-eat service. He said his procurement team saw “a gap in the marketplace” that made the porterhouses available, so they brought them in.

“So we’re adding experience to our guest rather than taking experience away,” he said.

Malek said that the Salt & Straw team was working on ways to reproduce the ice cream sampling aspect of visiting their shops, including putting small tastes of new flavors in their guest’s purchases and posting videos on social media explaining the origins of some of their unique flavors.

And there’s more to come, she said, adding that they’re “cooking up, literally, some new forms” of their products.

“We have some pretty exciting innovation coming out that I’ll be really happy to share with everybody, so stay tuned.”

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 Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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