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Restaurants are encouraged "to redesign our processes for greater efficiency, effectiveness and eco-friendliness."

How the restaurant industry can come out of the pandemic stronger than it was

Jim Sullivan outlines 4 distinct steps operators can take: reset, realign, redesign, refine

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything.  It is the idea of something around the corner.”  — G.K. Chesterton

COVID-19 is a tragic and devastating pandemic. The number of lives lost, economies devastated and businesses shattered is matched only by the suddenness of its arrival and the deadliness of its impact.  And as far as we know we may only be in the bottom of the second inning relative to its staying power. I don’t have to tell you how much it has impacted the restaurant industry. And yet, these circumstances beyond our control may prove to be a long overdue and welcome disruption to a foodservice industry that has been adrift in a sea of sameness for more than a decade. Truth be told, our industry was bloated with units, loaded with debt and losing its way. It had a transactional relationship with its workforce when other industries had transformational ones. What other industry do you know that has a workforce fighting to get out of it, rather than in it?  So if we have an opportunity to improve, what steps do we take? At this juncture, it’s not merely a case of making lemonade out of lemons; we have to create progress out of a pandemic.

There are four distinct steps for doing so.

Reset. COVID-19 forced a hard reset on every restaurant, and operators either embraced it and energetically transformed their business model or defaulted to paralysis by analysis, and froze in place. If you haven’t reassessed your business and reset your focus you will never have a better opportunity to do so. Question everything: your menu, your processes (ordering, hiring, training, software, loyalty programs, packaging, partnerships) and your team. Ask “Why do we do it that way? What if we did it a different way? Do we need to do it at all? What do my customers want now? Is this the right menu for the new times? Who’s doing it better than us and why?”

Redesign. The restaurant business is the only industry I know that manufactures and assembles their product in the back of the building and then sells it in the front. As a result, many of our processes are complex and aligned to a 19th century business model in a 21st century marketplace.  It’s true that necessity is the mother of invention, but that doesn’t mean that the system we created for a past that isn’t coming back is an optimal approach for the future. We have an unusual opportunity right now to redesign our processes for greater efficiency, effectiveness and eco-friendliness. The labor, energy and waste inefficiencies that are by-products of our current systems are both complex and costly. As much of the industry pivoted to a wholly curbside/takeout/to-go model, opportunities for redesign became self-evident. Operators began to question long-standing challenges like menu complexity, drive-thru bottlenecks, and through-put processes. Companies like Chipotle have since reinvented the takeaway/to-go model, full-service restaurants have begun offering four-week curbside food pickup subscriptions,  and Chick-fil-A’s new drive-thru process is so efficient, effective and fast that it could be used as a model for future rapid coronavirus testing. There’s innovation and creativity all around if you look sideways instead of just up and down.

Realign. Once your concept reset and system redesign is complete, the next step is to realign your managers and teams to the new thought process and systems. This means a new training approach based on how adults actually learn instead of memorizing a linear list of tasks that tell us what to do instead of teaching us how to think. Start here: explain the “why” before you emphasize the “what” to do and “how” to do it parts. The biggest realignment the industry as a whole needs is one of infusing energy, focus and incremental improvement on a daily basis. Four words: Be maladjusted to mediocrity.

Refine. Formulating a solid future strategy in the middle stages of coronavirus is challenging because we’re trying to predict a future with no prior experience from which to navigate. Strategy changes with scale and as our business transforms and our business model evolves, we have to be as conscientious about continuous improvement as we are about process and procedure. Don’t presume you’re ever reached peak performance. As I mentioned last month, ask: “How can we become the kind of company that would put us out of business?”

The restaurant businesses I’ve seen stumble or fail in the age of coronavirus are the ones that either had little cash reserves or those who’ve invested all their time, energies and resources in trying to maintain the status quo. That position is deadly because you’ll view change as an enemy and staying the same as your only strategy.  Yet we yearn for status quo and familiarity so strongly that we’ve even begun referring to the current post-pandemic era as the “New Normal.” New it is, but there’s nothing normal about it. This is the ongoing legacy of coronavirus: The Restaurant calendar is now binary. We live partially in the Before Times and partially in the New Times that has yet to be fully defined.  So we sail forward together on uncertain seas, guided by instinct, optimism, experience, pluck, luck and nerve, the customer our North Star and resolve as our compass. We’ll know the New Times when we see it but cannot describe it until we get there. The uncertainty is temporary as history has taught us.  “The past,” said author G. M. Trevelyan, “was once as real as the present and as uncertain as the future.”

Jim Sullivan is the author of "Multiunit Leadership" and "Fundamentals," two books that have sold over 300,000 copies and are available in brand new 2020 editions. They are on sale this month at Amazon, Audible and  Connect daily with Jim’s 400K social media followers on LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.


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