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One Arby’s franchisee applauded his restaurant teams for stepping up and doing “things they may not have thought were possible” during the pandemic

Multiunit restaurant franchisees, district managers offer leadership advice for the age of coronavirus

Leaders from Buffalo Wild Wings, Arby’s, Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers and The Halal Guys give their advice on adapting to the unknown

Multiunit leaders are the critical link between the restaurant — where the company meets the customer — and the brand.  Every year foodservice multiunit leaders (MULs) help generate millions of dollars in revenue, affect the experience of tens of thousands of customers, juggle hundreds of weekly priorities, and develop dozens of future leaders. And when the coronavirus pandemic struck our industry in March, the multiunit leadership role was as affected by change as operations were.  

In addition to their normal duties of regional governance, revenue generation and team-building, COVID-19 forced above-restaurant leaders to simultaneously improvise, innovate,  calm, rally and inspire managers, crew, and a customer base that was both shaken and stirred. What new lessons in leadership have multiunit franchisees and district managers learned since the global pandemic hit our industry in March?  I asked multiunit leaders at Buffalo Wild Wings, Arby’s, Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers and The Halal Guys. Here’s what they had to say.

Minimize fear and manage costs. “The pandemic challenged and changed the fundamental ways in which we navigate our days,” says Joe Hafez, director of operations and business development at The Halal Way in New York, which operates concepts like The Halal Guys, Bubbleology USA, Beyond Wings, and Elan Bakery in four states. “The first lesson I learned was that we had to adapt our decision-making process to be quicker and more flexible to address the daily challenges we keep facing. Being willing to accept change as it comes and adapt to our new reality was crucial. The second lesson I learned is that recovery plans would never happen if we didn’t take the time to assess every number in our balance sheet and take care of every person behind these numbers while [acknowledging] their fears. These individuals are our employees, investors, and vendors. We knew that [honesty] and delivering a message of hope and assurance that together we can get through it were critical priorities.”

Adapt and embrace change. “Post COVID-19 pandemic, I’d have to say that communications is the area that changed the most for me,” says Bobby Fiscus, Buffalo Wild Wings district manager for Northern California and Nevada. “Meetings have moved to Zoom versus face-to-face, including a recent new food roll-out that was conducted entirely on Zoom. I also now communicate with my teams more often every day to ensure they have what they need for reopenings and COVID protocols, which can vary from county to county. I also had to learn an entirely new service model for our brand with curbside pickup. This model was rolled out in less than two weeks as takeout orders grew. I had to adapt and learn on the fly while keeping my managers and team members informed and in good spirits. Whenever we reopened a restaurant again after being takeout only for a few months, there were many reopening protocols that needed to be followed, which involved a lot of retraining our team members. Flexibility and adaptability are two lessons in leadership I’ve taken from this pandemic.”

Adversity creates strength. “Reassessing restaurant multiunit leadership during a pandemic presented many challenges, not the least of which was the lack of a roadmap,” says Emily Davis, a multiunit leader with Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Since there was no previous pandemic experience to build on, we had to focus leadership on the visible priorities; the first being our team’s fear of the virus and keeping crew and customers safe. Putting a priority on team education, clear communication and swiftly implementing safety checks like temperature screenings, disinfectant stations, and protective masking was the first order of business. I also made certain my GMs got the empathy, support, resources, training and the leadership presence they needed to stay focused, calm and moving forward. I also learned that sticking with our plan produced results. Our market was up in sales four months in a row when many restaurants struggled, and our people were proud of what they accomplished together. In many ways we won more than we lost in these challenging times. We learned that drive-thru may be more profitable in the long run than dine-in, and proved that versatility, execution and empathy makes our best people better and our industry more appealing to talented people.   It’s about time that restaurant people were deemed ‘essential’ by the government, and why not? We can obviously stand up to any challenge thrown at us.”

Transparency, unwavering optimism, resilience. “It has been truly amazing to see our entire team in our 93 restaurants and office support staff step up when the coronavirus hit and do things they may not have thought were possible,” says Mitchell Johnson, director of operations for Omaha-based Arby’s franchisee DRM Inc. “I think that transparency and communication were key to our leadership strategy. When our business was impacted hard in mid-March I called our sixteen district managers and two regional directors a couple times a week to share updates, get feedback on what is happening in their markets, and most importantly, have those personal one-on-one conversations. We organized company-wide webinars to communicate to and connect with all our restaurant managers on where we currently stood and what our going-forward-responsibly plan would look like. This made our Ops team feel confident about our plan and empowered them to help shape and implement it. I also learned that in times of crisis it’s critical to be positive and optimistic for your team. Even when sales were down 35%+ in March and into April, we encouraged our team by pointing out what a positive impact they were making in their local communities and in our team members’ lives as well. Last but not least, I learned that you have to be resilient in the face of adversity.  Find a way to innovate, move forward, and become more adaptive to the ever-changing environment.  You do whatever it takes to get the job done because you know that your team and local communities are counting on you. At DRM we say: ‘Whether you say you can or say you can’t, you’re right.’ We believe that it can be done and we’ll work together to find a way.”

This is no time to waste a crisis. What lessons in leadership have you and your company learned from the pandemic? How have you adapted strategy to navigate into the Next Normal? Email your insights to [email protected] and I’ll share them in a future column.

Jim Sullivan is the CEO of and author of the bestselling book and audiobook Multiunit Leadership: 7 Ways to Build Profitable Stores Across Multiple Markets, available at Amazon and Audible. Join his 400,000 social media followers for daily leadership insight at LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.

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