Dickey’s Barbecue Pit has been doing a robust takeout business almost since COVID-19 closed most of the chain’s locations in mid-March. “Online orders took a 38% dip the first five days, then built back up to almost 100% of same-store sales,” says CEO Laura Rea Dickey. “We’ve had continuous operation, and our pitmasters were smoking meat throughout the shutdown.”
So when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that restaurants could reopen for dine-in at 25% capacity on May 1, Dickey’s was prepared. Employees, food supplies and sanitation protocols were in place at the chain’s seven company restaurants in the state, and most Texas franchise locations were ready to reopen last Friday, too, Dickey says.
She was also pretty confident that customers would return. “We did several key things to keep guests engaged during the shutdown,” Dickey says. “First, we kept in touch through social media, discovering what they needed most and meeting those needs.”
For example, Dickey’s always offered a “kids eat free” deal on Sundays to encourage families to come out and dine in the restaurants. The same deal was offered online over the past seven weeks, and the online promotion will continue in the foreseeable future. “This provided comfort and a sense of normalcy for families to continue the Sunday tradition,” says Dickey. “It also avoided a disruption in our Sunday sales.”
Like other chains, Dickey’s also expanded its family meal packages for contactless takeout and delivery, offering meats by the pound. “But guests indicated there was a gap in our side offerings, because we only offered medium and extra-large sizes. To fill the gap, we added large sides,” says Dickey—a move that spiked orders.
In some neighborhoods, Dickey’s discovered that customers were ordering earlier than in pre-COVID-19 times, so the chain added box lunches to go. “We will continue with these ideas and maintain a lot of what we were doing because we realize that folks will be cautiously coming back to our dining rooms,” she says.
With sales steady, supply hasn’t been an issue—even with the retail meat shortage and decreased production in packing plants. “We contracted with our vendors for 12 weeks of protein products and other supplies at the beginning,” says Dickey, adding that establishing good working relationships with long-term partners has helped the chain through the worst of the crisis. “They helped us forecast demand and shore up our balance sheets,” she says. And this support extended beyond food suppliers. Dickey’s worked with its tech partner to renegotiate pricing to make up for the loss in dine-in business during the shutdown.
May 1 was the start of National Barbecue Month, a promotion that Dickey’s usually ties into with LTOs. “This year, I didn’t want to add another category or SKU, in case a supply issue did develop as stores reopened,” says Dickey. “Instead, we launched ‘Upgrade your Cue,’ introducing six new sandwiches that cross-utilize products and sauces already in inventory.” Guests can choose a Brisket Double Cheese or spicy Wild Westerner sandwich, for example, and get something new and different. “Folks need more options about now. They’re getting a little bored ordering the same thing,” she says.
Dickey’s was already practicing enhanced sanitation protocols at all its company and franchised locations, but visibility is now key as stores reopen. “Before, a welcoming smile was enough of a greeting, but now guests want to see face masks on employees, floor stickers for social distancing and continuous sanitizing of surfaces,” says Dickey.
Most of all, Dickey believes compassion, kindness and community involvement go a long way in bringing business back. The chain has expanded its first responder feeding efforts: Guests can order food to donate, and Dickey’s is matching the donations. “People really want to do good and their support has been amazing,” says Dickey.
In return, the chain is supporting its customers, making sure they know “we’re here to serve you however you want to be served,” she says. “Our loyal guests are actually openly expressing thanks to our pitmasters.”