If you feel like there’s a cartoon rain cloud hovering over you and your operation, you’re not alone. A minefield of local labor regulations, changing consumer preferences and swelling competition from emerging channels is giving credence to the notion that when it rains, boy, does it pour.
Although the best workers can be slippery in times of downturn, they’re your only hope, says Paul Mangiamele, chairman and CEO for Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale—both casual-dining chains undergoing a restoration. “All these Chapter 11 announcements, CEO changes and chain sales happen when companies have forgotten the common denominator: your people,” he says.
To find out how to weather tough times, Restaurant Business reached out to industry vets with a combined 110 years of restaurant experience. Many say the secret is just getting back to basics. “It’s not that we are being revolutionary, but we are being evolutionary by paying attention to our brand DNA, or BNA for Bennigan’s, as I like to call it,” Mangiamele says.
Stick to your values
When sales start drooping, it’s time to double down on values, says Dave Craig, vice president of human resources for Fazoli’s. “Our mission, values and purpose are what unite us,” Craig says. In the last five years, the Italian-American fast casual has focused on bringing quality and flavor back to the restaurant, starting with keeping top employees. Fazoli’s mission statement is “to enhance the lives of those we touch, one breadstick at a time.” The chain tries to live that motto with a financial assistance program for employees in need. “These are the types of things that make workers say, ‘I work for a good company.’”
To underline his restaurant group’s culture, Mangiamele seeks leaders from pipelines that share his brand’s sentiments, such as the military, police and first responders. He also talks to each franchisee on a one-to-one basis to get to know them personally.
But operators can also authenticate values simply with word choice. Mangiamele calls his staff internal guests and his franchise system family. Mangiamele says this terminology helps showcase his love for the brands and attracts others who truly feel that passion.
Don’t stop communicating
The more dialogue, the better chance you have for success, says Pizza Inn President Bob Bafundo. For the past year, the 59-year-old brand has been focused on changing attitudes and culture internally to promote growth. “It’s crazy to think you can understand what’s driving a downturn from a corporate office,” Bafundo says. His team has ramped up site visits to ask his frontline staff what they are seeing and hearing. For instance, Pizza Inn rolled out a new flatbread crust in February, and the chain has called upon servers to share successful sales techniques for the LTO.
Fazoli’s CEO Carl Howard has also been focusing on two-way communication. Howard has been hosting associate and manager roundtables across the country. “He uses them not just to learn what’s going on in the trenches, but to relay the company’s vision and instill confidence that the future looks brighter than the past,” Craig says.
Support team members
Some things—like the economy and the weather—are out of operators’ hands, Bafundo says. “I always encourage our restaurant teams to focus on the things they can control,” he says. For Pizza Inn, that’s food and customer service. Providing more training to franchisees is a big part of zeroing in on those goals. At regional franchisee meetings, Pizza Inn corporate hosts sessions on dough-making, local marketing and personal development. “It’s time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive,” Bafundo says. “But it’s getting people engaged and excited.”
Keep staff motivated
In a slump, continue to do what you do best, says Craig. “If you don’t know what that is, talk to your team members; they’ll tell you.” Fazoli’s employees said staff incentives were a bright spot for the chain, so HR rolled out a new program this year. Peers and managers nominate top performers to participate in a bracket-style contest for the chance to win cash prizes and a letter from the CEO. The top five associates will attend an annual meeting in Cancun, Mexico, where they will be recognized at a banquet. The first two rounds yielded 120 nominations.
It’s all about fun and love, Mangiamele says. When he purchased Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale, the music playing in each Bennigan’s location was whatever genre the GM liked best. Mangiamele invested in curating a playlist of oldies to create an emotional connection between staff and guests.
The marketing team for Pie Five Pizza Co. also puts a premium on fun. “You can get tunnel vision, and the only thing you see is your task list,” says Christina Coy, vice president of marketing for the 6-year-old chain. She takes her team out for breakfast to brainstorm ideas and for lunch at competitors to reenergize them. Whether they are dining out together or in the office, Coy tries to get to know staff on a personal level. “We’re all human beings at the end of the day,” she says. “When you talk about things other than work, it helps you step back for a moment and refocus.”