What we learned from the pandemic
Walk-up windows and the best people in the business made Rita’s franchise a great food franchise to operate in a pandemic
Every American of a certain age remembers what it was like to live through 9-11. And while it’s wildly different from a global pandemic, the events of 9-11 profoundly affected the way people did business in certain industries, like travel. Although the pandemic has had a broader impact,
some of the things we experienced during that troubling time in 2001 served as the context for reactions when the coronavirus spread unchecked in early 2020. It taught Rita’s Italian Ice CEO Linda Chadwick lesson No. 1: Always be prepared. As much as you can be, anyway. Chadwick recently shared some of the key learning moments she has taken away steering Rita’s franchise through a pandemic.
Preparedness is everything.
Whether it’s a manmade or a natural disaster, getting through hard times teaches you about resilience — it toughens you up to prepare for inevitable future challenges. No one could have truly foreseen the exact nature of this pandemic, but in many ways Chadwick was able to roll with the punches.
It’s a big part of why, despite everything, Rita’s opened 27 new locations last year.
“We didn’t wait until it was really considered a pandemic,” Chadwick says. “We knew it was growing and that this was potentially going to affect our business, especially because spring is a very important part of our season. So, as we were keeping our eyes on things, we put a plan together. We realized as an essential business, as a restaurant business, we had to focus on how to help franchisees open back up or stay open.
“In some cities, they did have to close for a little while, but our goal was always to keep the franchisees going so they could pay their rent and their bills and keep their employees. We put a resource center together for them so they could find out how to get rent relief, how to apply for the PPP loan. We did a podcast just for our franchisees on the lessons we were learning early on in the pandemic.”
Throughout everything, we kept in close communication, including lots of one-on-one time, Chadwick says.
Know your team strengths.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were many corporate casualties nationwide. People were furloughed and laid off left and right. It was a natural, albeit knee-jerk, reaction to a looming financial crisis. But one thing Chadwick was certain of was how much she was going to need her field representatives to help her franchisees get through it all. Furloughing them or laying them off was never an option in her mind.
“First of all, they were already used to working from home, so that was never going to be an issue,” she says. “I knew we were going to desperately need them to help us make sure our franchisees felt supported.
“And they did. They had daily contact, verbal contact. We also set up a resource center so franchisees could know what was going on. All of our franchise consultants learned what was going on in each one of their cities and towns and what the restrictions were. And we had a set of processes that we would work around so we knew how to keep them open as an essential business.”
The senior leadership team divided up the franchisees so they could individually check in with them. They didn’t just get a memo or a video; they got phone time. “We were working around the clock. Talking to franchisees, asking first and foremost, ‘How are you? How’s your family? How’s your team members? Okay, now let’s talk about your business.”
Use what you’ve got.
As a frozen treats business, third-party delivery is not a foregone conclusion. Systems have to be put in place to mitigate melting, which is not an issue for most food franchises. Right now, Rita’s franchise is working with delivery vendors on perfecting those systems. But one plus we did have over many others in the restaurant industry was our walk-up windows.
With walk-up windows, people were able to easily follow social distancing recommendations safely outside.
“We did really well last year,” Chadwick says. “Our business turned out to be perfect in this type of scenario because most of our locations are walk-up. And even for the ones that weren’t walk-up, we created a temporary solution that we learned from one of the franchisees and we perfected that. We took out door panels, put in plexiglass and created a temporary walk-up window.”
By staying on top of the ever-changing circumstances, learning to pivot quickly and refine or replicate good ideas, whether from the executive team or the franchisees themselves, we were able to succeed when many restaurants could not.
The nature of our business is celebratory and focused on making people happy. They never needed it more than during the pandemic. Rita’s walk-up windows made it easy for our customers to safely visit with extended family and friends while enjoying a favorite treat.
“They would bring their lawn chairs and sit in the parking lot and set up corn-hole with their friends or family,” says Chadwick. “They were still social distancing, but they felt like Rita’s was a place where they could go and enjoy a little bit of quality of life without being locked in.”
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