Like just about every other restaurant operator out there, Crushed Red has had to adapt its approach and remain flexible to overcome the countless challenges brought forth by COVID-19.
Interestingly, though, the company’s long-standing commitment to a specific aspect of food safety will continue to serve it well not only for the duration of the pandemic but in the more prosperous years that will eventually follow.
Prior to the pandemic, off-premises customers, including takeout orders and those from third-party delivery companies, accounted for 10% of Crushed Red’s business, says Chris LaRocca, the chain’s founder and CEO. “That’s jumped to 65% of our business. Our whole business model has been turned upside down. It’s a different mindset and we’ve had to think of different ways to reinvent ourselves. We’ve had to look for new ways to innovate and connect with our guests in ways we have never done so before. Our team has been resilient, and they jump in with both feet.”
Some of those efforts centered on innovating within the chain’s menu of chopped salads and hand-stretched pizzas. Examples include developing a pizza kit and pairing it with a bottle of wine, developing breakfast pizzas and flats and selling Crushed Red products through grocery stores. Crushed Red also developed a program called Caterhood. Using this approach, the operator communicated through social media its plan to visit specific neighborhoods at predetermined times. Guests pre-ordered and prepaid for their meals and arrived at the set time to collect their food. “That’s been interesting. It’s been our version of a mobile food truck,” LaRocca says.
Crushed Red started to offer curbside delivery, too. Like the Caterhood initiative, the company uses its social media platforms and signage to educate guests on how it works. The chain also added signage in front of its restaurants to help customers navigate that last mile. “We have the sandwich boards out front of the store on the sidewalk letting them know where to park and what number to call to get their food,” LaRocca says.
The company also has started to build its own delivery team. “We are in the delivery business, like it or not, for the foreseeable future,” LaRocca says.
While some of those initiatives have worked better than others, the net result has been positive for Crushed Red. “We got the boat in the water and adjusted, as necessary. Some of these things have worked and will be part of our business going forward,” LaRocca says. “We have not had to close any restaurants, and every week we are closing the gap on sales between this year and last.” And the chain is slated to open its eighth unit next month. Crushed Red has locations in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.
While those steps helped Crushed Red continue to serve customers while its dining rooms were closed due to COVID-19-related mandates, LaRocca and company continued to look ahead to the day when the chain could serve guests on-premises once again. “When this whole thing came down and we went into the COVID-19 lockdown, there was never a clear and set handbook to help with reopening,” LaRocca says. “I took everything I knew for sure – 6-foot distancing, 25% occupancy – and developed a 19-point plan for reopening.”
Crushed Red’s plan was thoughtful and thorough, going so far as adding a drink attendant instead of having guests fetch their own beverages. “This was very to the letter and the message to the team is this is what we are doing because the lives of our guests are literally in our hands,” LaRocca says. “They have to adhere to it. No exceptions. And they have done it.”
The plan includes many familiar steps, including taking staff temperatures, mandatory use of gloves and masks and regular, frequent sanitization of workstations. After guests follow their orders down the line, specifying specific ingredients or choosing from a chef created menu item, the Crushed Red staff will ring up their order and flip the point-of-sale terminal to face the customer, who can settle their tab using a form of touchless payment or a credit card. In the case of the latter, the guest will sign using their fingertip. “When we finish with a guest, we sanitize it so it’s clean when the next guest touches it,” LaRocca says.
One carryover from the chain’s previous approach to safety and sanitation is a vigorous handwashing program. Prior to the pandemic, Crushed Red staff were required to wash their hands a minimum of once every hour during their shifts. The frequency could increase depending on the task. Now Crushed Red team members must wash their hands every 30 minutes. And to keep them on track, a buzzer will go off every half hour to remind them it is time to washup.
“It’s the most important thing we have done,” LaRocca says of the approach to handwashing. “We have a handwashing monitoring system in place. The health dept does not have a handwashing standard. I know because I asked. So, we developed our own.”
Every hand sink in every Crushed Red restaurant has the system installed. When a staff member approaches the hand sink, the person places their hands beneath an automated soap dispenser, which squirts a dollop of soap into their hands. Then the person wets their hands and begins to wash their hands. The system’s box then beeps, and the person says their name and employee identification number. This information appears on an LED readout and gets recorded into the company’s system. “Let’s say you work a three-hour shift, you should have washed your hands seven times,” LaRocca says.
It’s one thing to collect this data but it’s not as impactful if the operation does not use it to shape the behavior of its associates, which Crushed Red does. “I review every restaurant and every employee,” LaRocca says. “A report is sent out to the entire system. It will talk about sales and other vital statistics. We include handwashing compliance in that report. Every restaurant can see what the others have done. I am in every restaurant regularly, and I know who had good and who had less than desirable results. We are serious about it, and they know it.”
In addition to holding staff accountable and keeping them safe, this approach also conveys to customers the chain’s seriousness when it comes to staff hygiene. “Our guests notice it because there’s a sign at every hand sink and in every restroom that says we monitor handwashing,” LaRocca adds.
Crushed Red’s dining rooms reopened with occupancy capped at 25% of capacity, which left the chain about 6 tables for seating, LaRocca says. After a thoughtful reassessment, the Crushed Red team installed 30-inch tall barriers between each booth, which meant the dining rooms could operate at 50% of capacity.
By adapting existing fundamentals and adopting new approaches, operators like Crushed Red seem to be embracing their entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to serve that drew them to the business in the first place. “We came close to closing two restaurants on the front end of this. But we were not going to roll over and were determined to come up with new ways to do business,” LaRocca says. “When we get through this, we are going to look at the way we lived our lives and handled our businesses and we will approach that differently. When we come out the other end things will look differently.”