Covid-19: What Are They Thinking?
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Covid-19: What Are They Thinking?

Covid-19: What Are They Thinking?

Four large, experienced multi-unit franchisees provide additional thoughts on Covid-19, the PPP, cash flow, business interruption insurance, employees, retail and real estate, “forever” changes, and future growth opportunities.

Paycheck Protection Program

As past chair of the IFA, I was on the front line of discussions with Congress assisting the IFA staff with their efforts to ensure franchising was able to obtain their fair share of the PPP loans. As a franchisee, we used the PPP loans to maintain employment until our sales rebounded. Fortunately, in the QSR sector this happened within the first month. On the franchisor side of the businesses I’m involved in, we found lenders and assisted franchisees in completing their applications. A franchise system is only as good as its franchisees and, on the other side of Covid-19, we believe it is important for franchisees to be well-capitalized. Fortunately, most franchisees who sought a loan have been able to obtain one, and there are still PPP funds available for those who need it. —David Barr

Cash Flow

We stopped spending in every area including marketing, and reduced labor and rent (our biggest expenses). We had to stretch payables with vendors, shut down, and slow down capex. Not being open in some ways made it easier to cut costs, but now as we reopen we will need to make some working capital investments to get restarted. —Omar Simmons

Business Interruption Insurance

We are part owners of our insurance company through a captive insurance model, as are many franchisees. Overall, on a societal level, business interruption insurance now seems like an illusory product. Either it should cover plainly stated things or companies should not be allowed to sell it. No franchisor, landlord, or lender should be requiring this type of “coverage” of its franchisees, tenants, or borrowers when it doesn’t provide actual coverage, but creates expense. Insurers could consider rebating some of the premiums. —Rob Branca

When we were crawling and scratching and looking in all directions, insurance was a problem. It makes you wonder why you have insurance. You get business interruption, and at the time you need it they are not there for you. I even wrote a letter to the adjuster to explain that it was due to civil authority and it did cause physical damage in that the virus is physically all over the place and it could be in your restaurant. If there were a fire, and smoke from the fire shut down the business, they would pay—but they still denied it. I didn’t understand the difference. Why even have insurance? —Eric Werner

Employees

Overall, we had the enhanced unemployment benefits of the FFCRA (Families First Coronavirus Response Act) competing directly with the benefits of the CARES Act (PPP loan forgiveness for getting people back on the payroll). It is impossible for business owners to correct these massive acts of the federal government. Even the government is struggling to stop these huge, quickly passed programs from butting heads, and that has exacerbated the economic uncertainty in the business world. I personally feel uncomfortable telling a crew member it’s not fair that they may finally have gotten a windfall in life (however small and temporary) after they have seen bankers bailed out and then writing themselves giant bonuses 10 years ago. —Rob Branca

For our businesses that were able to maintain an employer-employee relationship (such as restaurants), the increase in unemployment pay did not become a problem. However, for those businesses that had to 100% shut down (such as The Lash Lounge or Title Boxing), the increase in unemployment pay created another hurdle to reopen units, as employees had an incentive to not go back to work. I do believe that as a society we need to be sure we provide for the least fortunate, and in this crisis this increase in unemployment is providing this safety net. —David Barr

Real Estate

I’m being conservative with cash, but still looking at opportunities. One obviously is that I think the real estate market is going to correct a little bit. I don’t know if I need to rush. I don’t know if there is any better tenant than us for a 20,000-foot box. This was going to happen anyway, the pandemic just accelerated it. —Omar Simmons

It is too soon to tell what the fallout of this will be. The difference from the last recession is that the underlying economy here was in the largest expansion in our history; there wasn’t an underlying weakness in the financial or real estate industry this time. I find it personally difficult to not root for a speedy snap-back to a booming economy. I do believe that interest rates will remain low for some time, and that government will look to incentivize growth and job creation to get us out of this. We did get the QIP depreciation fix that we have been seeking for 2 years included in the CARES Act, so there is already one arrow in that recovery quiver. —Rob Branca

New and different real estate opportunities will present themselves for brands seeking growth. I recently read a report that the trough in real estate lease rates during the 2009 recession was 18 months after the crisis began. On reflection, this makes sense. Real estate is a long-term asset with long-term capital structure and leases. As a result, it takes longer for the economic cycle to flow into the real estate marketplace than into immediate consumer demand or employment. Thus, I believe we will see may retail vacancies in the next 2 years. This will create new opportunities for franchisors and franchisees. —David Barr

We don’t have any expansion plans, but we will remodel. With our Subways, we might remodel a couple first and see if there is a good return. Also, there are Subway franchisees who might want to get out, so you might be able to buy at a discounted price if you had a lot of cash and felt comfortable with the situation. To me though, I’m in really good shape. We are big already and I just want to protect the company. We are very fortunate that the only debt we have is Beverly Hills Rejuvenation. I wouldn’t shy away from investing, but it would have to make a lot of sense for me. You have to look forward even in your uncertainty. —Eric Werner

“Forever” Changes?

I’m not sure anyone can confidently answer that, though I’ve seen some pretend to. My best guess would be that we will see reduced demand for downtown office district space as companies adapt to remote workforces. Our real estate business will change, as will the site selection process for our Dunkin’ business. Specifically, expensive office space might be an early G&A expense reduction for tenants. Some office space may move out from densely populated cities to suburban locations, making commutes easier, shorter, and resulting in less overall congestion, stress, and pollution. I can see the possibility of high-rise downtown business districts becoming housing, easing the affordable housing crisis if they aren’t needed for offices any longer. —Rob Branca

As is often the case in life, crises accelerate consumer trends. Covid-19 has certainly accelerated consumer demand for off-premise restaurant sales, with delivery and carryout growing significantly. This long-term trend was already occurring and has just been accelerated. Similarly, I believe smaller fitness clubs with specific fitness modalities will continue to be a trend, versus large gyms. —David Barr

Future Growth/Plans

When we move forward, do we build Subways with drive-thrus? We have some freestanding Subways. Maybe I should put in a drive-thru or pickup window to give customers a sense of reassurance. This could be safer for them and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But I think about the customer: What does the customer want? There are some who might be forever changed. How do we accommodate those who don’t want to go into the restaurant and would rather use the drive-thru? Subway is making us remodel (a previous initiative), so we will remodel some of these freestanding stores we have with a drive-thru window. —Eric Werner

We were in the process of a handful of remodels; those are on hold. We considered remodeling shops that are closed anyway, but we aren’t certain that some of them will, or should, ever reopen, depending on economic conditions as we come out of the pandemic. We also see an opportunity to establish drive-thrus in communities that banned them in the past, as they were an important lifeline for businesses that have them and the community members where they operate. We would definitely consider drive-thru-only shops when it comes time to do an extensive remodel or to build a new unit. —Rob Branca

I think new club development will be interesting. I’m actually excited that there will be less capital going into some of those big retail spaces. The second thing is there probably will be some acquisition opportunities, including small ones, which is a little like buying membership lists. —Omar Simmons

I do not believe the entire book for Covid-19 has been written. I think we are in just the first few chapters, and its impact on the economy has still more chapters to be written. I worry that with more than 40 million people filing for unemployment, eventually government assistance will be pulled back and then consumer spending will decline. If that occurs, the focus in 9 months will be on how brands bring value to the everyday lives of consumers. —David Barr

Published: September 21st, 2020

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