Stories from the Covid-19 Front Lines: CEO Q&A with Michael Abt of Huddle House
Name: Michael Abt
Title & Brand: CEO, Huddle House
Segment: Full-service restaurant
Locations: 24 states
Segment: Full-service restaurant
Locations: 32 states, 4 Canadian provinces
How has Covid-19 affected your brand?
We have two full-service restaurant brands, so the impact of Covid-19 has been immense, as with others in our segment. The research shows that, in particular, breakfast-forward brands have been hit particularly hard as up to 90% of commuting Americans are working remotely. However, a majority of our restaurants have managed to remain open as we have accelerated and highlighted our off-premise ordering and dining options. In both Perkins and Huddle House, we’ve added online ordering to more restaurants than before the crisis; partnered with additional third-party delivery vendors; and for restaurants not covered by online ordering or delivery, we’ve aggressively promoted, through a variety of media channels, phone ordering and counter or curbside pick-up. And we’ve found better ways to serve families by quickly launching family-sized meals that are portioned, packaged, and priced for families. This in particular gives people a break from having to cook as they’ve been doing for much of this period. We have also launched Huddle Market and Perkins Market to sell grocery staples to our guests. These are everyday items that everyone needs, but that can either be hard to find or priced higher at local grocery outlets. Some of the highest-selling items include bulk burgers, bacon, sausage, chicken breasts, steaks, produce, paper towels, and even toilet paper! We know this has been a huge help to our guests, who can limit their exposure by combining two stops into one: picking up dinner and groceries at the same time and interacting with fewer people.
What are you doing to help your franchisees through this?
We are supporting our franchisees through a variety of temporary relief measures, including royalty and marketing fund deferrals, suspension of finance charges and fees, occupancy cost assistance, promissory note relief, deferred franchise renewal payments, freezing capital requirements, and extending new store development deadlines. Huddle House and Perkins locations have implemented condensed menus for ease of execution because of limited staffing, curbside carry-out, delivery, and family meal deals.
How are you supporting your corporate employees?
We have an incredibly committed, capable, and experienced team at Huddle House and Perkins, and I am so proud of how they have pulled together during this crisis. At times like this you can really see what people are made of. From the moment this began, their questions have been, “How can I help?” and “What can I do?” As with many restaurant companies, we have had to temporarily furlough some team members, but we hope and believe that their furlough will be short. Most have taken it in stride and understand that we are doing this to make sure that we come back as strong as possible when the crisis passes. And though all team members are important, we are working particularly to minimize the impact on store-level employees. They are our lifeblood and the reason we exist, and it’s vital we keep them engaged so they’re with us and ready to go as stores and dining rooms reopen.
How are your franchisees supporting their employees?
Many of our franchisees are working to keep as many employees on the payroll as possible, in particular GMs. That starts with finding creative ways to serve the community and drive business, such as our Family Meals-To-Go and Perkins Market and Huddle Market initiatives. Staff at many of our restaurants are like family and have worked together for a long time. Finding a way to keep as many people on staff as possible at both corporate and franchise locations has been a priority since the beginning.
What are your franchisees doing for their customers?
The number-one thing of course is our commitment to keeping guests and team members safe. More frequent cleaning, sanitizing, and hand washing; curbside pick-up; the use of masks and gloves; reinforcing staying home if you feel ill; and training, training, training in best practices, are just a few ways we’re working to keep our guests and team members safe. Additionally, as mentioned before, we’ve introduced Huddle Market and Perkins Market to sell groceries to guests that they may not be able to find locally, or at a good price. We’re heard of Perkins franchisees who have offered free kid’s meals, and some Huddle House locations have offered free meals to first responders and medical staff. Again, we also are offering Family Meals-To-Go, meals packaged, portioned, and priced for families so they can enjoy homestyle comfort food while getting a break from doing the cooking.
How do you see the future of your brand, operations, market, etc. post–Covid-19?
It’s definitely no secret that the impact of Covid-19 on dine-in restaurants will have a ripple effect long beyond this spring. We cannot know for sure how it will shape our business or industry in the long term. What I do anticipate is that more full-service restaurant brands will incorporate delivery, takeout, and pick-up into their operations. We will have contingencies in place in case of another pandemic that limits in-person dining, Most importantly, what the support of our communities has shown is that people want, need, and miss restaurants. When Covid-19 is over, Huddle House and Perkins will still be there, supporting our communities as we always have.
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Franchise Update Magazine: Issue 2, 2020