What The CEO of Cousins Subs Wants You To Know About Running A Restaurant Franchise Amid COVID-19

6 Min Read

The sudden emergence of COVID-19 has left nothing but heartache and financial devastation in its path and has unfortunately proven to be the breaking point of businesses across the country. With new mandates being implemented to protect the public's health and well-being, restaurants have been taking the brunt of the blow following the widespread lockdowns and business closures.

For Christine Specht, CEO of the Wisconsin-based restaurant franchise, Cousins Subs, navigating these unprecedented times has certainly put her leadership skills to the ultimate test. From changes to their business model to major cuts in the budget, Specht shares what it takes for a business in the restaurant industry to stay afloat amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Unsurprisingly, sales at Cousin Subs have plummeted as concern for the health and safety of the population has increased resulting in the closure of non-essential businesses across the country. An unsteady economy coupled with fewer customers has prompted sales to fall about 40%, leaving Specht to get creative with cash while making necessary budget cuts. Unfortunately, the need for cash preservation has also required Specht to make some of the most difficult decisions she's had to make thus far-— decreasing employee's salaries.

As recently as two weeks ago, Specht was forced to institute pay decreases ranging between 20%-50% at their support center.

"The hardest thing is communicating to somebody that you're reducing their pay because it affects people that I care about, it affects people that I work with, and I know people rely on their paychecks," said the CEO.

While cuts have been made to worker's salaries, Specht's ultimate goal has been to avoid layoffs by any means, and she has since been successful in her endeavor. Her concern for her employees extends far beyond a paycheck as she expressed that her main priority has been preserving employee's health and well-being. That means complying with state and local mandates such as social distancing as well as the Safer At Home mandate that was issued by Wisconsin's Governor Evers. The order requires that all individuals present within the State of Wisconsin stay at their place of residence at all times except for specific exemptions for essential activities.

But how can a restaurant franchise operate successfully while limiting social interaction? Specht first made sure she had staff that wanted to work and gave them the option to work remotely at the support center or in the restaurants serving guests. The support center staff that regularly consisted of about six people has now been bumped up to a 40 person staff. Specht also expressed that remote workers are not expected to come into the office at all. Consequently, this new work routine, in addition to reduced salaries, has reduced work time to approximately 80% of regular capacity.

While this new way of life can be challenging to some, Specht has found it more than possible to remain productive.

"One thing we've really been utilizing every day has been Microsoft Teams or holding meetings by Zoom. We have a leadership meeting every Tuesday via Microsoft Teams and we can see everyone on screen. It's not perfect, and I miss my coworkers dearly, but at least I know everyone is on board."

In addition to enforcing proper social distancing, Specht has upped the sanitation practices across the franchise to protect both employees and customers alike. Sanitizing surfaces and making sure employees are wearing gloves regularly and maintaining basic hygiene has been a major part of maintaining a clean environment. Specht and her team have also made the financial decision to invest in plexiglass barriers between the credit card terminals and point of sales so that cashiers and customers feel protected.

While some may be skeptical about ordering out during this particular pandemic where the virus is so easily transmitted, Specht feels secure in her company's reputation for cleanliness as well as their system of sandwiches being made within the visibility of customers.

"Cleanliness is a big component of restaurant operation. The hope is that if you developed good relationships with your guests and their communities before the coronavirus, customers would trust that we would take precautions to keep the place extra clean and sanitized."

Specht shared that communication with employees has also allowed them to maintain the utmost cleanliness. If employees are not feeling well or express that they live with someone who has been exposed to the virus, they are not expected to come into work.

With vast changes being made to the workforce itself, significant changes are also being made to the Cousin Subs' business model. Branching off from the original dine-in, drive-through, third-party delivery, and carry out services, the franchise has expanded to curbside pickup and easy pickup. Customers using curbside pickup can now order online, drive up to the restaurant where they can then call in for their food and have an employee run the food out directly to them. For those who take the easy pickup route, customers can order their food online, go in at select locations and simply grab their food ready on a shelf.

Cousin Subs has received such a positive response following the implementation of these services that Specht and her team have had to develop a new initiative for tipping. Consumers have been asking to tip employees as a way to reward their hard work while extending their compassion towards them during these trying times.

Despite the ups and downs of running a multi-unit franchise in what is arguably one of the most economically unstable times we've ever known in this generation, Specht has made every effort to keep her business operating in a way that is conducive to the health and well-being of workers and customers alike. However, Specht does not take all the credit for the success Cousin Subs has managed to achieve and maintain during this pandemic. She praises her leadership team for quickly taking action to launch these initiatives.

Specht explained that prior to COVID-19 there was no curbside option available at Cousin Subs. It was merely a thought around the week of March 15th and within 48 hours, Specht had a collaborative interdepartmental team on it who successfully launched curbside pickup that week. More impressively, this feat was not achieved working side-by-side, but through a series of conference calls involving multiple departments.

"I'm proud of my leadership team. It's been enjoyable to watch their best strengths and skills on fire. Everyone is working at a more frenzied pace and while I don't think that that's a good pace to maintain all the time, I do think that right now the teams are working extra hard."

Navigating the unexpected twists and turns of this pandemic has been far from simple for Specht, and while she has made strides in implementing new initiatives, she expressed that she is unsure if they will continue to exist within the Cousin Subs franchise for the long run. For her, the future of the company is about building what was lost, focusing on growth and focusing on their 3-year and 10-year plans once they establish their new baseline post-COVID-19.

3 Min Read

7 Must-have Tips to Keep You Healthy and Fit for the Unpredictable COVID Future

With a lack of certainty surrounding the future, being and feeling healthy may help bring the security that you need during these unpredictable times.

When it comes to your health, there is a direct relationship between nutrition and physical activity that play an enormous part in physical, mental, and social well-being. As COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of our lives, the uncertainty of the future may seem looming. Sometimes improvisation is necessary, and understanding how to stay healthy and fit can significantly help you manage your well-being during these times.

Tip 1: Communicate with your current wellness providers and set a plan

Gyms, group fitness studios, trainers, and professionals can help you to lay out a plan that will either keep you on track through all of the changes and restrictions or help you to get back on the ball so that all of your health objectives are met.

Most facilities and providers are setting plans to provide for their clients and customers to accommodate the unpredictable future. The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C. An enormous amount is on the table for this coming fall and winter; if your gym closes again, what is your plan? If outdoor exercising is not an option due to the weather, what is your plan? Leaving things to chance will significantly increase your chances of falling off of your regimen and will make consistency a big problem.

The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C.

Tip 2: Stay active for both mental and physical health benefits

The rise of stress and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty around COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way. Staying active by exercising helps alleviate stress by releasing chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in your brain. In turn, these released chemicals can help improve your mood and even reduce risk of depression and cognitive decline. Additionally, physical activity can help boost your immune system and provide long term health benefits.

With the new work-from-home norm, it can be easy to bypass how much time you are spending sedentary. Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity. Struggling to find ways to stay active? Start simple with activities like going for a walk outside, doing a few reps in exchange for extra Netflix time, or even setting an alarm to move during your workday.

Tip 3: Start slow and strong

If you, like many others during the pandemic shift, have taken some time off of your normal fitness routine, don't push yourself to dive in head first, as this may lead to burnout, injury, and soreness. Plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of prior workouts when you return to the gym. Inactivity eats away at muscle mass, so rather than focusing on cardio, head to the weights or resistance bands and work on rebuilding your strength.

Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity.

Tip 4: If your gym is open, prepare to sanitize

In a study published earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, the flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25 percent of the surfaces they tested in multiple athletic training facilities. Even with heightened gym cleaning procedures in place for many facilities, if you are returning to the gym, ensuring that you disinfect any surfaces before and after using them is key.

When spraying disinfectant, wait a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Also, don't forget to wash your hands frequently. In an enclosed space where many people are breathing heavier than usual, this can allow for a possible increase in virus droplets, so make sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Staying in the know and preparing for new gym policies will make it easy to return to these types of facilities as protocols and mutual respect can be agreed upon.

Tip 5: Have a good routine that extends outside of just your fitness

From work to working out, many routines have faltered during the COVID pandemic. If getting back into the routine seems daunting, investing in a new exercise machine, trainer, or small gadget can help to motivate you. Whether it's a larger investment such as a Peloton, a smaller device such as a Fitbit, or simply a great trainer, something new and fresh is always a great stimulus and motivator.

Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine.

Just because you are working from home with a computer available 24/7 doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your entire day to work. Setting work hours, just as you would in the office, can help you to stay focused and productive.

A good night's sleep is also integral to obtaining and maintaining a healthy and effective routine. Adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing, so prioritizing your sleep schedule can drastically improve your day and is an important factor to staying healthy. Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine. This can help the rest of your day feel normal while the uncertainty of working from home continues.

Tip 6: Focus on food and nutrition

In addition to having a well-rounded daily routine, eating at scheduled times throughout the day can help decrease poor food choices and unhealthy cravings. Understanding the nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy can help you stay more alert, but they do vary from person to person. If you are unsure of your suggested nutritional intake, check out a nutrition calculator.

If you are someone that prefers smaller meals and more snacks throughout the day, make sure you have plenty of healthy options, like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins available (an apple a day keeps the hospital away). While you may spend most of your time from home, meal prepping and planning can make your day flow easier without having to take a break to make an entire meal in the middle of your work day. Most importantly, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

Tip 7: Don't forget about your mental health

While focusing on daily habits and routines to improve your physical health is important, it is also a great time to turn inward and check in with yourself. Perhaps your anxiety has increased and it's impacting your work or day-to-day life. Determining the cause and taking proactive steps toward mitigating these occurrences are important.

For example, with the increase in handwashing, this can also be a great time to practice mini meditation sessions by focusing on taking deep breaths. This can reduce anxiety and even lower your blood pressure. Keeping a journal and writing out your daily thoughts or worries can also help manage stress during unpredictable times, too.

While the future of COVI9-19 and our lives may be unpredictable, you can manage your personal uncertainties by focusing on improving the lifestyle factors you can control—from staying active to having a routine and focusing on your mental health—to make sure that you emerge from this pandemic as your same old self or maybe even better.