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.


Shivani Mangar