Operating a restaurant during a pandemic is tough, and it doesn’t get any easier if you’re operating 38 of them. For Vancouver-based fast food chain Burgerville, the past six weeks have prompted an unprecedented overhaul of the restaurant service model.
CEO Jill Taylor said in a recent interview that the new environment has proven the value of the chain’s menu offerings, while a series of changes have allowed the company to reach an equilibrium at which it can keep operating for the duration of the pandemic and any associated stay-at-home order.
“It’s been a struggle, but we’re keeping our doors open,” Taylor said.
The pandemic has caused a decline in customer traffic, leading to painful adjustments. A month ago, Burgerville placed roughly 68 percent of its employees on full or partial furlough. Last week, the company announced it would lay off all of the fully furloughed staff — 612 employees out of a workforce of 1,482.
The company closed its dining rooms and switched to drive-thru and delivery-only service on March 14. Many other fast food chains made similar moves the following week; on March 23, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown both issued statewide stay-at-home orders, making the delivery-only model mandatory for all restaurants.
Burgerville operates 41 restaurants in Oregon and Washington. Three of them have had to temporarily close due to lack of a drive-thru, but the remainder are still open for business, albeit with reduced staffing levels.
The Burgerville Workers Union, which represents employees at five Portland-area Burgerville restaurants, has publicly called for the chain to provide hazard pay and greater sick leave benefits due to the pandemic.
Burgerville announced unspecified additions to its sick leave policy on March 12 “to ensure any and all employees can take leave if they are sick.” When asked about hazard pay, Taylor noted that similar pay adjustments have been seen among retail segments that are racing to keep up with customer demand.
“Like the entire restaurant industry, COVID has hit Burgerville hard and we are seeing significantly less customer demand,” Taylor said in an email after the interview. “We are tracking these and other developments and taking every action we can to help our employees, the communities we serve, our farmers and ranchers, and our company weather this storm.”
A few retailers, including the Fred Meyer grocery chain, have added temporary pay increases during the outbreak. But the grocery and restaurant industries have experienced very different impacts from the pandemic; several major grocery store chains have gone on hiring sprees to keep up with a spike in customer traffic.
Changes in service
The shift to a drive-thru and delivery-only model was only the first step for Burgerville, Taylor said. After that, the chain had to retool its kitchens and develop a plan to maintain operations in the long term under the new conditions.
“We appointed a social distancing officer, and he really went to work,” she said.
Part of the change was about safety, such as putting tape down on the floors and outlining zones around the grills to make sure staffers remain at least 6 feet apart, Taylor said. That also meant changing the way cash registers and other equipment were set up.
Supply layouts and foot traffic patterns in the kitchen have been updated to facilitate frequent hand-washing and access to gloves, Taylor said, and employees have all been issued masks. Each shift has a designated social distancing coordinator to monitor kitchen
So far, the measures are working. No Burgerville employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, Taylor said.
The other half of the puzzle was speed. Overall customer traffic has dropped during the pandemic, but nearly all of the remaining traffic is using drive-thru service — and drive-thru lanes can’t match the throughput of a row of dining counter cash registers.
“It’s mostly convenience, not necessarily efficiency,” Taylor said.
The restaurants have been able to speed up the lines in part by increasing their use of standby parking spaces where customers with larger orders can pull over and wait after paying, allowing the rest of the line to keep moving.
Those big orders have become more common, Taylor said, likely because individual customers are picking up food for their quarantined households.
“Our average check (size) has gone up significantly,” she said.
The other tactic is to keep the delivery orders separate. Most delivery drivers tend to prefer to use the drive-thru to pick up orders, Taylor said, but the busier restaurants have been asking them to park and collect their orders at the door, which allows those orders to be rung up and processed separately.
Burgerville distinguishes itself from other fast-food restaurants with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, and Taylor said that approach has enabled the chain to largely avoid supply chain disruptions so far, with the exception of a switch to an alternate supplier for some hamburger buns.
It’s impossible to know how long the stay-at-home orders will last, Taylor said, and even when they’re lifted, people might be hesitant to rush back into public spaces like dining halls, so the company is preparing the keep all the changes in place for as long as necessary.
In recent weeks, Burgerville has stepped up its “Burger Break” program, which provides burger deliveries to health care staff and other essential workers. Drive-thru customers can donate to the program by adding the “Community-Built Burger” to their orders, with Burgerville double-matching the donations.
Taylor said the idea for Burger Break originated during last year’s Feast Portland event, but the company decided to widen the scale after hearing about first responders stopping at Burgerville restaurants after long shifts. Several of Burgerville’s suppliers have joined the effort with donations of their own, she said.
The customer involvement piece was inspired in part by recent a pattern of pay-it-forward behavior among drive-thru customers, Taylor said, where each driver would volunteer to pay for the next car’s order.
“At a few restaurants, a pay-it-forward thing about 20, 30 cars long has been happening,” she said.