In her two months as CEO of Checkers & Rally’s, veteran food-service corporate executive Frances Allen has faced two years’ worth of challenges.
“On the one hand, it’s not how I intended my first 100 days to go,” said Allen, still unable to finalize the move from her Colorado home to Tampa (where the quick-service restaurant chain is headquartered) amid the pandemic.
“On the other hand, it’s been an incredible opportunity for a new leader to come in and see what an organization is made of.”
So far, she has seen proof of benevolence, resilience, improvisation and flexibility, even as the company (owned by a private equity firm) suffered an alarming sales slump in late March.
“I’m incredibly encouraged by our employees and their ability to just work through adversity and manage, be flexible, be effective," she said.
Initially, Allen’s 100-day plan of familiarizing herself with her new company included roaming Checkers and Rally’s locations throughout the country to learn every nook and nuance of the organization.
The coronavirus forced her to develop a Plan B on the fly.
Now, each morning at 9 a.m. EST (7 a.m. Colorado time), Allen meets remotely with her reconfigured executive team to discuss the current progress (or regression) of the pandemic, any new local mandates enacted and cash-flow management, among other topics.
Equipped with that data, they then collaborate on the best course to remain open and viable during this unprecedented time.
“There’s nothing like a crisis to bring a team together," said Allen, a native of England whose British accent remains crisp. "So I am incredibly impressed with the quality of the executive team, of what they’ve been able to get done.”
As drive-through restaurants with closed kitchens (a point Allen is quick to reinforce), Checkers & Rally’s have fared better than most counterparts during the lingering crisis.
Of the parent company’s 900 or so restaurants, only about 35 have been forced to close their doors, Allen said. Moreover, the company appears to be rebounding from its late-March swoon, when sales dipped about 25 percent.
Because of curfews in various markets, late-night traffic dropped off sharply, forcing operating hours at some locations to be reduced. But that was offset mildly by increased demand for its free-delivery program (on purchases of $20 or more).
“They have a trusted brand, which is really important right now because people are seeking that level of comfort and comfort food,” said Brian Connors of Fort Lauderdale-based Connors Davis Hospitality, a global food-and-beverage consulting firm.
“And let’s face it, the American hamburger, there’s nothing more comforting. There’s definitely people in cars every day utilizing drive-throughs, so the Checkers model is perfect. And then by adding free delivery, which a lot of the other competing brands have done, it’s also a good move. So kudos to her and her team.”
Though some store closures have occurred, Allen said no one in the company has been laid off. A “very small proportion” of the headquartered staff was put on a 30-day furlough, she added, but only because those employees were involved with projects that couldn’t be done during the social-distancing mandates.
Meantime, the company extended 80 hours of paid sick time to any employee who must remain home due to coronavirus-related issues. An employee relief fund, established after Hurricane Katrina, has since been opened to workers affected by the pandemic; and franchisees are being offered options on royalty deferments.
“She’s really looking at her people first,” said Connors, also director of the Bacardi Center of Excellence (a hospitality program with an emphasis on careers in spirits management) at Florida International University.
"I’m a big fan of (famed New York City restaurateur) Danny Meyer and Union Square Hospitality; they take the same overall idea to put your people first and they’ll take care of your customers. And she definitely did that with her brand, which is phenomenal.”
Additionally, Allen ― whose sprawling resume includes executive stints at Boston Market, Dunkin’ Donuts and Denny’s, among others ― has helped set up an employee exchange program. During this crisis, workers at closed Checkers and Rally’s locations can get their application process expedited through partnering grocery and pharmacy chains that currently need extra staffing.
Connors calls the program “a real smart move.”
“They’re looking for people with the right attitude toward hospitality, so they are excited to get people from the restaurant industry to fill these temporary roles,” Allen said.
Allen insists the benevolent spirit of that program simply is a reflection of what she has seen from company franchisees.
One in New Jersey, whose business was hurt significantly by local curfews, helped provide 5,000 meals to emergency medical staff in the area. Another in Birmingham, Ala., is serving free kid’s meals locally.
“I think we’ve all coalesced as a team,” Allen said. “And I think anyone that gets through this ― whether it’s Checkers or other brands ― will just feel this incredible sense of camaraderie that we got through it together.”
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