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Learning from the Pandemic

Jeff Chandler, CEO of Hopdoddy Burger Bar in Austin, explains how the company not only shifted its strategy to navigate the pandemic but why its business model will never be the same.

By Jeff Chandler, CEO of Hopdoddy Burger Bar

When the Coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S. in March 2020, restaurants and bars took one of the most notable hits. According to the National Restaurant Association, about 17 percent of restaurants were closed permanently or long-term by December 2020 — a total of more than 110,000 establishments. The last 365 days have easily been the most turbulent for our industry.

To deal with this time of uncertainty, we shifted our efforts at Hopdoddy Burger Bar to three key areas that ultimately helped us adapt and thrive. Although the following were important to our business operations well before the pandemic, being nimble, focused and innovative in these areas not only helped us survive this year, but have forever changed our business for the better.

1. Ensuring the health and safety of our team members and guests

With COVID-19 numbers rising across the country, we quickly acknowledged the need to provide safe experiences such as health screening protocols and contactless service in order to protect our team members and guests. Although relationships with third-party vendors were formed pre-pandemic, this option became essential to our business since guests were required to shelter in place and drastically limit interactions outside of their homes. As the pandemic carried on, we saw the proliferation of our direct delivery and curbside business and knew the demand for contactless service wasn't going away anytime soon; we quickly prioritized ramping up our direct delivery and curbside, made it happen in record timing, and refined the effectiveness and efficiencies while doing so.

In order to streamline this transition, we knew digital guest relationship management would need to be a top priority. With this in mind, we embarked on what we refer to as our DGE (Digital Guest Experience). With this initiative, we invested in the redesign of the website to make the online ordering experience more intuitive for every guest, and to eliminate any weak spots in the digital ordering funnel that could impact the closure of a sale. By putting extra care into the launch of our direct delivery and online ordering, we've developed a system that will be valuable to our company and guests long after the pandemic is behind us, but in the meantime, we are seeing about 35 percent of our sales now come from curbside and direct delivery.

However, the current demand for contactless ordering options, in our opinion, will never fully replace the human hospitality that is so essential to the restaurant industry and to Hopdoddy. Having someone ready to greet guests at the door or assist with questions are age-old practices in the industry that will never die and can be especially comforting during a time of turbulence and increased social distance.

While it's important to be efficient and ultimately sell a product, there is still a need for restaurants to offer a sense of hospitality and human interaction. Choosing where to invest in human hospitality during the guest experience is unique to each brand and should be considered in the overall brand experience, and with the current health and safety for both guests and team members.

2. Improving the guest experience

To consistently offer the hospitality and dining options guests want, we embraced our outdoor patios and worked smartly to make them as comfortable and safe as possible for guests looking to enjoy a meal outside of quarantined walls. They can have peace of mind in an open space that adheres to safety guidelines and even have the freedom to bring their dog along!

These decisions, before and during the pandemic, were made in alignment with Hopdoddy's vision to push the boundaries of what's expected from a burger bar. Thanks to data gathered from our guest base, we focused our attention on features they care about most and adjusted them accordingly. That's why as part of our Digital Guest Experience (DGE) we also incorporated a contactless ordering system for people in-restaurant, which allowed both guests and team members to feel at ease and know their health is a top priority. Whereas guests used to wait in line and order at the Hopdoddy front counter, in test restaurants we innovated operations so guests can instead place an order from their phones while inside the restaurant and in the comfort of their own table. By providing this accommodation, we were able to ensure that guests can enjoy Hopdoddy in a way they both felt safe and have the quality restaurant experience they're looking for.

3. Innovating the concept, business models and menu

The need to be innovative, nimble and quick on your feet are characteristics of restaurants that have thrived during the pandemic and is something Hopdoddy prided itself on pre-COVID. So when it became apparent operations weren't the only thing that needed to adjust in response to the pandemic, we were pretty comfortable making quick decisions about how our business & concept would adapt.

For example, when we noticed more people making meals at home but also having difficulties sourcing food items early on in the pandemic, we implemented a Hopdoddy "pantry" and launched at-home kits with the same, high-quality ingredients for families to prepare meals on their own time. It's a change that would likely have been considered inconvenient and not on our radar pre-pandemic, but offering a family-friendly activity or date night idea from home is a new, unexpected convenience that our guests will continue to expect in the future.

This mindset, along with legislative changes, also allowed us to also explore and launch to-go cocktails at most Hopdoddy locations, helping us to retain one of our prime features as a restaurant and bar. By evaluating the products we already had available, like alcohol, and adapting to the new standards set in place, we were able to take action and maintain the sale of one of our main offerings, core to our brand. Finding a way to adjust to a given situation with the service or product you already have is a tactic every restaurant should keep in mind since you save time and don't have to completely reinvent the wheel with this approach.

Looking Towards the Future

Curbside, contactless ordering and payment, improved in-restaurant experiences, and perfecting the delivery and quality of to-go items are just a few examples of COVID-19 induced changes that will become permanent features for restaurants.

For the future, Hopdoddy and other restaurants will need to maintain the operational and technological innovations guests find value in, while also focusing on a return to strategic human hospitality. While this pandemic has taught us it is vital to embrace innovation, it is also important to stay true to your brand's positioning and culture. Moving forward, we will all have to determine how to maintain a level of "human touch" that forms genuine and lasting connections with the guests, whether in-person or online.

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