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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 23rd Jul 2021 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: How micro-bonuses have helped to revolutionise our operation, back to the bar, the sector that creates special memories
Authors: James Hacon, Glynn Davis, Ann Elliott

How micro-bonuses have helped to revolutionise our operation by James Hacon

In the middle of last year, at the height of the pandemic, like many hospitality businesses our team at I am Doner, where I am an investor and non-executive chairman, were grappling with the challenge of continuing to trade with physical distancing in place. Being a predominantly takeaway and delivery-based business, we were able to navigate the constant changes in policy with far less challenge than many other hospitality businesses but, with tiny footprint stores, physical distancing was a massive challenge, both in the kitchen and in our small waiting areas. Demand far outstripped our throttled capacity. 

We had to rethink the operation and focus on increasing productivity while minimising the amount of business being given away to aggregators via commissions. There were four main areas of analysis:

1. Leveraging customer technology

2. Improving kitchen ergonomics

3. Reviewing opening hours

4. Gaining the buy-in of the team of doing more with less

In respect of technology, we were already relatively well prepared going into the pandemic, having started working with Vita Mojo more than a year earlier, installing kiosks into our store and driving customers to transact directly with us through digital ordering. Within our three stores, two had seen digital ordering account for most transactions and one had been opened with no option but to order digitally. Through the early months of the pandemic, we fine-tuned the kitchen display set-up to optimise how easy it was to manage in the kitchen, spent time focusing on driving average spend by having a better order flow, optimised numbers of orders by 15-minute intervals and also opened pre-orders, with some weekend nights being fully subscribed by midday, really helping us with operational efficiencies.

In the kitchen, the challenge was on to further fine-tune the model, ensuring equipment was best positioned to avoid unnecessary steps, maximising on the spot storage and reducing prep during service, all with the consideration of having 20% to 30% less team members on shift. This wasn’t easy given we thought we’d already nailed the perfect format but Paul [Baron] and Bridie [Fox], who operate the business, trialled, trialled and trialled until we fine-tuned this and significantly enhanced the through-put from a single station.

There were significant changes in demand during the pandemic – as most people still operating felt. Customers ate earlier, with the peak moving from 8pm to nearer 6pm, there was limited lunch trade with offices shut and the late-night business was all but non-existent, with no nightlife and late bars. We were quick to minimise service times and made a re-commitment to straight shifts only, ensuring we focused on core trading hours and the team members were not being overstretched in terms of their working hours. This approach became more important as we progressed through various lockdowns and people were brought back from furlough; it became clear very quickly that our teams wanted a good work-life balance.

As with many businesses, regrettably, we did have to make job cuts at one point when things became too tough, particularly as it became clear our newly opened flagship store in Leeds city centre was not going to reopen for some time – having previously being fuelled by the city centre workers and then nightlife in the city, both of which were non-existent. This was eased slightly by understanding that a lot of our team were students who had already returned home and were unlikely to return to the area in the future. Coming out of this situation, we had to try to maintain a positive narrative and really engage the remaining team, particularly given we were fundamentally asking them to do more with less, which, let’s face it, is never an easy ask. We were very lucky that, for the most part, our team was up for the challenge and wanted to come back to work after being furloughed. With a strong understanding of how tough it was for many businesses out there, we were quick to recommunicate our plans post-pandemic to help the team feel like there was still hope and to regain some vibrancy. We didn’t feel it was right to simply put more pressure on the team without rewarding them for this, so we made the tough – but right – call that, in the middle of the pandemic, we would increase our global pay rates significantly. We also wanted to start rewarding the team based on the right attitudes and behaviours that supported our business during this time. We devised a plan to launch micro-bonuses.

It was a real turning point for the business in terms of team happiness, as well as top-line growth and reducing negative feedback. The challenges we were trying to overcome were two-fold. Firstly, we had regular issues with order accuracy, resulting in regular refunds and “hangry” customers. The second was that when the going gets tough, it was too easy for the teams to increase the wait time for delivery orders or frustratingly turn the terminal off, which results in a poor service to customers. We felt that with better incentivisation, the team might find that extra gear to push a little harder and keep those order flowing. Our approach was quite simple, we would pay a weekly bonus to all employees of 5% more per hour for every hour worked if they hit the realistic sales target for the site – and 5% if we have no controllable complaints, with both being directly linked back to overcoming our significant challenges. The result being that, in addition to their already enhanced pay package, the teams can earn 10% more directly linked to the performance of their store. 

The results have been fantastic, productivity is up, we’ve had far less turnover [of staff members], even with the current pressures of the market, and complaints dropped by more than 90%. We are paying the micro-bonuses out almost every week across our sites and are very pleased to do so. As we return to some sense of normality, there will still be many challenges to face and I’m not saying we have all the answers, but I know my colleagues on the ground feel that it is a little bit easier knowing that their teams are committed and well-rewarded. We continue to review how we can add value to our teams, consider their well-being and drive towards a better work-life balance, which isn’t always easy with all the pressures of running a small business but we will keep learning and adapting.
James Hacon is the non-executive chairman of I am Doner

Back to the bar by Glynn Davis

While the media zealously focused its attention on various nightclubs opening on the stroke of midnight for the ridiculously named “Freedom Day” as they satisfied lengthy queues of youngsters, the reality on the ground on 19 July was more subdued and felt rather like the previous Monday in the pubs I visited.

Any enthusiasm people might have had for this momentous day had been somewhat overshadowed by the rising cases of covid-19, which on 19 July itself, coincided with a sell-off of global stock markets. The caution people have sensibly had during the pandemic remains firmly in place despite the easing of many restrictions. As many as 77% of people intend to continue wearing a face covering in some or all public spaces, including shops and hospitality venues, according to a survey from Walnut Unlimited.

Any cautious, hesitant characteristics certain individuals might have had pre-covid-19 have been able to develop unchecked over the past 18 months and we now have a grouping that a business associate likes to call homo-trepidatious. So while 19 July for me brought the much-awaited opportunity to order and drink at the bar, I was not joined by many people.

This special moment came in a long-time favourite pub – The Pride of Spitalfields – on the edge of the City of London, where I ordered a perfectly kept Crouch Vale Brewers Gold (double winner of the Great British Beer festival Supreme Champion beer award for those interested). Being able to drink it on the spot without having to sit at a table was a joyous experience. I also spotted bar stools, the return of which I have regarded as a serious indicator of some sort of normality returning.

Despite my own enthusiasm for bar stools and propping up the bar, it has gradually dawned on me that I might actually be in a diminishing grouping. Covid-19 has possibly brought about a variety of changes to pub life that might just stick. This is being driven by the growing numbers of homo-trepitatious and pub operators that are both catering for this dynamic as well as continuing with certain procedures introduced during covid-19 and which they have found to be advantageous. Chief among them is table service.

Oakman Inns is to continue with table-only service, Shepherd Neame is only allowing bar service in some specific sites, City Pub Group is encouraging ordering from the table and hopes to retain the 50% level of customers who order food and drink via its app. Even JD Wetherspoon is pushing its customers to continue using its order and pay app. 

Thankfully, some operators appear to be in my camp with both Fuller’s and Young’s welcoming the return to bar service. From the Young’s-owned The Windmill in London’s Mayfair Oisin Rogers stated: “We can be a free-flowing place and we’ll be back to enjoying some normality – standing, talking and having a pint.” I’ll drink to that.

Both these operators do, though, reflect other changes that covid-19 has brought to the industry – namely a move to offering more open-air eating and drinking. Fuller’s has invested heavily and is set to commit £4m more to what its chief executive Simon Emeny calls “winterisation” projects, including introducing pergolas, giant teepees and huts at many of its properties.

This sits very well with the government’s move towards more alfresco dining. The explosion in pavement eating and the outdoor sale of alcohol has proven to be sufficiently successful during covid-19 that it has become part of Boris Johnson’s strategy to regenerate high streets and his “levelling up” drive, whatever that actually means. 

Such moves will undoubtedly push the UK towards a more continental cafe culture, which, interestingly, was touted as one of the upsides to the relaxed alcohol licensing laws that came into force way back in November 2005. It didn’t really happen but this vision might now finally be coming to fruition a good 16 years later. It took something as dramatic as a pandemic to bring about such a change in the country’s drinking activity but it will take a lot more than that to prise me away from standing at the bar though.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

The sector that creates special memories by Ann Elliott

I have been staying with my dad for the past few days so we can spend some time remembering my mum who died ten years ago this week. Normally, I arrive with husband, dog and various family members and it’s all a bit frenetic but, this time, it was just me – and him. He is 91, very deaf, really unstable on his feet, takes heart medication, has diabetes, an appalling memory and one knee that constantly collapses underneath him but he still lives on his own and is stoically independent.

I do find it a bit sad that someone who was once so energetic, ambitious (he was chief environmental officer for the largest metropolitan county in the UK at one point in his career) and passionate about life should face the challenges that he does, but he is very philosophical, constantly wanting to learn new things and unfailingly enthusiastic about his painting, gardening and socialising. He doesn’t moan and he doesn’t look back.

I have tried for the past few days to live life through his eyes. Numb fingers that find it difficult to use iPhone keypads and often get numbers and letters wrong. Deaf ears that can’t hear what doctors (and others) tell him over the phone and a poor memory that mean any imparted knowledge isn’t retained. A worried mind that regards much communication with suspicion but making phone calls to verify information is not easy. Shaky hands that spill drinks, drop food, can’t tie shoelaces or unscrew jars and cannot write clearly. Wasted muscles that can’t put the bins out, change beds, carry shopping or cook very satisfactorily.

I am in awe at his desire to keep going and not be defeated even though there is no cure for his memory, hearing, instability or shakiness.

So, what a joy it is to go out and enjoy a meal and see him relax. I took him to The Devonshire Arms near Skipton for lunch on Monday. I park in a disabled space so he doesn’t have to walk very far but feel very guilty that I don’t have a disabled badge and end up worrying about it all through lunch. I look down at the ground all the time when walking in with him to ensure that no steps or obstacles can trip him up and send him flying. I place drink away from him, and the table close to him, to minimise spillages. I hope the loos aren’t up steps.

The service is friendly, warm and caring – they look after dad without being patronising. The menu is perfect for him and we eat three wonderful courses outside in the sunshine. He says he will pay but puts his PIN into the card machine incorrectly three times – prompting a whole new round of phone calls the next day for a new card and new PIN. A fresh nightmare.

On Tuesday, we went to Valentino’s in Bingley, which I can’t recommend highly enough and then, on Wednesday, had lunch at Dick Hudson’s, a Vintage Inn that looks out over the Aire Valley below. He loved it and so did I. He could hear me speak and the waitresses too. They were brilliant. The food was tasty, nicely presented and the right portion size for dad. The walk back to the car was a bit unsteady but that might have been the bottle of Peroni he had rather than the path itself.

Our meals out were wonderful diversions for my dad from the challenges of living on his own at 91 and of wanting to constantly prove that he can do it (with help) and doesn’t need to move into a home. For me, they were very precious moments – of sitting with my wonderful dad eating lovely food and chatting away. We forgot everything else and we just lived for the moment – me and dad. Just us.

Hospitality does this. It creates these moments that will live in our memories forever. Everyone who works in hospitality helps bring it all together and make it happen. Thank you to all who made our time together so special.
Ann Elliott is a hospitality strategist, connector and adviser

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