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Purpose in a time of coronavirus

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Purpose has become something of a buzzword over the last few years, as companies in every sector strive to develop a more engaged and productive workforce.

But for Nick Sarillo, of Nick’s Pizza & Pub in Chicago, Illinois, purpose is something he’s been cultivating in his restaurants for more than 15 years.

“These days it’s becoming more popular as a concept, which I love, but I am cautious when marketing companies set values rather than them being authentically created by the team. When done well, being explicit about the culture you want to have ­is like rocket fuel,” he says.

Not only does purpose provide the guiding principles for how his thriving business operates, it has seen Nick’s Pizza & Pub become an integral part of its local community. And this approach is serving the business particularly well in the current climate, as Nick’s adapts to a new ‘business as usual’ in the face of Covid-19.

Making lemonade

Chicago has more than 5,000 cases of coronavirus and a ‘stay at home’ order is currently in place for the state of Illinois to try and curb the infection rate. As with restaurants across the country, this has severely impacted on the services Nick’s Pizza & Pub can offer its customers.

“The first wave that really hit our restaurants was when the Governor of Illinois announced the lockdown,” says Sarillo. “We had servers watching that in tears. A couple of them are single moms living pay check to pay check, wondering what they were going to do now, so that really hurt.”

During this time, the sense of family felt among the team made a huge difference to the company’s approach to shifting gear. Sarillo immediately put provisions in place for those front-of-house employees who would be most affected, giving them advice to seek unemployment or finding other positions for them if they wanted to continue working.

“Anyone who wanted to be a delivery driver for the carry out business or work the phones, then we gave them that option,” he said, putting a real emphasis on staff welfare.

He then quickly set about adapting the company model so the restaurant could stay open for carry out and delivery services.

“We’ve always been a great full-service restaurant, but carry out has only ever been a small part of what we do. So, I sat down with the managers and asked them how we could become a great carry out and delivery restaurant. What do we need to do to be the best at that?”

This proactive and positive approach, involving his team in the process and challenging them to strive for excellence even in the face the uncertainty, is key to helping them feel valued and motivated.

“We would be nowhere without our people and involving them in the solution is always the best path through a crisis in my experience,” says Sarillo. “We need to work together to make lemonade out of these lemons, so that we can be stronger and better in the future.”

Nick's Pizza Pub implemented a pool of actions to surive the corona crisis.

Restaurant Interior / Image: Nick’s Pizza & Pub

Serving the community

Sarillo opened the first Nick’s Pizza & Pub in Crystal Lake in 1995. He felt the community was in need of a full-service, family restaurant that offered both great food and treated the kids like first-class citizens.

His approach has always been to actively engage with and meet the needs of the local community, constantly asking what problems the company can solve.

During the recession, this meant rolling out a half price day, once a week, for those people who were financially struggling. “That has been really successful in this time as well and is one way that we’re able to give back to our community,” says Sarillo.

Another problem customers are facing is keeping their children entertained while on lockdown. Sarillo realized Nick’s could help with that and has taken some of its menu items, such as pizza and bruschetta, and broken them into component parts to create a ‘build your own’ kit. “We provide them with a rolling pin, a doughball and the sauce, so they can have fun with their family at home.”

Nick’s is also holding a weekly raffle, in which a winner is chosen from the carry out business at each location and given 20 pizzas to send to any hospital or first responder location they want.

“I know there is more we could do to help more of the vulnerable people in our community and that is part of the challenge,” says Sarillo. “I also know that each week we continue to look at how we’re doing things and involving our team gives me confidence that we will continue to come up with more unique ideas.”

Problem solving

One of the early challenges Nick’s faced was with its first buy one get one free Tuesday. It was both the first week of lockdown and coincided with a national initiative: #thegreatamericantakeout.

“We were probably 20% busier than we expected, so the social distancing didn’t work,” says Sarillo. “In our post-shift we discussed that it was not as expected – it was good that it was busy but we had to improve.”

“So, we strategized and made a whole bunch of changes: the next Tuesday we put a table out front, we got radios, we got servers in to work the curbside, and it made a huge difference. It was just as busy, but it didn’t feel like it and we got so much positive feedback from our guests. So, we have to adapt and keep listening to our guests and our team.”

The majority of Nick’s customers are still coming to pick up their orders, but the demand for delivery is growing, accounting for 15% of the current business. However, across the two sites, which usually seat around 350 people each, sales have dipped 55% since lockdown started.

“Having a forecasted cashflow model has never been more important,” says Sarillo, who has instituted weekly meetings, modelling out for the next couple of months in order to fully prepare. “The first time we did this, we realized we were going to run out of money in the first week of May, so it’s been a great exercise – not a fun exercise, but effective! It enabled us to look at the worst-case scenario, figure out where to dial back and what we needed to do to extend our runway. We called our bank and our landlord, our utilities and suppliers, proactively having conversations about where we could push back payments if needed.”

A forecasted cashflow model may help restaurants to survive during COVID-19.

Entrance Restaurant / Image: Nick’s Pizza & Pub

Developing purpose

Sarillo attributes Nick’s ability to pull together and survive such difficult circumstances to the purpose and values the company is built on. This was something he started to develop in 2002, with the help of foodservice consultant Rudy Miick FCSI, founder and president of The Miick Companies, LLC, in Boulder, Colorado.

“Leaders often don’t see their impact. Culture comes out of behavior, not talk,” explains Miick. “Nick is exceedingly conscious of this and it’s evident in the way he prioritizes people.”

This process was a gamechanger for the company. “Every organization is about people, especially in the hospitality industry,” says Sarillo. “Defining the kind of culture you want to have and then living that out as leaders makes such a big difference.”

It not only led to a happier and more motivated workforce, but increased productivity and reduced staff turnover to 25%. This is something Sarillo wants to maintain, even in the current crisis, so Nick’s has appointed a liaison for each restaurant to keep their teams connected.

“The general managers already have their hands full, so the liaison is like our virtual party planner for the team. We want to stay connected for the purposes of mental and emotional wellbeing, because we want to take care of each other – we’re family.”

Planning for the future

The strategies Nick’s has put in place so far stand the company in good stead to weather this storm. The company has learned a lot about delivery during this time and taken the opportunity to tighten up that side of the business.

“I used to leave the pizza delivery business to the big chains, but now that we’ve focused into it, there’s an experience side for families that we can really do well and have fun with,” says Sarillo.

Nick Sarillo - owner of Nick's Pizza & Pub

Nick Sarillo / Image: Nick’s Pizza & Pub

What’s more, he’s confident that Nick’s will be able to welcome back all of its furloughed staff and is looking forward to celebrating with them once the pandemic is over.

“People will be keen get out and socialize, and we’re going to need restaurants to gather in,” he says. “It’s also our 25 anniversary this year, so we’re talking about how we can have a big party – we’re all going to be happy and grateful for a lot of things that we typically took for granted, so it’ll be great to celebrate together.”

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