I was in charge of some of the biggest restaurant brands in the country when the pandemic hit – this account of the chaotic early days will leave you on the edge of your seat

When the pandemic swept through Ontario in the spring of 2020, few companies were more exposed than Recipe Unlimited, owner of 24 iconic brands including Swiss Chalet, The Keg and Harvey’s. As CEO, I was faced with making decisions on behalf of customers, franchisees, and 60,000 employees at 1,300 locations, with minimal data and even less government guidance.

In the summer of 2021, I took time to reflect on the experience, writing a chapter for the recently released book “Unprecedented: Canada’s Top CEOs on Leadership during COVID-19”.

I’m one of 30 CEOs of companies on the frontlines of the health crisis — restaurants, airlines, grocery stores, long-term care homes, banks and hotels — who describe a time when leadership was more than just profits. . Leaders from Air Canada, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Lululemon, Sobeys and Telus also told deeply personal stories of how they weathered unprecedented times taking care of their communities, as well as of their businesses.

The following excerpt details Recipe Unlimited’s experience at the start of the pandemic.

Torstar President and Co-Owner Paul Rivett serves as Chairman of the Board of Recipe Unlimited Corp.

“He feels rushed.” The comment came across the table from a senior member of my team as the rest of the leadership group gathered in our meeting room to begin the most impactful conference call of my 30-plus career. years in the restaurant industry. On the phone, more than 1,000 franchisees and corporate restaurant managers, representing more than 1,300 restaurants and more than 60,000 employees. It was March 16, 2020, St. Patrick’s Eve, one of the busiest days of our restaurant’s calendar year – and I was about to shut everything down. Voluntarily.

The comment came as this team member watched my hesitation before initiating the call – a call that was already late and for which we only had the line for 30 minutes. We set aside 2 p.m., enough time to organize my comments after listening to scheduled briefings from Ontario Premier Doug Ford, followed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. I had assumed they would announce a complete shutdown of all retail and non-essential travel. But we all know the dangers of assumptions.

Instead, the Prime Minister, looking like the boy whose dog ate his homework, basically said nothing and the Prime Minister was late. I remember thinking that Ford should let Trudeau make the tough announcement (at that time, I didn’t fully understand the federal and provincial pandemic jurisdiction rules). As my franchisees began to line up for the call, we continued to wait. Finally, at 1:40 a.m., Trudeau emerged. And it soon became clear that he wasn’t going to shut down the economy. I remember being stunned that neither of them made the difficult but obvious call.

Now I was left with a full conference room and one conference call line at most. Everyone was waiting for me to speak. Was it the right thing to do? It was no small feat and the decision would impact thousands of lives and livelihoods. Was it rushed?

Recipe (formerly Cara Operations) is Canada’s largest full-service restaurant company. We are publicly traded, with 24 brands and three manufacturing plants, and are partnered with more than 800 small business franchise owners in hundreds of communities coast to coast. Our sales in 2019 were $3.5 billion.

I joined Recipe in May 2018 as CEO after being with the company nine years prior in various leadership roles. I had already been through crises with the company: the Great Recession in 2008, SARS in 2003 and the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the main activity of the company at the time was directly related to industry air transport. Additionally, the company is 137 years old and had already survived a global pandemic, albeit a hundred years earlier. I knew the business was resilient, as long as we didn’t panic.

I had done an essay on crisis management only a few months after taking over at Recipe. It was the fall of 2018 and the company fell victim to a malicious malware attack that targeted most of our restaurant-level POS systems. The attack prevented us from accepting any type of payment except cash. Although we never paid a ransom and the personal data was not hacked, it still took us the better part of a week to get all of our systems back up and running.

Looking back, during this crisis, it took me too long to get everyone together – information coming in and going out was out of sync, the right people weren’t in the room to hear the information first hand. People were working on their own priorities instead of acting together, and as a result our response was slow. The fault was mine as I didn’t assemble my war room until the second day after the attack – too slow when events are moving quickly. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again with COVID.

Restaurants are leading indicators of consumer confidence. Our first senior leadership group call on COVID took place on January 29, 2020, two days after the first Canadian was confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. The call was in response to inquiries that we were beginning to bypass wearing masks. I had watched the news and followed what was happening in Asia, but now it was starting to get closer to home. We immediately activated our crisis management team and they started working on preparing a COVID website to answer questions that might start coming in from our managers, teammates, guests and franchisees. We have been closely monitoring our social channels for any changes in customer sentiment. Yet, by the end of February, we had not seen any negative results appear on our daily sales reports. In fact, January and February restaurant sales were positive compared to the previous year. But storm clouds were forming all around us.

Our first tangible sign of changing consumer behavior due to COVID has been surprisingly positive for Recipe. It happened in our large retail division. These are the restaurant brand products that we sell to grocery stores across the country. Products like St-Hubert sauces, Chalet Suisse pâtés or Montana ribs. In February, this activity increased by 36% over the previous year, thanks in part to the fact that the federal health minister suggested on February 26 that Canadians stockpile food and medicine. While it was nice to see this increase in retail, we were also unsure what it might portend. The weekend of March 7-8 was full of negative virus news. Talking heads on Sunday shows predicted the worst, quarantined cruise ship passengers got 24/7 coverage, and sporting events like regional tennis tournaments were postponed. Yet by the end of the week of March 8, sales were down just 2%.

It was on Monday March 9 that our world began to change dramatically. Sales were down 14% and on Tuesday they were down 16%. The storm walls really broke down on Wednesday, March 11. On that day, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, Ontario closed its schools for a few weeks and, within two hours, US President Donald Trump gave a disturbing speech from the Oval. Office, the NBA canceled its season and Tom Hanks said he had COVID. It was that night that I was first struck that we were going to be closed. It was no longer a question of if, but of when. By Sunday, March 15, our sales had dropped by 44%.

The intensity was building – we all knew the world was about to change. While politicians were saying “14 days to bend the curve”, I thought that was just to ease the panic. For me, the entire weekend of March 14-15 was a flurry of calls and scenario planning.

Luckily, I have a very supportive board and got advice from Paul Rivett, president of Recipe. Paul and I would end up talking almost every weekend throughout the crisis. There was never much daylight between us and I always appreciated his advice and his ability to listen. Whatever decision I had to make, I knew I could count on his support and that of the board of directors.

In the midst of this weekend’s chaos, the doorbell rang at my house. At the door was a nurse. She had arrived so that she could take the normal samples necessary for someone wishing to take out a new life insurance policy. I forgot she was coming. One of the tests is for blood pressure. Now, even though I felt calm with everything going on (I’ve never had high blood pressure), her little gauge suggested I was lying to myself. So after a few deep breathing exercises led by my wife and four more attempts by the nurse, we finally got a decent reading to record.

With the weekend over and my blood pressure normal, I returned to the conference room to think about our main concern, the safety of our teammates and guests. One of our values ​​as a company is to “do the right thing” – if ever there was a time to live our values, this is it. So, on that fateful Monday, the decision on what to do was clear to me. We needed to close.

When I announced our decision to the team on the conference call line, I made it clear that this was a survivable event if we all worked together and didn’t panic.

Excerpt from “Unprecedented: Canada’s Top CEOs on Leadership During COVID-19”. Copyright ©2022 Covid Recovery Canada Inc. Published by Signal/McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by agreement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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