Brands “Ahead of the Curve” before “Flattening the Curve”


Cruises and flights canceled. Colleges and universities sending students home to watch lectures online. Public schools closing. Offices asking employees to telecommute. Concerts, parades, festivals and sporting events postponed indefinitely.


Postponing, moving or canceling things in our lives in the wake of COVID-19 may feel inconvenient, annoying and disappointing. But world health officials deem it necessary to “flatten the curve.”


It’s a term none of us has really heard before. But the intent is to avoid a sharp, concentrated uptick in cases that exceeds the capacity of the health care system, in favor of a lengthier outbreak that stays within the bounds of what the system can handle—resulting in fewer illnesses and fatalities overall. Thus, “flattening the curve.”


The term was first coined in a white paper published by the CDD in March 2007 called “Interim pre-pandemic planning guidance: community strategy for pandemic influenza mitigation in the United States.” Since then, history shows that taking strong steps now to slow the spread of a virus will help minimize the devastating impact in the long run.


“Social Distancing” and “Shelter in Place” are also phrases many of us are hearing for the first time, and both play a critical part in “Flattening the Curve.” The need to isolate in order to slow the progress of the virus has also slowed many businesses in this country to a halt. The restaurant industry has been hit especially hard as dining rooms and bars have closed entirely.


Yet, in the wake of flattening the curve, the brands who are surviving are those who were already ahead of the curve.


How could brands have possibly been ahead of this pandemic? We’ve never seen anything like it, right? The definition of “ahead of the curve” is “doing something faster, better or differently than others.”


Essentially, brands must have already invested.

Invested in what? Gloves? Masks? Not exactly. They must have proactively invested in where the business was going.


Take Chili’s for example. The restaurant began laying the groundwork for off-premise sales in 2007 with the branding of “Chilis To Go.” They went on to install dedicated carryout parking spots, even creating the iconic “All others crushed and melted” parking signs. Future builds for the restaurant began to integrate a separate to-go entrance, and an increased number of parking spaces. Operationally, Chili’s began to implement parking lot cameras to identify to-go customers. Customers really didn’t ask for any of this, because they didn’t know their lives would someday change in a way where they would want it. Fast forward to today, where Chili’s was already positioned as a takeout establishment in people’s minds, and operationally they knew how to handle it.


The definition of “ahead of the curve” is “doing something faster, better or differently than others.”


Third-party delivery has been a hot topic over the last few years. Many restaurants struggled operationally on how to properly handle drivers coming in for pickups. Do they approach a host? Go directly to the bar or kitchen? Chipotle invested in pickup stations in 2018 consisting of racks with four wooden shelves, and alphabetized by customer last name. Operationally, Chipotle then progressed to “digital make lines” back-of-house where orders were fulfilled so there was no cross over between off-premise and on-premise orders. In today’s COVID-19 world, these racks now allow both delivery and online orders to be easily picked up and remain contactless.


While investing in structural or operational items helped brands get ahead of the curve, the ultimate investment comes in the form of cultural engagement among customers and crew.


In a world driven by financials, it’s easy for marketers to get focused on people “buying” and not necessarily “buying in.” That’s because one of these is short term, and the other is, well, harder. Because buying in gets to the heart of culture, where people have the choice whether to attach themselves or not. The more magnetic your culture, the stronger it attracts employee and customer loyalty.


"...customers not only love the food at their favorite restaurant but also the faces of the staff who take care of them."


MindHandle is fortunate enough to work with brands like Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers and Fish City Grill who have positive company cultures. Culture was important to the founders from the very beginning, well before a tight labor market or even COVID-19. Yet, at the outset of this pandemic, restaurant staff has rallied to do whatever it takes to keep the business open and running. Where drive-thrus doubled capacity, bartenders became delivery drivers, managers became traffic cops, or servers gave up their hours so a coworker with a family could get theirs.


We’ve learned employee positivity carries over to their customers, because customers not only love the food at their favorite restaurant but also the faces of the staff who take care of them. Brands with the best customer culture have seen their patrons order takeout more often, and even leave 50% tips on the bill, to tide over the restaurant and its beloved employees.

It can be tough to see the future. And it can be even more difficult to invest in it. But those brands who were ahead of the curve - proactively invested in people over profits, build-out vs. bottom line and even operations over ROI - are the ones who seemed to have been rescued during the flattening of the COVID curve. Those who did not may very well float out to sea because they did not establish the processes or culture to save them.


If nothing else, COVID-19 has taught us about the benefits of planning, and taking the leap forward with our business. During this down period, get the wheels in motion on those various business projects that always seem to take a back-burner. For restaurants, it may be things like investing in social media, updating your website, upgrading online ordering, building your app, enhancing to-go packaging or building out a dedicated curbside or delivery station.


And while we will ultimately flatten the curve, we should remember this time in our business lives and dedicate ourselves to being ahead of the curve.


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