WE SPOKE TO CHRISTINE SPECHT, CEO of Milwaukee-based Cousins Subs, about the coronavirus, its effect on restaurants, and what she thinks the Milwaukee restaurant scene will look like in the future.
Going forward I think it’s really about understanding what is going to be the new norm. Will there be decreased capacity in restaurants? What will the expectation be for how much space needs to be in between tables and diners, whether that’s for chains or smaller restaurants? You could see some permanency to things like curbside pickup and things like that. Even restaurants that are not focused on that type of service could adapt and still offer a to-go option. I think you’ll see that grow, because it allows for flexibility and answers the guests’ demands. It’s about being responsive to what the guests want.
How has Cousins responded to the coronavirus crisis?
It’s about making our employees feel safe, making our guests feel confident that they can go in our restaurants. We’ve enhanced our cleaning protocols and our sanitation procedures of surfaces in many of our restaurants. We’ve installed a plexiglass physical shield between point of sale and where the guest would stand. We’ve launched curbside pickup. Ultimately, we’re trying to adapt to how guests can order and receive their food and make sure we’re doing what we can do to keep our employees safe.
What do you think customers are looking for from restaurants right now?
The best standards when it comes to quality, service and cleanliness. They want to know their food is prepared in a safe manner by employees who practice safe hand washing and are healthy. They want to make sure the facilities are clean. I think there’s going to be a heightened awareness of that. We’ll see how it develops in terms of behavior. There could be greater amounts of distancing that happen, as a result of the pandemic. At the same time, as the numbers decrease and people are feeling safe, there’s a potential for people to be comfortable around crowds again. We’re creatures of habit and we miss our social outlets, so I think people will be longing for that in one way or another.
What do you think the restaurant industry will look like in Milwaukee a year from now?
I think that the restaurant industry will continue to work on their ability to be adaptive. When there are crises like we’re in – because who knows if this will be the last of them – it’s about the ability of restaurants to adapt. For us, that means having a social distancing asset kit. Shields in place, hand sanitizer, signage, barriers, everything necessary in case we’re in another pandemic.
I’m certainly looking forward to getting back to normal, because some restaurants have closed entirely. The Bartolotta Group is one – they initially attempted to do some out-of-restaurant dining options but I don’t think it worked for them – and that’s just a real shame. I really look forward to them coming back online, because they’re a Milwaukee institution and they have so many employees and raving fans. I’m hopeful we can get all those restaurants up and running again.
The other thing is the guest’s expectations. Guests will continue to be loyal to restaurants that are rewarding them for their loyalty. They’ll look for that type of tighter relationship. I think guests will continue to demand that companies have a strong mindset when it comes to social responsibility. What are companies doing to help others in their community?