*Image above provided by Jason Albus Photography
Walk-On’s, the Cajun-themed sports bar and restaurant chain partly owned by New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees, has gone all in on family-style meals after each of its 37 locations closed their expansive dining rooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Focused on three primary questions—what do people want, what can we do and what can we execute—the Louisiana-based brand has created a family-focused to-go menu, while also building makeshift drive-thru lanes and ramping up its food truck program to serve as many customers, team members and furloughed hospitality workers as possible.
“Our main goal through this whole thing is, how do we keep people working, how do we keep employees fed and money coming in until they get relief,” said Walk-On’s founder and CEO Brandon Landry. “That guides everything throughout our system, because employees are first and foremost on our list.”
Watching in real time as sales first plummeted two weeks ago, many Walk-On’s restaurants saw 90 percent of their sales evaporate while scenes of jam-packed grocery stores filled screens across the country. As southern Louisiana emerged as a particularly hard-hit viral epicenter, Landry and his team quickly moved to figure out what options his team had to keep money coming in while it was forced to furlough the bulk of its hourly workers.
Such huge drops in restaurant sales numbers is in line with OpenTable’s initial data on restaurant volume during the crisis, and also consistent with many restaurant experts predicting that the pandemic will hit casual restaurants particularly hard, compared to quick-service brands that have drive-thru lanes, for example.
“We keep saying this is for a moment of time, not to the end of time,” said Landry, recalling a popular mantra at the Baton Rouge headquarters. “We have had to basically change our concept overnight and just become full takeout, delivery, curbside—whatever we had to do—but we’re making the best of it.”
Walk-On’s has always had takeout, but off-premises sales were nowhere near the majority of its total sales. Designed to feed families of four, the new Take & Bake menu allows customers to reheat meals at home. Crazy Chicken Pasta with creamy Cajun sauce, Tuscan Chicken, Chicken Alfredeaux are all priced at $25, while the Catfish Atchafalaya and Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding are priced higher at $30 and $40, respectively. It’s also selling quart-sized red beans and rice, crawfish etouffee, duck and andouille gumbo and shrimp and corn soup to round out the mix.
Because this crisis unfolded in the heart of crawfish season along the Gulf Coast, some locations are doing crawfish boils, where customers can grab a few pounds to bring home, with the necessary social distancing protocols in place. The brand has discounted its traditional menu by 20 percent to generate as many sales as possible.
“We’re not trying to make money in this time,” Landry said. “We’re just trying to keep people employed and get some sales in, so that was step one.”
Executing the new format and menu items meant rushing procedures that typically take much longer. The brand’s culinary team moved at breakneck speed to create the new items with ingredients its kitchens already had on hand, while costing everything out, taking product shots and getting the new items rolled out to customers in less than a week.
“Whether it’s servers or managers, whoever’s on site, they’re literally standing outside the restaurants, getting a name and bringing everything to them,” Landry added. “We’re just forming lines in our parking lots where people can come and not get out of their car, they’re greeted by one of our people … it’s crazy to think we’re sitting here today talking about this, but it’s worked so far.”
By “worked,” Landry clarified that sales at most locations are still down 70 percent, which is a modest but encouraging improvement over the previous two weeks.
For its franchisees, Walk-On’s temporarily suspended its brand royalty payments, with the suggestion that owners of those locations pour the funds into homegrown efforts to support its team members. It has also retained the managers at all locations, both to preserve company culture and to prepare for whatever comes after the pandemic’s peak that appears to be hitting most regions within the next month.
With QB Brees being more than a celebrity in the region—he and his wife Brittany announced they will donate $5 million to relief efforts, some of which will be flowing through the Walk-On’s system and Waitr, which is also based in Louisiana. That effort is part of the the Furlough Kitchen project, which is a collaboration between Front Burner Restaurants, Vestals Catering and a Dallas-based nonprofit called CitySquare that’s dedicated to alleviating poverty.
Click HERE to read about my day spent flying around Louisiana with Brees to visit a handful of his Jimmy Johns and Walk-On’s franchise locations for our sister publication Franchise Times. It was a very memorable junket for this reporter, and a vivid first-hand look at one of the more energetic corporate cultures in the franchised restaurant industry.
Asked how long the brand can survive at this capacity, Landry said the federal government’s relief package will go a long way, and relieved a lot of concerns of the brand’s franchisees. Beyond feeding people, the brand’s team is also refining training materials, revising sanitation protocols and doing everything it can to think of this partial shutdown as an opportunity for a whole-brand refresh.
“We’re going to come out of this, and I’m telling you, the brands and restaurant groups that are thinking the positive way … are the ones America’s going to want to go eat at after all of this is said and done,” he added. “There’s nothing we can do about it. If you just sit there and feel sorry for yourself, you’re going to stay like that. It’s the hand we’ve been dealt, so let’s make the best of it and come out of this stronger.”