They didn’t know then, but the folks at Firehouse Subs planning the strategy of the franchise restaurant chain began adapting their business model to the coronavirus pandemic five years before the world heard of COVID-19.
Dine-in business at the Jacksonville-based company’s nearly 1,200 restaurants in 46 states and Canada declined in 2012, CEO Don Fox said.
By 2015, around half of Firehouse customers picked up take-away sandwiches or had them delivered by a third party. Online ordering also increased.
“Consumers have changed their behavior and we have taken steps to strengthen our off-premise business,” said Fox.
The company was ranked 111 on the Times magazine’s Top 200 list in 2019 and had sales of more than $ 854 million.
Firehouse also developed a new design concept for its restaurants with less space in the dining room, more space for food preparation and more attention to take-away and delivery.
While this mitigated the impact, relocating from the personal dining firehouse did not make immune to the effects of the public health and safety measures that went into effect in mid-March 2020.
Don Fox, CEO of Firehouse Subs.
Seat duty was temporarily suspended within a few days. Fox said that by March 22, a week after the shutdown began, business had declined 56% across the board.
“Sales were bad for four weeks. We started promoting online ordering and within two months we were back to last year’s sales, ”said Fox.
“We have the right food and the right convenience. We are still setting records every week to this day. “
Another factor that is helping Firehouse deal with the pandemic is the restaurants’ focus on lunch, dinner and catering. They don’t serve breakfast, which is the hardest hit by Fox as its hardest hit casual dining area with so many people working from home rather than their offices.
“Breakfast depends on commuter traffic and customer routines. Central business district vendors have been hit extremely hard, ”he said.
The pandemic can open up opportunities for Firehouse and its franchisees that were previously unavailable.
According to Fox, the industry estimates that up to 100,000 restaurants may not survive the coronavirus. When you have fewer options, competition for consumer spending on casual dining is reduced.
“It will take some time to fill that void,” he said.
The restaurant closings are also likely to bring more commercial properties to the market that are suitable for firehouse.
“We have the opportunity to add more restaurants than without the pandemic. Our sales put our franchisees in the financial position to open more locations and make more good locations available, ”said Fox.