It was late in January when R.J. Melman, President of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
, knew that things were going to be very different for his restaurants.
“I saw that things were going to change,” he recalled. “There was a two-week period, even before stay at home orders were issued, where you didn’t know exactly what would happen.”
He watched the cancellation of the NBA season, followed by all other sporting events. Then Coachella and various music concerts cancelled their events. Conferences, festivals and annual meetings no longer filled the calendars. Schools were shutdown.
“We still weren’t sure how that was going to affect us, but day after day more and more of these events were occurring,” R.J. remembered. “We were experiencing cancellations of our own bookings. Every day, the local government would be changing the rules of how many people were allowed to gather in one place and we had to adjust to keep open.”
By March 17th, all dine-in restaurants were ordered to be shut down. No one had ever experienced this almost instantaneous kind of change. There weren’t any guidelines for how to proceed.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for this,” R.J. lamented. “Truly, every day, there was a new challenge.”
Lettuce Entertain You
was created in 1971 with one restaurant, RJ GRUNTS
. It was the brain child of Rich Melman and his partner Jerry A. Orzoff. From this small hip restaurant, an “enterprise” sprang up.
Their goal was “not to be the biggest, but to be the best we can be. A progressive company with a firm commitment to its people.”
At the beginning of 2020, the company was one of the nation’s leading independent restaurant groups that owns, manages or lease more than 120 restaurants in 9 states, with 60 different brands. According to Founder Rich Melman, winner of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, “LEYE was started because of ideas. We are a band of entrepreneurs that do something under one umbrella and it’s our culture of caring that bonds us. Caring about the food, service, our people and our guests.” That ideal would serve them well in March of 2020, as that “umbrella” would be needed to weather the storm ahead.
Even with a solid history of being a successful restaurant company, LEYE could not possibly have imagined a time when they would be told that they had to close their doors to their guests. The Coronavirus had made it unsafe for people to gather where they could not be at least six feet apart.
“When the order came that people had to stay at home, that’s when we went over the cliff,” R.J. said, “Within three to four days, restaurants all over the country had to close their doors to their guests.”
With so many restaurants and so many employees, the job of deciding how to handle the crisis was certainly not an easy task.
“We used our best judgment as to what was good for our people, what was kind and what was fiscally responsible. You never contemplate a world where you have no sales. So it’s been a disaster for the restaurant industry all over the globe. There is no comparison to this situation. Everyone’s individual company situation is different from every other, and yet in this moment in time, without sales, everyone was in the same boat.”
According to CNBC, $30 billion was lost in the restaurant industry in March, and $50 billion is anticipated for April.
The task ahead was unthinkable. R.J. and his management teams held an all-company conference call. They got as many cell phone numbers as they could and created a mass text with a call-in number so they could get the information out. Facing the reality of the situation for the company as a whole was overwhelming. For the Melman family and LEYE as a whole, this was the hardest part of the crisis.
Sadly R.J. recalls: “What happened was we had to furlough thousands of people in our company. It was one of the most tragic days of my life. And I know it was so much worse for those people. It was not perfect, but we had to communicate with everyone as much as we could.”
Very difficult choices had to made of which restaurants would be able to stay open for carry-outs and deliveries and which had to be closed immediately.
“Some things were very simple for us. Everything in Las Vegas had been shut down, so we couldn’t be open even if we wanted to. In Chicago, we decided to keep restaurants open that could be used for delivery. Early on we had more open, but then decided to consolidate the business. In other cities, being able to handle deliveries and carry-out became the criteria to stay open. We use many third-party delivery services. The local government moved pretty quickly to allow us to sell liquor too. That was a big help.”
Today, only 30% of the LEYE restaurants are open for business and they are doing only a fraction of the business they had been doing before the crisis.
How did LEYE handle this transitioning of their restaurants? R.J. explained how they developed a check-list to close many of their restaurants. He talked about going into each of the restaurants and powering down the computers and the cable service, turning off the equipment, locking the doors and turning on the alarm systems.
“Then we consolidated food from the closed restaurants and moved the food to the restaurants that were still open. Many of our vendors had to close too, so they were very kind in bringing us food that they were going to be stuck with. We definitely made a lot of meals for our employees to come and pick up.”
For the stores that were going to stay open, LEYE has been developing health and safety guidelines based on the recommendations of the CDC and other similar organizations. Those policies are changing every week to comply with the latest mandates.
“We have to decide how to handle different situations. How do we address someone with symptoms? How do we handle people who are actually sick? We are creating rules to try and cover these new situations. We might make mistakes along the way, but we are really trying our best to protect our employees and our guests.”
The company’s concern for their workers is legendary. They are diligent in their hiring practices and their managers, culinary staff and employees are a valued commodity. No matter what the position in the restaurant, each worker is treated with respect. In 2019, LEYE was one of the top 10 winners of the coveted Top Workplaces Award from the Chicago Tribune. This award is “based on employee surveys and assessing everything from work-life balance to confidence in company leadership”. In that spirit, LEYE has now created the Lettuce Employee Emergency Fund