With a tight labor market, operators are looking at their open hours
When we first opened in 2004, we wanted to add delivery as soon as we could. This was way before third-party delivery. When we finally were able to, we only had enough delivery drivers for the dinner shift, a few days of the week. That only lasted for two weeks. This was for a total of 14 days, where we had limited delivery times of 5:00 p.m. till close Wednesday to Sunday. And then starting the 15th day, we had delivery from open to close, seven days a week.
Then something weird happened. For months I was asked almost daily, “I’ve called in the past, and you weren’t doing delivery yet. So, I wanted to see what time you start delivering tonight?” or “Are you not delivering today?” Calls like this went on for a long time from multiple customers. I knew if three people were calling with this question, another 50 had it in their mind. I learned the hard way, having odd hours of anything stays in customer’s brains for way longer than I gave enough credit to.
Customers don’t live in your world. They live in their world, and we, as hospitality purveyors, need to mold ourselves to their world and not assume they know our business’ ins and outs. If you can be open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, then you should be open. You should be open without a break in the afternoon because when you do close from three to five, you disenfranchise your 5:30 p.m. customer. Now they might question, “Hold on, I know they close in the afternoon, but I don’t know if they’re back open yet. I’m not sure if these hours online are right. Let’s order online from someone we know for sure is open.” That’s the feeling you don’t want your customer getting. It’s more typical than you’d think.
That’s the type of decision that costs thousands over time when you assume your customer knows your world. I will tell you with absolutely no ambiguity; they don’t. And it’s not their job to. It’s yours to make sure your customer is never confused or unsure of your restaurant’s status. So emphatically, with all the hiring problems in the world and everything else you are up against, if you can be open, be open.
Now, if you just don’t have enough staff, and you’re trying to find a way that you could still stay open, here are some suggestions.
Rely on technology. There are so many advances in modern technology today that to not use them is just foolish. Take your current delivery drivers and switch them to in-house employees and rely on third-party delivery. Suppose you don’t have enough servers to run a shift. In that case, there are several QR code ordering at the table options available today for a minimal amount of investment. With table QR codes, the customer sends their order directly to the kitchen. In this scenario, your one server can go around filling drinks instead of taking orders or even dropping the check. It’s not nearly as welcoming as a great full-service waiter. If it’s a choice between closing or QR code ordering at the table, I’ll choose QR code ordering at the table every time.
If none of those is an option and you 100 percent just need to close one to two days a week, then decide using this math. When choosing what days to close, the most straightforward answer is what days are you the least profitable? More likely than not, it’s Monday and Tuesday. So, if you’ve dug your heels in the sand on closing, those would be the most appropriate days to do it. I’ve seen people close on Sundays, which I find odd because Sunday, by and large, is the third most popular day to order pizza. So, closing on the third most popular day is a foolish decision. A lot of other restaurants will close on that day for whatever reason. And if you’re not, it gives you even more potential for success. If religious reasons dictate why you’re closing on a Sunday, then that’s your choice as a business owner in America. But I would highly advise you to take your Sunday, staff your store and let your restaurant function outside of your direct oversight.
What if you now have no lunch business because of extenuating circumstances and no one comes in anymore during that time? You can still be a ghost kitchen to sell anything you can dream up on third-party delivery. If your classic clientele isn’t coming in, find a new group to feed. Cater to schools, churches, government organizations or anyone working from home. If Covid non-shareable boxed lunch items are the only way in the door, create them. Sell single-serve options instead of classic bulk catering pans. Yes, it’s more expensive, but it’s still profitable and proof you are not growing, not dying.
Why am I pushing so hard to stay open? Because you live in a world of fixed costs and variable costs. When you close, your fixed expenses do not care. Sure, you’re not using as much electricity or gas, but you’re still paying rent. And you’re still paying for a lot of things in your restaurant.
Additionally, you have food deteriorating for a few days when you close. When you reopen, you need to restart the cycle, dispose of a lot of it and recatch the rhythm of running a restaurant after a few days closed. That is not an easy rhythm to just pick back up.
In regard to closing in the afternoon, DON’T. I cannot find a way that afternoon closing for a pizza restaurant makes sense. If you have staff there from 11 to 2 p.m. and from 5 to close, why would you confuse the customer over three hours? In this time, you can run lean but find a way to run. If you sell just one item an hour, they should be able to pay for themselves. Do not underestimate how confusing closing at random times is to a customer. If you have the mindset that “I don’t have anyone like me and the managers I do have need a day off,” you have a problem with an answer. You should work when your managers don’t, and your manager should get training to work the days that you don’t. If you have no managers, then you need to train, incentivize and build your workforce. If you don’t do that and have no managers, then you are a glorified employee. You will maintain your status as a glorified employee in perpetuity until you invest in training, systems and people.
For the ones who say, “but we make no money then,” Correction, you make less money then. But if you make no money, you will continue to make no money and pay your fixed cost if closed. Instead, find an afternoon promotion or something to make money during that time. Always choose ingenuity rather than acceptance of failure because ingenuity is a lot easier to work through. If nothing else, you could use that time to prep and handle a random order that comes in, but never, ever, ever, ever close in the afternoon.
I’m not saying the labor market isn’t crazy right now. It would be best to be aggressive in trimming hours, the hours it takes to close, and the hours it takes to get open. That is where you should cut hours right now. Do it by being more innovative and efficient in your prep and faster and more effective in nightly closing. This is where you’ll save on labor and where you’ll also mitigate the situation. As far as getting more employees to work, the workforce is out there. They need to believe that you are the place to grow and learn in this world while they work.
It could be enticing, even a feeling of relief to close for two days, but it is not the hallmark of success. There are no successful chain pizzerias in America that close. And there is a reason for that because it’s bad for business in every sense of the word. If this is your hobby, then yes, take two days off your hobby. But if this is your career, you need to dig deep and figure it out.
Mike Bausch is the owner of Andolini’s Pizzeria in Tulsa, Oklahoma.