The coronavirus pandemic delivered one of the region's newest big-company CEOs, Frances Allen, a supersized jolt. She's already pivoted to Plan B.
Imagine becoming CEO of a 900-unit, nearly $1 billion quick-service restaurant chain in mid-February — mere weeks before the coronavirus pandemic and its social-distancing requirements devastated the U.S. economy.
For Frances Allen, the new leader of Tampa-based Checkers & Rally’s Drive-In Restaurants, the scenario is all too real.
Allen, 57, is stuck at home in Colorado, unable to finalize her move to Tampa while the pandemic rages. But she’s making the best of a difficult situation.
‘We are probably faring better than most. We’ve been able to keep sales relatively high versus our competitors.’ Frances Allen, CEO of Checkers & Rally’s
“Any CEO goes into a new role with a very clear idea of what they’re going to get done in the first hundred days,” she says, “and so I had a very specific plan laid out.”
The plan would have seen Allen, who officially started her role Feb. 17, spend four to six weeks visiting Checkers and Rally’s restaurants across the country to get a sense of how the organization operates from top to bottom. In two weeks, “I talked to as many franchisees as I could,” says Allen, previously the CEO of Boston Market. “I managed to get that in before the world imploded.”
Now, Allen’s task is clear: survival.
How will she keep the company going in a crisis that has decimated the nation’s restaurant industry?
She has some elements in her favor, including not having dining rooms inside the restaurants.
"In QSR, it’s all about daily routine, and people’s daily routines are really curtailed right now," she says. "But we do benefit enormously from being drive-thru-only and having closed kitchens.”
Allen says some restaurants have had to close altogether as a result of the pandemic. Most of those, 35, were in mall food courts, while only a handful of standalone restaurants have shuttered. Some employees at the company’s support center have been furloughed, but no workers at the 250 company-owned restaurants have been laid off.
That’s not to say that layoffs won’t happen at some point. The chain has seen a slump in sales, overall, particularly on weekends because people aren’t out and about running errands. Late-night sales, predictably, have also declined because people aren’t working late or staying out socializing after work.
“We are probably faring better than most,” says Allen, who replaces former CEO Rick Silva, a charismatic leader at Checkers & Rally’s for more than a decade. “We’ve been able to keep sales relatively high versus our competitors.”
If anyone knows how to survive in the fast-paced, brand-heavy world of franchise restaurants, it’s Allen, who was born and raised in England and started her career in advertising in London. Prior to her last post, a two-year stint as CEO of Boston Market, she enjoyed a peripatetic career in advertising and marketing, starting with Frito-Lay — the company that brought her to the U.S. — in the mid-1990s.
She then made the leap to the burgeoning cell phone industry, taking a job with Sony Ericsson, before moving back to food in 2007 as chief marketing officer of Dunkin’ Donuts. She followed that up with stints at Denny’s and Jack-in-the-Box.
Allen believes that an important lesson she learned from her long and varied career is one that will serve Checkers & Rally’s — which is owned by private equity firm Oak Hill Capital — well in a time of troubles and turmoil: “Every brand has got to understand what its DNA is and what it means to people,” she says. “There’s the rational connection, and then there’s the emotional connection. Your brand DNA needs to be packaged in a way that’s appropriate for the macro environment in which you find yourself.”
To explain that point, Allen uses the example of how Denny’s, in trying to compete with IHOP, tried to position itself as more of a family restaurant and less of a diner in the years leading up to the last recession.
“As we emerged from the great recession, the comfort of a diner as a place that was affordable, and where everybody dropped their titles at the door, was really powerful,” she says. “A diner is a feeling, not a place. It’s about finding your north star and what you mean to people. Everything stems from that.”
Allen, so far, has been unable to complete a comprehensive strategic review of Checkers & Rally’s — a first step she would normally take. On the flip side, the pandemic has allowed her “an incredibly unique opportunity to really see what this organization is made of.”
And she likes what she sees.
“There’s nothing like a crisis to bring a team together,” Allen says. “I’ve probably come to understand what my team is capable of, what our franchisees are capable of, what the people at head office are capable of in a very condensed period of time.”
Checkers & Rally’s has been quick to support restaurant employees, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck. Allen says the company immediately extended 80 hours of paid sick time and made relief funds available to employees unable to come in to work because of child care or other domestic responsibilities, such as caring for a sick family member.
Allen and her team have also gotten creative when it comes to keeping paychecks in people’s hands.
“We’ve been working with partners like Albertsons, Walgreens and Kroger to set up an employment exchange because the grocery industry is looking for a lot more temporary workers — they’ve got extra needs,” she says.
Franchisees are also being extended a helping hand, with royalty and marketing fees being waived for some who are struggling.
“We're just trying to do everything we can to help them get through this,” Allen says. The coronavirus pandemic, she adds, “isn’t like anything we’ve seen before. Even the great recession did not see the extended sales losses like we're experiencing right now. It’s unprecedented.”
Click the links below to hear how more regional executives are handling the shutdowns.