Last week’s blizzard in New England saw plenty of restaurants shutter, but not those of Jean-Georges Vongerichten. All of the group’s restaurants remained open throughout the storm — a feat of planning and communication that led us to seek out VP of Operations James Liakakos for more details.
“We first realized we had to start planning for this kind of weather and emergencies with Sandy, which really impacted our group,” he says. “We actually had one of our restaurants close for several months as a result, and a couple of other ones closed for several days. We realized we had some shortcomings at the time.”
This time around, they approached the storm proactively and found themselves more organized and prepared than ever. Here’s how.
When the first whispers of the weather forecast were heard, the team started planning. An operations coordinator kicked off correspondence with the entire team, letting everyone know there was a blizzard on the way. Then preparations began for every executive in the company and their respective departments, from Food & Beverage to controllers.
Food & Beverage Directors reached out to vendors for an updated schedule of who would be closing and what the delivery schedules would be. From there, chefs worked with the home office to do enough purchasing for produce and mise en place to get through two full days of business.
The team also put other emergency plans in place in case of power outages or issues with leaks. An operations coordinator provided an updated contact list for the company, along with crash kits for POS, credit card swipers, pens, calculators, flashlights, and more. The controller checked the cash bank to make sure there was enough change to get the restaurant through a couple of days of business.
“In the unlikely event that any of our restaurants lose power, we need to anticipate the loss of lighting, gas and refrigeration and be prepared for safety and sanitation issues,” James wrote in an email to his team before the storm, noting that garbage pickup services were also suspended.
Communicate with Your Team
The Jean-Georges Management group regularly broadcasted messages to employees via text message and email, using tools like Schedulefly and HotSchedules. To avoid tying up lines in the reservation department, they send out a blanket email asking the staff to stay tuned for updates on those channels instead of calling in. James kept the team updated constantly with news about transit operations and the status of service in the restaurants, including changes in hours of operation. He also asked them to allow extra time to get to work.
“Be sure to over prepare and over communicate chef, manager and staff schedules,” his email instructed.
Take Inventory of Staff & Product
James set up conference calls with the GMs at each location so his team could get a sense of how much staff they had in place, and whether it was feasible to remain open at the independent restaurants. (At hotel restaurants, closing isn’t an option — at the very least they need to accommodate breakfast, lunch, and dinner service for hotel guests.) They also tried to forecast the business they would do and the staffing they would need in the kitchen, determining if they’d need to serve a limited menu.
Every GM identified employees that live within walking distance of the restaurant and looked for volunteers to help maintain operations. “We have the luxury of having hotel partners at several of our restaurants, so the hotels will typically allocate a number of rooms for us,” James says. “We had to follow through with that because the subways shut down at 11, and that was an effort in coordination.”
Last January was also a snowy season in New York, so James and his team did some research and looked at metrics to find out what they could expect this time around. They saw that there had been a 30-34% cancellation rate and a 2-5% no-show rate, so he shared those stats across the company.
Starting with bookings on OpenTable, they began confirming and re-confirming reservations for the next two days. They contacted everyone on the list to ask if they were interested in keeping their reservations — including those who had booked events — and offered to extend the reservation to another day in the event that they couldn’t make it.
“We tried to get a better grasp on what we were expecting for reservations,” says James. “We began reviewing our flex mode programming and making sure were were all bringing up availability.”
The day after the storm, James saw walk-in traffic grow by 400% across the group. He speculates that people were without plans and reservations once the storm had passed, so they were willing to walk a few blocks to dine in a neighborhood restaurant. By updating their books with the most accurate information, the Jean-Georges team was able to accommodate walk-ins better.
Let Them Know You’re Open
As soon as the team knew they would be staying open, they did everything to get the word out. They posted on social media under Jean-Georges account and the individual restaurant accounts to reach potential customers.
“We’ll post that we’re featuring hot chocolate or soup or some storm-related food and beverage to drum up some excitement,” says James. “We do the best we can with what the weather offers us.”