The restaurant business is reliant on a strong local economy to keep customers coming through a door. A dramatic decline in business is never welcome. So what happens when an act of nature, such as Hurricane Harvey, closes your doors for a week or more? “These sorts of things are never fun to deal with,” says Thomas Nguyen, a Houston native and co-founder and owner of Houston’s Peli Peli restaurants. “Over the past few years, corporate spending has been down and business is even slower after Harvey. It’s understandable as a lot of people and communities were devastated by the storm. No one is going out on first dates.”
Make Sure Staff is Safe
Recognizing that employee safety was most important, Nguyen decided to close early on the Friday the storm arrived. “We closed the doors at four in the afternoon to give our employees time to get home and be safe with their families and in a better position to volunteer locally,” he said.
Many businesses were closed for a week or more after Harvey, including the four Houston-area Peli Peli restaurants. “Houston was shut down for a week,” recalls Nguyen. “It was surreal.” Though each of their locations sustained damage, it was minimal at the Katy location, which celebrated its grand opening a mere month before Harvey arrived. “The first step was determining that the restaurant itself was safe to open,” said Nguyen, “and that it was safe for employees to travel to work.”
Support the Community
The Katy location was back in business the weekend following the storm and spent much of the first week preparing, cooking, and handing out food to first responders, Red Cross, and other volunteers. “That restaurant is centrally located,” said Nguyen, who noted that most of the area’s roads were closed and all of Houston was trying to get home via Interstate 10. “We had a combination of corporate employees and staff and probably 60% volunteers – people in the area who were stuck in their homes and wanted to help and could safely get to the restaurant. It was truly an amazing thing to see. We had people cooking at Katy for first responders who weren’t even chefs — just people wanting to help. Thank you to everyone who came by for that help!”
Restaurant staff, who are often hourly workers reliant on tips, lost a week’s worth of income or their job entirely if their employer remains closed. Realizing this, Nguyen decided this was another way he could support his community. “We decided to pay eighty percent of our hourly workers’ wages during that week to help them get through that time.” Staff at all locations were provided wages for that closed week. “We could financially handle paying that,” said Nguyen. “Employees really appreciated it, it immediately built company morale, and it gave us a chance to take care of our staff.”
Bringing the Customers Back
With all locations reopened, Nguyen now turned his attention to how to bring customers back through the door. “People are looking for value, something quick. Traffic has been a nightmare for weeks since Harvey and people are just trying to get home.” Even if your restaurant can only offer a limited menu, look for ways to offer people value.
“Houstonians want to go back to what they know,” said Nguyen. After a hurricane “is not an experimental time. People are seeking comfort, looking for what they know.” Nguyen recommends taking advantage of loyalty programs, social media, and newsletters to “focus 100% of energy on customers that have already eaten at our restaurant” and are comfortable with the experience. “We are offering them incentives. We are launching Black Friday a month early this year with 30% off gift cards.” Why? “Because people need the deal NOW, sooner than November. We know their budget has been impacted and we would like to show appreciation for their patronage by giving them a great value.”
Focus on Loyal Customers
Along those lines, Nguyen discourages marketing to attract new customers after an epic event but, rather, reminding existing customers of your business and encouraging them to come back. “It’s so expensive to get new customers that we don’t see that as an effective way to spend marketing dollars right now,” he said.
#1 Lesson Learned
“Going back to basics is the most important lesson.” Said Nguyen. “Sales will be affected, but you can’t even get to the selling if your staff doesn’t feel safe. We had a few staff who were completely flooded out. If your staff can’t get to work, being open is not going to lead to success. Understanding that really helped us get back in the swing of things. Take care of staff first. Then they turn around and help others in worse situations.” Nguyen reminds his fellow operators that business is about people. “Once they are taken care of, you are in the right state of mind to grow your business,” said Nguyen. “I grew up here all my life, and I’ve never been so proud to be a Houstonian.”
Photo credits: Thomas Nguyen.