It's an all too familiar sight across the country: restaurants with empty dining areas. On Monday, Jacksonville-based Firehouse Subs took the dramatic step of closing the dining areas at its nearly 1,200 locations nationwide in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We thought that was really in the best interest of the public," Don Fox, CEO of Firehouse Subs said. "The Center for Disease Control had been asking certainly to maintain the social distancing, so we made that decision proactively, and now we're inviting guests in for the best to-go experience that we can offer."

Fox, who has been in the restaurant industry for 46 years and serves on the National Restaurant Association Board of Directors, says sales at his company's Jacksonville locations are down by about 25 percent.

"This is unprecedented," Fox said. "There has never in my lifetime been the literally overnight evaporation of business. The industry overall, on a year-over-year basis, is down at least 50 percent, with some brands down 70 to 80 percent, casual dining restaurants, and hence they're closing in in many cases because you just can't operate the business at such a low sales level."

Firehouse Subs is adapting to the new reality by shifting the roles of some employees at its restaurants. Customers who now come in to pick up their online orders or get carryout will notice new safeguards in place.

"We're only five days into this since the abrupt change in sales that occurred on Saturday, so we've had to modify our procedures, in fact, we've added a unique position in the restaurant, reallocation of staff," Fox said. "In every one of our company-owned restaurants, we have a dedicated person who is dispensing soft drinks from our Coca-Cola freestyle unit, handing out condiments, utensils in a separate area, so we've removed that touchpoint for the customer."

Firehouse Subs now has employees dispensing drinks
Firehouse Subs now has employees dispensing drinks for customers.
Firehouse Subs

Brands like Firehouse Subs, Fox says, are in a better position because the majority of their food was already offered to-go prior to the pandemic.  

"Our overall to-go business in Jacksonville accounted for about 65 percent of our sales anyway," Fox said, "so we're able to continue in those channels, operating with some modifications now. I think, speaking for every restaurant operator in the industry, out of almost a one million restaurants, everybody's immediate struggle is how do they survive? We as a company, we're in very good financial footing, so we are able to support our team members, our headquarters' staff."

Right now, Fox says his company has had no discussions about layoffs, and they're doing everything they can to make sure their employees are taken care of, including expanding their sick leave policy.

As long as capital can be made available to sustain people, he expects to see an increasing number of restaurants weather the storm.

"So if someone is going to continue operations, they're going to need the cash to do it," he said. "What is going to be vital for the continuation is some government help with the banks to extend bridge loans, give them the working capital they need to pay their rent, to pay their suppliers, to make payroll to be able to keep things going."

One way, he says, everyone can help is purchasing gift cards from restaurants.

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