Tinku Saini, CEO and co-founder of Tarka Indian Kitchen in Houston, tells his story of making opportunities out of crises at all 10 locations of his business. Here’s his story:
To say this has been a challenging time would be an understatement. As CEO and co-founder of Tarka, I know everyone is looking up to me for the answers on not only what we need to do operationally to ensure our guests and team members are safe, but also for assurance that this too shall pass, and that Tarka will not only survive, but also thrive in whatever the new normal looks like.
To instill that confidence, it’s important to be out there with your teams in the stores, to ensure the decisions being made at the top are working as intended, that you are leading by example in terms of taking safety measures hygiene seriously and that you are on the front lines, shoulder-to-shoulder with your team members to show them it is safe if you follow the protocols we have established.
As the leader, you do worry about whether you have done everything you can that day, that week, to stay on top of this unprecedented crisis, for which there are no real guideposts from past experiences. You have to trust the data, look at what other respected members of the industry are doing, but at the end of the day, you have to trust your instincts, because every business and the circumstances it faces are unique.
That can be a heavy burden to carry when so many peoples’ health, and livelihoods are at stake.
Thankfully, we implemented several key initiatives late last year that proved to be game changers for the pandemic era. We partnered with Como Sense to roll out an enhanced digital loyalty/rewards program called myTarkaRewards, along with a mobile app, updated our online ordering system, and worked with our third-party delivery partners to reduce commission rates and implement premium pricing on their platforms, so net margins on that sales channel is nearly on par with direct orders.
After COVID-19 hit, we also implemented a technology-based contactless curbside pickup solution called FlyBuy from Radius Networks, which made it even more safe and convenient to get your Tarka on.
So we already had the digital solutions in place that are crucial for guests to order, pay for and pick up their orders safely and conveniently, and were not hastily scrambling to implement these systems while at the same time dealing with a pandemic and all of the health and safety operational challenges that come with it.
Many of these trends towards digital and third-party delivery were in place even before COVID-19, and the pandemic only accelerated the adoption. While we do expect the pendulum to swing back to some degree once we have a vaccine, we don’t believe it will go back to the pre-pandemic levels, and we are positioned well for the post-pandemic reality. That means smaller-footprint restaurants with fewer seats in the dining rooms, with some locations that are takeout and delivery only in dense urban markets, and others that have order-ahead pick up windows.
In the short term, safety, convenience and value will continue to be key for restaurants, but you also have to solve for the challenge of continuing to provide the connection and great customer service to your guests, albeit from behind masks and plexiglass screens.
Out of all crises, opportunities are born, and this one will be no different. Unfortunately, there will be attrition in our industry, which was very overbuilt coming into the pandemic. For those that survive, there will be quality spaces available for expansion and we are well positioned to take advantage of those potential opportunities.
The digital transformation of restaurants will continue, with technology used to make it easier and more convenient for guests to get the best possible experience and to connect with your brand. Technology will also play a bigger role in hiring, training and ensuring operational compliance, which are more important now than ever given the immense role restaurants have in the safety and health of the public.
Restaurants will continue to play a leading role as communal spaces where guests come to connect with friends, family and coworkers, over a great meal. People need that connection as much as they need to fill their bellies, and restaurants are at the very heart of that.
This is part of our series Stories from the Front Lines.