How Starbucks, McDonald's, and Other Chains Are Reacting to Coronavirus

Most chain restaurants’ statements are striking similar chords, but each brand has its own unique needs.

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak is having a massive effect on the restaurant industry, and fast food chains are no different: But quick-service restaurants have their unique challenges — such as covering a wide swath of markets and franchise owners — and advantages — like the ability to keep the drive-thru lane open even if the dining area has to close. Still, each chain is different, and so individual brands have been formulating their own plans to safeguard customers and employees alike — while avoiding having to shutter entirely.

As the biggest name in fast food, McDonald’s somewhat leads by default, and yesterday, McDonald’s USA President Joe Erlinger penned an open letter explaining the company’s approach: “I want to inform you of the proactive steps McDonald’s and our franchisees are taking to ensure the safety in our restaurants across all our communities — in proactive partnership with local and national health authorities,” he wrote. Beyond “adhering to our industry-leading, deep-cleaning procedures in every restaurant, every day,” he said additional steps included “ensuring high-touch areas get more frequent deep cleanings — places like ordering kiosks, pick-up counters and restrooms,” as well as “enhancing our McDelivery procedures to ensure order packaging remains safe before we fill it.”

A Starbucks drive thru sign
picture alliance / Contributor/Getty Images

Finally, the well-being of hourly wage employees — who could face financial hardship simply by doing the right thing and staying home if they feel sick — has been a huge topic of conversation, so Erlinger also addressed that head-on, if not very specifically, saying McDonald’s USA would be “supporting employees in staying home from work if they are sick so they can rest and recover.” (USA Today reports that paid leave varies by franchise, but corporate-owned locations will pay quarantined employees for up to 14 days.)

Meanwhile, Starbucks — another industry leader — was a bit more specific in discussing how its employees would be supported. Rossann Williams, EVP and president of Starbucks’ U.S. company-operated business and Canada, covered a number of policy tweaks in an open letter. Among the temporary changes, any workers who suspect they were exposed to COVID-19 are eligible for 14 days of additional catastrophe pay, regardless of if they have symptoms or not, and “if partners are still unable to return to work, additional pay replacement may be made up to 26 weeks.”

And in general, Starbucks offered more depth about their plan. On Wednesday, CEO and President Kevin Johnson published his own letter, stating early on that “we will continue to make decisions with vigilance and courage informed by the latest science-based information.” Beyond “increased cleaning and sanitizing procedures” and preparing stores “to respond quickly to any emerging situation,” he also admitted that “your Starbucks Experience may look different as we navigate through this time together.”

Along those lines, the coffee giant also touched on the now-much-discussed idea of “social distancing.” “As we navigate this dynamic situation community-by-community and store-by-store, we may adapt the store experience by limiting seating to improve social distancing, enable mobile order-only scenarios for pickup via the Starbucks App or delivery via Uber Eats, or in some cases only the Drive Thru will be open,” Johnson wrote. “As a last resort, we will close a store if we feel it is in the best interest of our customers and partners, or if we are directed to do so by government authorities.” (One Starbucks location in Seattle closed temporarily last week due to a worker who tested positive for COVID-19.)

That same day, Chick-fil-A President and COO Chick-fil-A Tim Tassopoulos also lightly prepared customers for potential changes in the near future, writing that individual locations had the leeway to implement “additional preventative measures … including staffing or service modifications.” And during an earnings call earlier this week, Del Taco CEO John Cappasola played up this idea even further, stating that he believes “that our drive-thru and delivery channels provide our guests options for limited interactions, if they so choose”—a reminder that just because a store is open, customers don’t have to come in.

Speaking of which, chains have also been touting their delivery options — including Chipotle, which knows a thing or two about illness scares. Interestingly, the burrito chain never directly mentioned coronavirus in a press release yesterday; however, the company is not only trying to lure customers with the offer of free delivery for the rest of March; it also conveniently stated that “Chipotle customers can leave special instructions for delivery drivers in the Chipotle app and to limit direct contact” and later pointed out that “Chipotle deliveries will feature a new, tamper evident packaging seal to help ensure food is untouched during delivery.” Similarly, Kentucky Fried Chicken announced today it would also be offering free delivery via its online platform through April 26.

Needless to say, plenty of other chains exist, and most of them have touched on similar points—though some offered brand-specific measures. For instance, Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti told Nation’s Restaurant News that at its restaurants—known for having self-service ketchup pumps—all condiments and utensils would now be distributed by employees instead (though hand sanitizing options would be offered to customers, as well).

And even more unique business models have resorted to unique policy shifts. For instance, Chuck E. Cheese is reportedly offering refunds for anyone who wants to cancel an event they had booked through to the end of the month. And in line with the precautions MGM Resorts casinos took earlier this week, the buffet chain Golden Corral announced yesterday they had “issued guidance to all of our restaurants to begin preventive measures against the coronavirus” all the way back in January.

Essentially, everyone needs to be ready to take action, no matter what that action may be. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that, beyond replacing customers cups between free refills, local fast-food chain the Varsity even created a position that’s dedicated only to sanitation: “That’s all they do. Start at the front door and continue around the whole building and wiping doors, tables, napkin holders on the table. That’s all this person does all day long,” President Gordon Muir told the paper earlier this week.

Read more about what restaurant owners should know about COVID-19 here.

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