AMCHAM: Please share with us how you and your team became aware of the Covid medical crisis and what were the initial first steps that the Happy Snack retail outlets at EXKi and Pizza Hut took to protect the company, your employees, and your customers?
Alex Scholer: My father was the first person who took the initial signs very seriously because he has problems with asthma and in January/February 2020 we already put in place that people shouldn’t give each other kisses anymore to say hello and to not shake hands anymore. We also had stations put up with disinfectants in all the restaurants. When the government announced the lockdown of the country, we prepared by putting up screen protections at the cash registers to protect customers and employees alike, because we were able to stay open for delivery and take-away. EXKi was a different story because the central production site in Belgium from EXKi shut down during the first lockdown, therefore it was not even possible to stay open with that franchise.
AMCHAM: How has business demand from your customers changed during the crisis period? How have you adjusted to the loss of physical business caused by the government lockdown and to what degree has take-out business replaced that loss?
The fact that people were not allowed to eat anymore in the restaurants, forced them to use other channels, ordering online for take-away, ordering via phone for take-away, and delivery with our partner WeDely.com. The increase in those activities did not make up however for the loss of physical business. Customers appreciated the fact that they could still order from us and were grateful for that. We still had about a 30-50% overall loss of sales; some restaurants were affected more than others.
AMCHAM: How has the impact of Covid evolved and what adjustments has your team had to make to protect the company, the employees, and your customers?
In the beginning, people hesitated a bit going out of their homes or crossing the borders since everyone risked getting ‘controlled’ on the streets. After the first lockdown ended, people came out more again and the fear disappeared. However, still to this date, customers are a bit confused as to what they can and can’t do, because the rules of the government change every couple of weeks. We have free available masks for customers and employees at hand in each restaurant, as well as free Covid tests. We had cases of Covid infections in some restaurants, and everyone working with those persons was put in quarantine to make sure no one else would get infected.
AMCHAM: Has there been disruption to your supply chain and how have you dealt with it?
As mentioned above, the main production site in Belgium for EXKi shut down during the first lockdown. The suppliers from Pizza Hut stayed open and we did not have any issues here till recently. Now they have some issues getting new products from their suppliers, it was not a problem till now because our supplier had giant stocks of everything. Due to our franchise agreements, it is not always easy to use a substitute product. At the same time, our franchisor also put more attention on the certification of the products used in the restaurants.
AMCHAM: What adjustment to physical working schedules and conditions, and what health and safety measures have been implemented to ensure the physical safety and health of your employees?
We changed the opening times of all our restaurants because there was no need to be open after 10 pm. After all, there was the curfew at 10 pm. Also, since we were not using the interiors of our restaurants for customers, there was no need to clean them daily in the mornings. Usually, we would start at 7 am but a couple of months ago, the teams would arrive between 9 am and 10 am. When the restaurants opened again for their interiors, we would change back to our old opening hours, and when the lockdown became harsher again, we would adopt. As soon as one employee felt symptoms of Covid, he/she could stay at home straight away and we put the safety of everyone above everything else. Till today everyone wears a mask in our restaurants, which becomes harder during summer when you run around on the terraces or work in the kitchen next to the ovens.
AMCHAM: As a company, have you been satisfied by the adequacy and timeliness of the actions taken by the various governmental entities with whom you are involved, and were there some solutions imposed in some jurisdictions which you greatly appreciated or some that you considered ineffective?
The government did a fantastic job regarding the aid that we have gotten. I would really like to thank them for their efforts. We would not have been able to keep our employees and pay the bills if it was not for the government. The two main solutions that helped tremendously were the reimbursement of the salaries for all the workers that stayed at home (chômage technique) and the reimbursement of a percentage for the fixed costs of our businesses.
AMCHAM: What additional governmental policy initiatives would you have liked to be implemented?
An overall plan where we would have been able to see where the journey is going. To explain this, to have a roadmap laid out if the number of infections is increasing or decreasing, and to know what will happen at that time. That way we could have organized ourselves way better because each week we waited to hear the news from the Prime minister about new rules.
AMCHAM: Please comment on the sufficiency and effectiveness of the governmental financial support measures made available to your company? Were these measures adequate?
In our case, we were very happy with the governmental financial support. In the beginning, we gave them our list/budget of people in the “chômage technique” and we got the money straight away and later they controlled it against the real numbers of hours worked/not worked. This meant we got money very quickly and did not have a problem at the end of the month to pay our workers. Today now, you have to apply for help, and it takes longer. In comparison to our neighboring countries, we have gotten the most help, for a normal worker we have gotten 100% back from the government we only had to pay the employer taxes and for qualified workers, it was 85%. The help for the fixed costs was a bit late but better than nothing. The government had a lot and a lot of applications for all those measures.
AMCHAM: What challenges do you face now that the economy is recovering and how is this “new normal” the same or different from the old normal?
Most people are really happy to be able to eat in a restaurant again but there are still people who hate the masks and all the rules we have to apply as a restaurant to be able to welcome inside. The transition phase with the testing inside was rather difficult to convince people to come inside again. The younger customers are back to the old normal, but the people aged 50 and above have changed their attitudes, they use disinfectant, they feel uncomfortable sitting next to many people, they keep more distance standing in line.
AMCHAM: How would you assess the current emotional and mental health of your employees and are there any steps you are taking to give additional support in this area?
As we have mostly younger employees, they tend to be like mentioned in the question above, they don’t consider it a risk to get covid. We had some people that struggled at home because they were fighting with their partners, not used to be 24/7 with their children, and so on.
AMCHAM: What have you learned and how has your personal management style evolved as a result of this Covid experience?
I learned that a lot of people were not prepared for this kind of situation, as the whole world in general. You had to be even better prepared for everything, even normal things like crossing borders to different countries became a hassle. I learned also that most people are actually not smart, unfortunately; wearing a mask is to protect others from you and not you from them, and to even just wear the mask the correct way, seems too hard of a task for a lot of people. Regarding the management style, I had to focus even more on private issues my employees were facing, since the actual work was slower and quieter, but at home more issues were rising, fights with their Significant Others, not being able to put their children in daycare, etc. More people/friends seem to be burned out now, even though that they can work from home, but the isolation from society did hurt a lot of people way more than I anticipated.
AMCHAM: What is different about the expectations of your customers now and going forward? How Is the “New Normal” different from the “old Normal”
During the lockdown, customers were happy we were open and would never complain any longer. However, since we have customers back in the restaurants, the complaints are starting again. I would say not even half of the customers use disinfectant when they come in and even though we are open for business inside, asking the customers to wear a mask when they move around in a restaurant isn’t the norm. So are also asking for tables further away from others, but the big majority does not care about that. The first lockdown had everyone scared, but after one year of Covid, people started to not care anymore and I do not think there will be a new normal, just the old normal.
AMCHAM: Please share your personal thoughts about taking over a family company. What is the most important advice you have taken from your father?
Since we are working in the restaurant business, he always told me that: No matter what we sell, burgers, pizzas, or Mexican, the most important aspect is to motivate our workers that will only get minimum wage. If I can manage to get that done, then I will succeed.
Thank you very much Mr. Scholer for this interview!