Charcoal Group

Compassion and contingency plans vital for Charcoal Group during COVID-19

CEO Jody Palubiski discusses how Charcoal Group has mitigated for a pandemic while keeping employee welfare top of mind

By Tom Nightingale

Part two of RestoBiz’s chat with Jody Palubiski can be found here, where he talks expanding the Beertown brand during COVID-19.

The million-dollar question for all restaurant owners and operators in 2020 has been just how do you navigate a global pandemic, complete with closures, lack of customers, and the myriad challenges that come along with such an altered landscape?

Charcoal Group
Jody Palubiski, Charcoal Group CEO

For Jody Palubiski, 17-year CEO of the Ontario-based Charcoal Group of restaurants, it’s been all about two things: looking after his staff, and planning – as much as possible, at least – for all eventualities.

“I think uncertainty became the only certainty,” Palubiski told RestoBiz this week. “Waking up every day and wondering what’s going to get thrown at us today.”

Palubiski has navigated difficult scenarios before with Charcoal, which currently operates 13 restaurants across southern Ontario – the global financial crisis of c. 2008, for example. COVID-19, though, bites harder, due to the unavoidable questions of health and wellbeing it poses to those in the food service industry.

Information is power

Palubiski has been a leader at Charcoal Group in 2003, when he reunited with his former colleagues at the original Charcoal Steakhouse back in the 1980s. In the interim period the Waterloo native had worked at Toronto-area restaurants, but by the early noughties he had become CEO of the fledgling group. Fast-forward to 2020 and it operates 13 restaurants under numerous banners in Ontario. The group has thrived, with the latest installment of its most recent brainchild, the Beertown brand, opening in Guelph in early March of this year.

A little over a week later, though, the shutdown hit. Since then, Palubiski’s day-to-day focus has undergone an enforced shift. Contingency plans, though always important in the restaurant business, became paramount in importance.

“On March 16, when we closed the door – we closed on the Monday in the afternoon – it was really sitting down and saying ok, what does this look like, what could it be? Anticipation of the various tracks this could take as we continue to go down the road.”

So how did Charcoal go about that back in March, with very little indications of exactly what was to come?

“When all of this started to come down the first thing we said was that we need to have absolutely the best information possible and understand where our business is at,” Palubiski explains. “Cash flow projections and creating action plans around that was critical. Making principle-based decisions and thinking long-term.”

Charcoal also watched other jurisdictions – other provinces, U.S. states – for any hints of what may be to come, and tried to prepare for all eventualities. As Palubiski puts it, “what’s our best guess here?”

Taking care of the restaurant family

While planning ahead was key, Palubiski notes that arguably more important to Charcoal’s leaders was protecting their staff from the potentially brutal financial- and welfare-related impacts of the pandemic and the provincial shutdown. The group’s mission values, which focus on clear communication and empathy, have been crucial.

“It became apparent the very first day that our first priority will be and has to be our team,” Palubiski explains. Charcoal Group had to put nearly 1,000 people on leave, and the daily focus became taking care of them. “We were using a fanning-out system so that every manager had a list of people they called every single week just to check in. How do they feel about things, do they have enough money for food? We tried to make sure every single one of those people got a call every week so we could let them know that we were there.”

As is often the case, out of darkness came light. “You saw all these really cool moments of truth, acts of kindness towards each other. That was probably the most important piece that we focused on during that closure.” Palubiski cites the implementing of a Charcoal Group family dinner over video calls that have been held on Friday nights as emblematic of their philosophy during the early weeks and months. “It was just a reminder that we’re all together, we’re all there for each other, and we’re part of a team that cares.”

Charcoal Group
Charcoal Group’s Burlington Beertown location

A playbook for reopening

Finally, leading into summer, things began to pick up again as Ontario advanced on a regional basis into first stage two of recovery and later stage three. That, though, brought its own challenges – most namely, the uncertain timeframe the restaurant industry was facing. Palubiski notes that, by the very nature of an emergency pandemic response, there’s little advanced warning.

“You’d have loved if the various levels of government had a playbook that said ‘at some point in the next two weeks, here’s what the next stage will be,’ but it was really Monday at 1 p.m. you’d get the note that said ‘you can open on Friday under these circumstances.’”

Thankfully, all that preparation work paid off. Charcoal didn’t attempt to get takeout going during their closures, instead focusing on preparing for whenever the reopening would come so that when doors could open again, their various restaurants could hit the ground running. Palubiski notes it saved them a lot of effort and a lot of time at the critical reopening point.

“We put together a 96-hour plan so that from the first word, we’d be able to say go. Every schedule was done in advance, every food order and beer order and schedules for prep were brought in. We spent a lot of time zoning in to be ready from the word go.”

Adapting on the fly

While Charcoal’s own preparation was key, Palubiski gave credit to southern Ontario’s various municipalities for their assistance, particularly in the expanded patio program.

“That was critical and I think it kept a lot of businesses going and got a lot of people back to work,” he says. “Working with municipalities was a critical step to be able to regain some form over the summer, start relieving the stress of your team, getting caught up on suppliers, whatever it might have been. So that really can’t go understated.” He notes that talks are already underway about expanded Charcoal’s patio program into 2021, which he says would be “a wonderful positive outcome of all of this.”

Changing weather brings different challenges and they’re being tackled head-on. Palubiski acknowledges, with huge gratitude, that some glorious summer weather allowed Charcoal to recoup a significant amount of their lost revenue, but now they must plan for fall and winter. The group has invested around $125,000 in various heating systems so that continued patio presence can be a viable option for customers.

Charcoal Group
Charcoal Group’s Wildcraft location in Jody Palubiski’s native Waterloo

Words of wisdom

Overall, Palubiski is counting his blessings when it comes to Charcoal. Customers, he says, are starting to become more confident in dining indoors again and though the path ahead is still hard to map out, there’s much to be thankful for.

“There’s a certain comfort, I think, in knowing that we’re all in this together and that all you can do is put one foot in front of the other and take the next logical step and keep going. If you’d have told me a year ago we’d have been in this position, I’d probably have thought I’d be losing my mind, but it’s amazing what you get used to and how you adapt.”

So does he have any advice for restaurateurs looking to navigate what’s on the horizon? Palubiski brings it back to the importance of planning.

“I really have to stress that sitting down and analyzing is key. Load up on modelling, you’re going to make better decisions for your people and your partners if you truly know where you’re at. Truthfully, get down to the nuts and bolts and have that plan in place. Keep grinding it out.”

Right now, that’s all anyone can do.

Read part two of Jody Palubiski’s interview here.

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