Nando’s Canada putting staff and franchisees first

CEO Kevin Lindhorst tells RestoBiz how the chicken specialists have navigated the pain of the pandemic

By Tom Nightingale

Canada’s hungry public loves chicken, that’s for sure.

One of the most versatile of comfort foods and a product that often travels well in this new era of heightened off-premises consumption, chicken – whether fried, roasted, breaded, or otherwise prepared – has remained in high and steady demand.

Canada’s quick-service chicken market is certainly competitive, with everyone from chicken specialists like KFC and Popeye’s to fast-food all-rounders including McDonald’s and Burger King pushing a variety of chicken products.

South African chain Nando’s, though, has a value proposition that goes beyond fried chicken sandwiches and wings. For the multinational fast-food restaurant, it’s the flavour combinations and the experience on offer that are integral to the brand and its appeal.

“It’s about the PERi-PERi. That’s what we believe brings people to Nando’s to eat our chicken,” says Nando’s Canada CEO Kevin Lindhorst.

Nando’s describes PERi-PERi, also known as the African Bird’s Eye Chilli, as the key to its flame-grilled PERi-PERi chicken. Grown throughout Southern Africa, Nando’s takes the capsicum-strong pepper – a natural preservative and rich in Vitamins A, B, and C – and transforms it into a variety of sauces. Nando’s signature sauce mixes PERi-PERi with salt, garlic, lemon, onion, oil, and vinegar to provide a signature flavour with a kick of heat.

In Canada, Nando’s also sells a range of sauces in bottles in over 3,000 retail stores, ranging from lemon and herb PERi-PERi to garlic PERi-PERi, coconut and lemon PERi-PERi and a range of heats.

Tough decisions

The popularity of chicken and of Nando’s has not given it an immunity to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, however. Far from it.

In spring 2020, the chain closed 18 of its Canadian restaurants after the COVID-19 pandemic “exacerbated” existing financial difficulties. Lindhorst explains that when COVID-19 hit, the company lost around 50 per cent of its revenue almost overnight. The result was Nando’s Canada’s physical footprint falling from 50 locations to 32 with the closure of some shops temporarily, some permanently, and the sale of four outlets to franchisees in Ontario and B.C.

Lindhorst describes that period as “very tough,” noting it had never really happened to Nando’s before. “We’re a small player in Canada compared to other big brands and we’re very much about family values. You can understand the pain we felt not knowing what the future looked like. The teams handled it with great dignity, understood what the company needed to do, but it was really sad for Nando’s Canada and for the franchisees as well and from a family point of view.”

Pushing on through

Like all foodservice operators big or small, Nando’s Canada knew it had to push through the pain of the pandemic, adapting and innovating all the while.

Initially, with so much revenue lost and so many traditional dine-in avenues closed off, Lindhorst explains the company quickly pivoted to things like online and mobile ordering and curbside pickup. “Luckily, in Canada, delivery was already quite a big part of the business compared to some of the other countries, and that made it a bit easier for us to pull the delivery lever a bit harder than other brands that were not as well set up for it,” he notes.

Quality standards, always a core focus, also took on even more importance. That encompassed everything from ensuring the quality of chicken and other ingredients was as high and as fresh as possible, which Lindhorst notes yielded a “huge” improvement in aggregated scores and reviews, to focusing on that feedback and ensuring the guest experience was as good as it could possibly be in the context of closed or restricted dining rooms.

The attention to detail wasn’t limited to customer care, either. Nando’s acknowledged and embraced its responsibility to look after its employees – Nandocas, as the company calls them – through a frighteningly unprecedented time. “That was really were our energy went where previously it would often have gone into the indoor dining experience,” says Lindhorst.

The biggest lesson learned was the need for clear and constant communication; making sure both Nandocas and customers were always clear about best practices and protocols, training, health and safety measures. That communication happened both internally and through the company’s digital and social media platforms. It was a mammoth undertaking, with a huge amount of training and communication required, but Nando’s did it “with a lot of love and care for the people at Nando’s and our customers.”

Nando’s restaurant at Toronto’s Bay Street

Evolving challenges

The trials faced by restaurants have evolved constantly and remarkably over the now lengthy course of the pandemic.

The initial push to adapt saw a wide variety of measures taken, such as pushing menu items like mash and rice that travel a little better than fries in the new takeout-heavy world. Other menu innovations included introducing new chicken bowls and vegetable bowls – the ultimately successful idea, Lindhorst explains, was to create excitement for customers and staff while also focusing on dishes that travelled well.

Elsewhere, cost controls became that much more crucial – managing labour and food costs. A lot of Nando’s Canada’s energy went into the avenues of delivery aggregators, the company’s own online booking and ordering system, and digital advertising.

Focus on community support was also vital. A restaurant, a chain, a brand is nothing without its customers and the wider communities in which it operates. Nando’s Canada recognized that with initiatives including a healthcare workers program, wherein the company gave free food to healthcare workers and hot food to hospitals for an extended period during the worst of the pandemic. That charitable drive has long been a part of the company’s ethos, demonstrated further by its No Chucking Out Chicken program wherein it donates all leftover chicken, as well as mash and rice, to charities. In all, the Canadian side of the company has given over 50,000 meals to charities.

Franchisees first

Ultimately, for Nando’s Canada, the biggest takeaway from the upheaval and the strains of the past 19 months has been the importance of focusing on company culture, not least the staff who make up that culture.

Lindhorst notes that the corporate side of the company has not entirely escaped the staffing troubles that have plagued the industry in recent months. But he believes Nando’s Canada has benefited from firmly putting its franchisees first and making its employees feel well-treated and safe in their work.

“Our franchisees felt very supported throughout the restructure of our Canadian business,” Lindhorst says. “Obviously, it must have been painful for franchisees to see the company closing stores when they have so much money invested in the business, but I believe our franchisees have confidence the brand would bounce back as it has done. That’s been one of the highlights through COVID-19: the relationship building with our franchisees. The fact we sold four stores to them showed the commitment, that they were wanting to support the bread and believed in the plan.”

That will remain the primary focus for a brand that hopes to grow further in Canada to a point where it can challenge the other giants of QSR chicken.

“We’re going to grow again properly with good sites and good franchisees,” concludes Lindhorst. “The intention is to stabilize the business and focus on what we have. With fewer stores, it gives us an opportunity to really get into the details. We can plan for the future and the business can start to move forward again.”

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