A few weeks ago we had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Ian Hacon and Chris Carr, Co-owners of Zaks Restaurants, as part of the bi-monthly Avocado Club event. Their positivity and enthusiasm was evident throughout the whole event and their can-do attitude was a breath of fresh air when discussing some of the difficulties they have faced during lockdown.
Not only did they give us a live demonstration of two amazing avocado-based drink recipes, they also had a chat with James about some of their struggles surrounding COVID-19, lessons they have learnt and what plans they have in place for the future. We have summarised some of the key points below.
Chris: It’s pretty much been a year since we first started talking about taking over the Zaks business. It certainly wasn’t in our business plan to go into lockdown. The opportunity came up, we did our due diligence and we felt confident we could make a difference. We have the history as we have both been in the business before and we both know and love the brand. So, we came in and we reunited with some of our old teammates and started engaging with them straight away as well as the customers.
One of the reasons we are where we are now is because Zaks perhaps lost its way a little bit. It lost its status, some of its customers and its direction over the years. We analysed why that might have happened and found that Zaks had just stopped listening. It had stopped listening to its customers, it had stopped listening to what was going on in the world around it and it had stopped listening to its team. So that was the first simple thing we started with and that was to listen. We opened the channels, we opened social media and we sent our surveys to the team from day one. We asked them things like what do you love about Zaks and what do you not love so much about Zaks, what one thing would you change. We listened and straight away started making changes. One of the biggest things we found was that they had changed the burger, which we immediately changed back to the old recipe using the feedback we received.
Then obviously we saw a good curve going up and we were happy with the momentum we were gaining them boom COVID happened, 8 weeks in. So, we saw this rising curve where the business was and could go, then suddenly had this issue to deal with.
James: I suppose that stopped you in your tracks to a certain extend?
Chris: Yea, for about 30 seconds! We had already coined the phrase from Mark Zuckerberg “Lets move fast and break things” but we decided to “Move fast and fix things” so this just got added to the list of how can we deal with this. Yea it was a bit of a blow, but it was all about how can Zaks more through this storm, how we going to steer the ship and come out the other side.
Ian: From a funding specific, the chancellor has been reasonably kind to our sector, so we made sure we made use of all the potential funding streams available to us and we are in the process of applying for a grant to do more expansion. With the furlough payments and the extra support around hospitality grants it meant we could go through that period of closure with only myself and Chris workings. We furloughed 100 staff members.
Chris: We decided that if it’s not safe for people to go out then why are we asking staff to come in to help with our takeaway service. So, we decided we wanted the team to be safe at home with their families and we waited for the furlough announcement, which once that was made, we shut down the business, but we stayed in touch throughout.
Ian: We put measures in place to make sure we stayed in touch with the team during the furlough period. We set up a Facebook group and we went live without fail once a week to keep the team engaged and involved. Also, publicly we continued the engagement, asking them what they wanted and kept them informed with our progress.
Chris: We opened with a phased approach anyway and Waterside opened with a full refurb. During lockdown we did a lot of things we couldn’t normally do. The business was shut so we really made use of the time, I was walking around with a paintbrush and a drill most of the time. When it was safe to have some tradesmen in, we did some bigger jobs as well.
Waterside opened with a bang and we were fully booked. Then we opened Poringland and Mousehold was still doing takeaway during this time. We decided not to open Mousehold until August which we decided before the scheme was announced. We were busy before Eat Out to Help Out was introduced anyway so it just made us even busier. It has really brought the Zaks teams together. As everyone has had to chip in. We left a skeleton team at Mousehold to run the takeaway, and then the others went and helped at other the restaurants.
There were a lot of hospitality businesses out there painting it as a bit of a nightmare and not a nice experience for both their teams and customers. We didn’t have that at all at Zaks. We made sure we were well prepared. We like being busy, so it was great that we were. The teams raised their games and smashed it, we had some amazing feedback which was great, we loved it and it was great welcoming everyone through our doors. We didn’t get greedy and we stuck to our COVID guidelines. We didn’t have any queues because we were managing the booking system properly. Overall, it was great, it brought our teams closer together, it brought us some extra income and it was great fun!
James: Amazing, simple as that!
Chris: It wasn’t just me and Ian locked up in a room coming up with the best strategy for Zaks. We were engaging openly with everyone. As much as Ian and I like to be strategic, that has totally shifted recently, and we have been working reactively. So instead of working on one big plan, we had lots of little plans which we didn’t put too much time and effort into and just picked them up as we went along.
Chris: It’s something I was a very nervous about at first. I wanted to make sure it still felt like Zaks. We did a lot of work on the risk assessment and decided we didn’t want to go down the route of having big plastic screens everywhere. We reduced the capacity in the restaurants dramatically and we refurbished the outside areas. You can book online or through us directly.
Once you book a table you are taken through our COVID code of conduct. We ask you to turn up on time to the restaurant and we have sanitisers everywhere of course. The doors are all wide open so there is no touching anything and you are taken directly to your table which doesn’t have any cutlery or anything and we use single use menus which are all recycled afterwards. You will have one person who looks after you throughout the entire meal. They will take your order with their facemask down as we still want people to see their smiles but then when we interact with your table directly and serve your food, they have branded facemasks to wear.
You will find it is pretty much the normal Zaks experience, bar a bit of facemask wearing and sanitiser. The tables are all well-spaced out and where needed we have some nice glass barriers rather than PVC. The rule is it always must be Zaks, so we have tried to keep to that. The feedback we have had online has been people have felt secure and really enjoyed it.
Ian: One of the unexpected benefits to come out of it is how much more responsibility the team members have over their individual areas. They own those tables now and must take responsibility for the service, as where before you might have a few people serving and taking orders now it is up to them. It’s given them ownership and leadership skills that perhaps they didn’t have before. It also means the Managers can sit back a little and actually manage as well. It’s been a good learning curve.
Ian: We honestly don’t know. You have to stay so fluid at the moment and be prepared to make the pivot when you need to. We’ve got the Zaks caravan in the carpark ready to bring back, but that plan got shelved. We were going to tour events during the summer, but we couldn’t. It will happen at some point we just aren’t sure when that will be.
Chris: That’s probably our biggest strategy right now, thinking about what happens if we go into another lockdown. If we can get some mobile units going then that could possibly be another revenue stream and bring some income in. We could then take Zaks out into the world and not just have people come to us.
Ian: We’ve also started thinking about potential collaborations with other businesses in the future, so they are being worked on in the background.
Chris: We are just happy to have all three Zaks up and running, doing good sales and we have good steady trade across the week. No one is on furlough the whole team is back and working and we are back in business.