What does it look like to put employees first?
That’s what many organizations are asking in the wake of COVID-19 and research that shows overwhelmingly that consumers want to see businesses prioritize people over profits during this crisis.
Texas Roadhouse, the U.S. steakhouse chain, wanted to ensure that its employees were cared for and says that the evolution of its approach to the pandemic has offered lots of lessons it hopes to take into the post-pandemic era.
We spoke with Vice President of Communications Travis Doster who offered these insights from the restaurant group’s crisis response:
PR Daily: How are you thinking about “purpose” and core values during this crisis?
Doster: Our first thought was our people. Our founder [Wayne Kent Taylor] says we are a people company that just happens to serve great steaks. It was with that mind-set our founder donated his salary and bonus to our employees. Other efforts included no layoffs and offering COVID-19 Relief Pay in March to front-line employees. We also paid the insurance premiums for our employees and later rolled out another stimulus payment in April. These efforts are in addition to our employee assistance fund–Andy’s Outreach–which today has helped over 900 employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
PR Daily: How has your thinking changed on the current crisis over time?
Doster: Our founder says the first week was “oh crap mode,” and then we quickly shifted into survival mode. What has been most interesting is that ideas that seemed crazy two months ago now seem normal.
PR Daily: Was there a moment where you knew you had to make a bold change?
Doster: As soon as we realized dining rooms might be closed, we pivoted our entire model and went 100% To-Go/Curbside, sold steaks directly to the public and hosted farmer’s markets, all with the highest safety and sanitation standards.
PR Daily: What channels have been the most effective for sharing your messages?
Doster: Our marketing starts with our “Roadies.” Those restaurant owners and operators work hard every day—especially these days—to connect with our guests, understand their needs and deliver a superior experience. All our other marketing efforts amplify that people-first mentality.
In the current environment, we’ve been particularly focused on replicating our in-person experience online. We’ve created a Roadhouse in the House Facebook Group to share fun content with guests, re-launched our Pinterest to house famous restaurant recipes for recreating at home and developed a landing page dedicated to engaging content for the entire family.
PR Daily: Social media has been an important tool for the brand. What’s working and why?
Doster: We recently partnered with Doe-Anderson to develop an AI-based approach to social media. Using a custom-built AI tool, we can identify how our specific content decisions are impacting specific types of consumer engagement. Would you believe posts about fresh-baked bread make more people comment about our curbside pickup? These insights feed into higher-quality content, customized by platform and produced at the speed of social. The results have been great, including two posts that reached 1 million people organically in two days.
PR Daily: Do you feel like this crisis has inspired your communication teams to take creative risks?
Doster: We chose early on to treat the crisis as a stimulus for positive change. By reframing the disruption as an impetus to explore new things – new ways of serving our employees and customers – we freed our entire team to channel energies and expand creativity. It helps that we know who we are and where we want to go. A clear strategy helps us pivot responsively, and clean data gives us the confidence to act decisively. When those things line up, risk-taking starts to feel less scary and more inspiring.
PR Daily: Why create something like a Spotify playlist?
Doster: Music is an important aspect of our in-restaurant experience. So, it was an obvious choice to bring that jukebox energy into people’s homes. Whether they’re enjoying one of our hand-cut steaks or not, our customers can always join in the Texas Roadhouse fun.
PR Daily: How are you measuring your efforts? What are the metrics you have found meaningful?
Doster: Beyond our always-important sales data, we’ve been tracking the volume and sentiment of online conversation closely. Social conversation is a useful measure of evolving consumer behaviors. Our custom AI tool actually helps us link people’s online interactions to their offline behaviors in real time. For example, we’ve been tracking how many comments on our social feeds indicate trial, intent and advocacy. We find that more valuable than the so-called “vanity metrics” on social media – likes, comments and shares.
PR Daily: What lessons should we take from this crisis?
Doster: The biggest lesson is that in an entrepreneurial company like Texas Roadhouse, our operators will always figure things out. It also confirmed that the best ideas come from the stores. We just need to be their megaphone to tell the world!