Changing and tweaking almost every aspect of restaurant operations in a fraught and unpredictable time.
By Michael Chon as told to Chris Mohney
Michael Chon is president of Kijung Hospitality Group, whose portfolio includes the Korean barbecue chain Baekjeong located in Southern California and New York. Baekjeong began reopening its California venues as pandemic restrictions have eased.
The lockdown was a good time for us to press reset, refresh the business, and work on some things that we wanted to prepare. We made the decision not to open our restaurants during the stay-at-home order. We were closed for about eight weeks. We wanted to really take care of our employees, making sure they were healthy and would not be affected by the virus.
We kept our employees on staff for about six weeks and paid them their wages and hours. After the fifth week, about 30 to 40 of our 400 employees reached out and asked us to terminate them so they could collect more money in unemployment, versus what they were getting on an hourly basis.
For reopening, all of our processes in the front of house and back of house are following the guidelines from OSHA—temperature checks, the use of gloves, social distancing, and all the sanitizing work we’re doing. We’re spacing out the restaurants to 50 percent capacity—so every other table. We don’t expect to make a profit here, but we want to keep the brand relevant during this period. Hopefully, we can start pushing the takeout option, so the dine-in is almost like marketing for take-out.
Baekjeong has not been very popular for delivery or takeout because the meat didn’t travel that well. We tried to launch a takeout menu in the past, but customers wanted to dine in our restaurants. So we reset the menu, repackaged some of our stews, and came up with some new menu items which can be easily prepared at home—served in a tinfoil container, put on the stove, serve and eat, and then thrown away—versus having to transfer everything to pots. We’ve come up with some new rice bowl dishes too.
We’ve come up with a new reopening slogan for the company that actually is perfect for people coming back to the restaurant—”We Meat Again.” It’s on signs in the restaurant and the staff uniforms.
All our other processes are definitely changing too. Baekjeong has never done reservations. We’ve always been fortunate to have a long line of customers, seven days a week, for the last eight years. But because we have a lot of customers waiting outside—and there could be hundreds of customers waiting outside on a weekend—we’re now moving to a reservation system. Everything is now going digital with menus and ordering on your phone, versus having to place your order with the waiter.
We’re fortunate that we have a strong relationship with our vendors. Because of our buying power, they’ve taken very good care of us. They have about three weeks of proteins for us that they believe will cover us. We have been in constant contact with our protein purveyors, because a lot of our meat is fresh. Even during the crisis, we had about $60,000 worth of proteins at our restaurants because we get a delivery almost every day. But instead of freezing it all, we prepared the meat and made 2,500 meals for first responders at various hospitals, police departments, and fire departments.
I’ve been an operator in various positions for the last 24 years. I’ve been in two recessions. The one in 2000 definitely surprised me. We’ve been preparing ourselves for a financial downturn in the business sometime this year or next year. But I feel broken-hearted for the smaller independent restaurants that did not prepare for this financial crisis and this pandemic. A lot of businesses are going to go dark. But I think when the lights go back on, new entrepreneurs will come in and build new concepts and new restaurants.