Food for thought: Philippine restaurants care for workers for post-pandemic future

PEOPLE dine in a restaurant amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak in Boracay, Aklan on Nov. 30, 2021. — REUTERS

By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

ACTOR KEN CHAN confessed to pandemic woes that he and his co-actors felt when the coronavirus pushed the world into a standstill two years ago.

“It was too much,” he said via Zoom in Filipino. “The anxiety doesn’t go away. We always talked about it in our chat groups: What will happen to us? What will we do?”

Anxieties spawned by the pandemic spurred him to start new businesses, including several gas stations, a wellness center that sells massage chairs and finally, his childhood dream — a Christmas-themed restaurant called Café Claus.

The year-round Christmas theme comes from his childhood enthusiasm for the holiday, apart from a desire to counter negative feelings spawned by the global health crisis, he said.

With businesses closing left and right due to economic hardships, some still make an effort to thrive and survive.

Last year, Shakey’s, under Shakey’s Pizza Asia Ventures, Inc., opened 13 new stores in Metro Manila, which has been under the second-most relaxed lockdown status in a five-tier system. This brought the total in the capital region to 130 stores.

Under Alert Level 2, stores may operate at higher capacities ranging from 50% to 70% depending on whether these are indoors or outdoors.

The coronavirus has sickened about 3.7 million and killed about 56,000 Filipinos. Worldwide, more than 425 million have been infected and almost six million people have died.

“We pushed with expanding and opening new stores based on the strong demand for more Peri-Peri branches and the need for more delivery branches to ensure we cover the entire Metro Manila within 31 minutes,” Shakey’s President Vicente L. Gregorio said in an e-mail.

The pizza chain guarantees  31-minute delivery in Manila, the capital and nearby cities.

“We’ve always had the advantage of having developed multiple store model designs that allow us to achieve very fast ROI (return on investment) periods,” he said. “Our discipline in site selection and new store execution has been honed for some time already.”

The new pizza parlors were smaller and designed to handle off-premise business, Mr. Gregorio said.

Concerns about virus exposure have changed the way the restaurant industry maintains properties. For example, Mr. Chan’s Claus Café started using high-efficiency particulate air filters in their air-conditioners for added anti-COVID security, and more are arriving for two forthcoming branches in Eastwood and Greenhills.

They also have twice-weekly sanitation and fumigation and an eight-point sanitation checklist in the kitchen. “If you could go to our kitchen at night after closing, you can eat off the floor. It’s that clean,” said Ryan Kolton, Mr. Chan’s business partner.

“This pandemic has reminded us why we have always prioritized safety and hygiene in our operations,” Mr. Gregorio said. “The practices and playbooks that we adopted during this crisis will continue to form part of our arsenal in the way we execute in this very dynamic industry.”

“If you, on one hand, put the value of customer safety versus the value of construction, it’s a clear answer — it’s their safety first,” Mr. Kolton said.

The maxim that a restaurant is only as good as its last review can be modified for these times, he added. “You’re only as good as your last safe customer.”

“We’re not just dealing with what customers are experiencing in front of them — we’re trying to mitigate what they could feel inside,” he added.

More than keeping customers safe and satisfied, both of these restaurants are investing in their own employees.

Shakey’s Project NERDY (Near and Ready) was designed to ensure that workers are assigned to the branch closest to their homes, Mr. Gregorio said. “This not only makes it easier and safer to report to work, but it also gives them more time for their family and helps them save on costs,” he said.

As a result, the pizza chain adapted more quickly as many areas were locked down to contain the pandemic, he said. “It allowed us to show how we value and think of our employees’ well-being.”

In the past, workers who requested to be assigned near their homes were thought of as selfish and lacking dedication. That’s no longer the case now, Mr. Gregorio said, citing a so-called paradigm shift.

With the reassignments, more than 87% of employees now spend less than 30 minutes to reach a Shakey’s store, according to a company statement.

“We also learned that a lot can still be done remotely,” he said in an e-mail. “Extensive use of digital collaboration tools had kept productivity high despite the lockdowns. We intend to continue using these platforms when possible, to reduce transportation costs and minimize travel time.”

Shakey’s also lets its workers file their vaccination schedule as official business. Fully vaccinated staff are given tokens and included in an employee raffle to encourage them to take life-saving vaccines.

The company also has provisions for the vaccination of their employees’ dependents. All of its dine-in employees have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Café Claus has also required its workers to get vaccinated.

Aside from the usual hazard benefits during the pandemic, Shakey’s employees are also connected to telemedicine services for contact tracing, PCR tests and random antigen testing. The pizza chain also encourages workers to avail themselves of free online psychological services.

“While we understand the need to focus on business recovery, we also believe that our team members’ safety and well-being should be our top priorities,” Mr. Gregorio said.

Café Claus also relies on weekly random antigen testing for their staff. The company had spent more than a million pesos on their workers’ insurance packages that also cover dependents, Mr. Kolton said.

“It’s a way for us, as the employers, to say that our employees are not just our employees; they’re family,” he said. “We care about them. They’re the backbone of this business.”

“We are grateful and feel blessed, seeing the way our team has adapted to the crises and continues to face and overcome the challenges,” Mr. Gregorio said. “Last but not the least, we are indebted to our guests who continue to patronize our brands during the difficult periods of the pandemic.”

Café Claus plans to keep its practices even after the pandemic ends, Mr. Kolton said. “It shows an extra level of care. These may not be the most cost-efficient or most frugal way, but it betters the community as a whole.”