Firehouse Subs interior

Just a few weeks ago, Firehouse Subs' sales were just about cut in half.

As the pandemic and government mandates spread, the top 500 restaurant chain — a company with more than 1,000 storefronts across multiple countries — sales tumbled, first to 25% of normal, than dropping 45% year over year.

Luckily for Jacksonville-based Firehouse Subs, that challenge hasn’t been insurmountable. CEO Don Fox said that while the past few months have been fraught with uncertainty, Firehouse has been able to return to a semblance of normality – at least when it comes to sales.

“I think it’s fair to say no two days have been alike,” Fox said. “The most immediate unknown was how far things were going to drop – if things drop too far, obviously you’ve got questions of survival that arise.”

While the drop was much less than the 80% or 90% faced by casual dining restaurants, Fox said, the unpredictable nature of the decline made everyone in the company wary.

“That first week or 10 days was a constant barrage of changes that we had to quickly make. Nobody had a playbook for it beforehand; there wasn’t some emergency plan that we pulled out that said ‘Break glass in case of pandemic: here’s what you’re going to do,’” Fox said. “Every decision was being made in real time.”

The decline in sales finally plateaued, and from there Fox said he and his team were able to move forward.

“We have to give great credit to our team, we were very flexible and resilient and were able to implement change very quickly – not just coming into compliance with whatever a local government may have requested, but most importantly to meet guests’ expectations and have them feel safe and secure,” he said.

Fox said he adopted an approach that implored his company to dedicate themselves to making each day better than the last – at least as much as they could within their power – and that attitude of “one step at a time” seemed to serve them well.

The company quickly shut down dining room service and moved towards curbside to-go, online ordering and even the occasional pop-up drive-thru. Those took the form of setting up impromptu lanes, a canopy to take orders and having employees run orders in and out of the restaurant.

“Necessity is the mother of invention, and this and many other ideas were put into play,” Fox said. “And it put us on a path where our sales performance was just improving day after day to the point now where we have markets in our system that are actually exceeding last year’s sales.”

Last week, company-wide sales were down just 11% from the previous year. He added that much of the success could be attributed to his team’s ability to remain fluid, but that being well-prepared as a company also led to better results.

“We launched revisions to our online ordering platform two years ago, what we call ‘Rapid Rescue,’ and made improvements to our app. A lot of things that were already in play or under development served us really well,” Fox said.

Among other projects that served the franchise well were adoption of third-party delivery services and a change in packaging for to-go orders. Originally wrapping sandwiches in paper, the company switched to using cartons – something Fox said increases quality, portability and temperature retention.

Looking towards a future with less tight restrictions, Fox said he’s largely letting franchise owners figure out what works best based on their location and their customer base. For states that have already reopened, such as Georgia and Tennessee, Fox said only about 20 percent of the restaurants that were eligible to reopen their dining rooms had done so.

On the First Coast, where Firehouse’s corporate structure owns the restaurants, Fox said restaurants would be reopening in accordance with the 25% capacity handed down from Gov. DeSantis. He added some aspects of service will also change.

“Pre-pandemic, we would serve our sandwiches plated in a basket – we’re not going to do that, we’re going to continue to serve the sandwiches in cartons. Rather than delivering the food to the table, we will call customer names, so they can pick up the order from the counter,” Fox said. “So, you’ll see some changes like that, and I think it will give everybody the greatest comfort level in this environment.”