The Restaurant Joined a Newly Formed Coalition To Overturn Restrictions in Maryland.
Gary Cohen, executive vice president of sports bar concept Glory Days Grill, says operating across the country is now like working on different planets.
Because of location, the nearly 40-unit brand saw a 20-point same-store sales divide between its company-run stores and franchises. Thanks to Florida, franchises finished 2020 with a roughly 10 percent drop in sales compared to the 30 percent dip experienced by corporate stores in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Florida allows full capacity statewide and doesn’t mandate masks. If a county chooses to limit capacity, it must explain the economic impact and why it’s necessary for public health. Even then, the county can’t go lower than 50 percent.
Cohen says Florida’s rules surrounding alcohol to-go are much more business-friendly, as well. For example, Gov. Ron Desantis’ executive order simply states restaurants can offer alcohol to-go as long as the beverage is in a sealed container and accompanied with food. In Virginia, restaurants can sell two cocktails with each meal included, up to a maximum of four cocktails per order. Operators also have to ensure the drink is transported in the trunk or an area that can’t be accessed by the driver.
“[Florida operators] were selling gallons of margaritas and gallons of sangria, and growlers to-go,” Cohen says. “Now Virginia did acquiesce and let us do that eventually, but it's so restrictive. Like you could sell one cocktail by the glass and you have to carry it to the car. You have to put in the back seat in a paper bag. Why bother even letting us do it? But I mean, we are allowed to do it. We’re just not doing a lot of it.”
Additionally, stores in the Sunshine State had a natural advantage when consumers were ready to eat outdoors. Because of the milder weather year-round, Florida units are built with bigger patios as an extension of the building. Cohen estimated that for Florida locations, 60 percent of seating is inside, while 40 percent is outside.
Meanwhile in Virginia and Maryland, customers are seated at every other table because of capacity restrictions and social distancing rules. In Virginia specifically, customers aren’t allowed to be seated at the bar. The patios in these states are designed for six to eight months of use; they’re smaller, usually not covered, and make up about 10 percent of seating.
“Imagine the difference when you’re a sports team concept like we are and people coming to watch football, but you're not allowed to sit at the bar,” Cohen says. “So a huge difference. That's why I say it's a different planet and it's all governor regulated. It's all executive order regulated.”
Cohen adds differences in performance were also driven by public mindset. Glory Days has 21 restaurants around the Beltway, or the region surrounding Washington, D.C. As you get closer to the D.C., Reston, Fairfax, and Alexandria areas, some units were sliding 45 percent last year. But the farther you move out of the Beltway, like Winchester and Culpepper, Virginia, and Ranson, West Virginia, comps improve to a decrease of 10 to 15 percent.
“I believe a lot of this has to do with politics and a lot of it has to do with consumer mindset,” Cohen says. “And I think in Florida, the consumer mindset was wide open. I believe that as you go to more rural counties, the consumer mindset was wide open. They had the same regulations in Virginia in those far-out counties, but the customers were less afraid to dine in restaurants.”
Although corporate and franchised locations have trended differently, both are looking at opportunities to grow. A new franchised store opened in Riverview, Florida, on Monday. The franchise association is also looking at another store, but nothing has been signed yet. On the company side, Glory Days is investigating a potential location in Northern Virginia.
The brand was able to renegotiate leases and agree to term extensions amid COVID, which presents an opportunity to freshen older stores and meet the new age of convenience.
“We want to remodel and maybe enhance our restaurants so that we have bigger patios or enclosed patios or better carryout facilities because we think that will stay with us for the future,” Cohen says. “So strongly and surely, we're going to be around, but business may be different—more focused on outdoor dining and carryout and any technology that helps us with them.”
With restrictions still in effect, off-premises has remained the game changer. Glory Days saw same-store sales at corporate stores rise 3 to 5 percent to begin 2020. But because of COVID circumstances, those locations finished the year down 30 percent.
The chain was shielded from further damage thanks to the launch of online ordering through Olo. Off-premises sales skyrocketed from 10 percent prior to the crisis to 35 percent throughout the year.
That rise was accomplished without the aid of third-party delivery, which the brand swore against because of high delivery fees.
“We were against it in principle—the whole concept of they wanted to charge us 30 percent off the top, DoorDash, Uber Eats, and the like,” Cohen says. “We just wouldn't engage. We just said there's no way we would do a 30 percent revenue share with anybody. When we're 5 to 10 percent profit business, it doesn't make any sense to us.”
Cohen says Glory Days relented on its ban in December after third-party companies came to the table with more reasonable commission negotiations. So far, that’s made the difference in 2021. Year to date, corporate stores are declining around 11 percent, and off-premises has reached a mix of 42 percent.
Around the same time of the third-party rollout, Glory Days launched its first virtual brand, although the company prefers to keep the name under wraps for now. Cohen explains Glory Days wants to see how the delivery-only concept performs without affiliation.
“The whole goal of doing a virtual kitchen is to attract a younger audience that’s searching for their food strictly online,” Cohen says. “So if someone's going to the internet looking for burgers or wings or whatever, they'll find this concept on third party.… We created a website, we created a brand, we're executing it out of existing Glory Days kitchens. People are smart. They'll figure out, ‘Oh, that's coming from Glory Days.’ But it's different sauces. Different food profiles. We're not trying to hide it. We’re trying to create a little mystique.” Cohen and the founders of Glory Days, Jeff Newman, Richard Danker, and Robert Garner, have been in the restaurant business for more than 150 years combined. For most of that time, the veterans have remained apolitical.
That changed about five or six years ago when the executives felt the government was overreaching into their affairs. Garner inserted himself into the Restaurant Association of Maryland and Cohen is serving as chairman of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association.
The fact that they’re involved has helped, Cohen says. When officials were determining how to reopen restaurants, they came to the organizations for consultation. But it still wasn’t enough, particularly in Maryland, where dine-in restrictions are mandated county by county.
“In Maryland, we felt like there was a power surge there, and the county executives felt like they were going to individually interpret what the governor says and make their own rules,” Cohen says. “We just have to draw the line there and say, ‘That's just not fair. Let the customers decide if they will feel comfortable coming to a restaurant. Why should this county be different than that county and that county?’”
In response, a group of restaurants banded together to form the Maryland Restaurant Coalition, with Garner serving as one of the board members. The organization’s biggest move thus far was joining a lawsuit against Anne Arundel County, which suspended indoor and outdoor dining from December 16 to January 13.
Initially, the judge granted a restraining order on the dining restriction. Then after multiple days of court hearings, the lawsuit was dismissed and the county began allowing 25 percent capacity on December 30. The county eventually moved to 50 percent capacity in late January.
“For anyone to come out and say if you got coronavirus it’s because you went to a full-service restaurant, it's just completely 100 percent unproven. It's theory,” Cohen says. “Everybody says let’s go to the science. Well there's no science showing that anybody caught coronavirus in a full-service restaurant. They're just making an assumption that because you have to eat with your mask off, that might be where you got it. And therefore, it ruined our business.”
“And the coalition was designed to say, look, let all restaurants stay open, and the customers that don't feel safe going into a restaurant won't come, obviously. They'll get carryout,” he continues. “… As long as we're wearing masks and taking all the precautions and social distancing keeping tables 6 feet apart, then we think we should be open.”
Cohen says the effect of restrictions is basic math. Restaurants are a small profit business, so if sales are between 5 and 10 percent down, stores will be unprofitable. And if you’re 15 or 30 percent down, you’re losing buckets of money every day. So what’s the point of staying open? The executive says it’s to protect the thousands of employees that come into work each day.
“The only reason we're staying open and losing money every day is to keep our people employed and to set ourselves up for the future, and when we do come out of the pandemic, to still be a viable business in the community and still have a presence,” Cohen says.