Restaurant Roundup: Friendly’s to Open Fast-Casual Concept; Starbucks Reverses Course on Vax Mandate

Friendly’s to Open Fast-Casual Concept

With consumers’ digital ordering habits proving sticky almost two years after the initial outbreak of the pandemic, brands are readjusting to the new normal. Massachusetts-based, diner-style, full-service restaurant (FSR) chain Friendly’s, for one, is opening a fast-casual restaurant with a greater focus on off-premise sales.

NBC Boston reported Tuesday (Jan. 18) that the brand’s new 2,700-square-foot “Friendly’s Café” will open in early February and that, in addition to fulfilling digital orders, the small-format restaurant will also allow customers to place orders at the counter or via a QR code at the table.

“This is the culmination of what the pandemic has changed,” Friendly’s CEO Craig Erlich told the Boston Globe. “Prior to the pandemic, off-premise dining, carryout and delivery was only about 10% of the business. The pandemic changed all that.”

Friendly’s, which has 130 restaurants across 12 states, was hit hard by the early months of the pandemic. In the fall of 2020, the chain sought bankruptcy protection for the second time in 10 years.

See also: COVID-19 Slams Old-School Restaurant Chains From Ruby Tuesday to Chuck E. Cheese

It is not the only FSR chain to turn toward fast-casual concepts in recent years. In September, IHOP opened the doors of the first location of its fast-casual brand flip’d.

Read more: IHOP Opens Fast-Casual Brand

Meanwhile, Brinker International, parent company of FSR chains Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy, launched two fully off-premise virtual brands during the pandemic, although increases in consumer mobility prompted the company to turn its focus back to dine-in.

See more: Chili’s, Maggiano’s Parent Company Slows Virtual Brand Growth to Focus on Dine-In

Following Supreme Court Ruling, Starbucks Backpedals on Employee Vaccine Mandate

After the Supreme Court voted last week to block the President Joe Biden administration from enforcing vaccine and testing mandates for large private businesses, Starbucks has reversed course, dropping the requirement that employees be fully vaccinated or get tested each week announced earlier this month.

Reuters reported Wednesday that the coffeehouse chain sent out a memo to its employees on Tuesday informing them of the decision.

“We respect the court’s ruling and will comply,” Starbucks Chief Operating Officer John Culver reportedly wrote in the memo.

The outlet also stated that the memo revealed that over 90% of employees had already informed the company of their vaccination status and that the “vast majority” were fully vaccinated.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 63% of the total U.S. population and 74% of adults ages 18 and over are fully vaccinated, although only 42% of adults have received the booster, which has been shown to be crucial in protecting people from the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Del Taco Opens Off-Premise-Focused Store Format

FSRs are not the only restaurants seeking out ways to maximize profits from the shift to digital ordering. Quick-service restaurant (QSR) chain Del Taco, for instance, announced Wednesday (Jan. 19) the opening of the first location of its Fresh Flex concept in Orlando, Florida, last month, which is focused on the digital experience.

The concept features pickup lockers for digital orders from direct and third-party channels, drive-thru lanes for mobile ordering and delivery driver pickup, and a parking lot designed to accommodate eating in the car. A drive-thru only variation of the concept is also on its way.

“Now more than ever, a format that allows for flexibility is crucial,” Del Taco CEO John Cappasola said in a statement. “We have had so much excitement from current and prospective franchisees for Fresh Flex and our Menu of Venues model, and I am thrilled that our first Fresh Flex drive-thru-only location will be built by a franchisee in 2022.”

The move is part of a broader trend toward off-premise-centric formats. Last week, Shake Shack announced plans to try out drive-thru locations without dining rooms, and hot dog chain Portillo’s announced its first pickup-only restaurant.

Read more: Brands Turn to Off-Premise Formats to Boost Profit Margins

Pret a Manger to Pay $667K Settlement After Alleged Biometric Information Privacy Violation

Last week in Illinois, a Cook County U.S. District Court judge signed off on a settlement requiring United Kingdom-based sandwich shop chain Pret a Manger to pay a $677,450 settlement in a class action lawsuit regarding the chain’s use of biometric information.

The suit, filed in late-2020 by former employee Kayla Quarles, who had worked for the chain for a period of about nine months beginning in April 2018, alleged that the chain’s use of fingerprints for clocking in and out had violated the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act, failing to adhere to the policies therein, and that the company “collect[ed], stor[ed] and us[ed]” the biometric data without informing employees or obtaining their permission in writing.

U.S. District Court Judge Manish S. Shah wrote that this settlement “appears to be a reasonable compromise of a complicated case with risk on both sides.”