Founded in 1994, Bistrot Pierre opened its first two restaurants in Derby and Nottingham. Twenty-six years on, the group has grown to incorporate 19 restaurants across England and Wales and employs more than 700 people across the UK.
Jane Rawden, HR director, reports the organisation started preparing risk mitigation strategies in January before the pandemic hit the UK. She says the organisation treated the oncoming crisis “like any other high-risk infection [affecting] our hospitality business”.
“In January, we normally have a big conference for all our general managers, and we decided not to go through with the event,” Rawden says. “We had a strategy – which has continued to today really – where we wanted to keep people in their restaurants, not cross contaminate the different sites, and put safety first.” Rawden says she issued daily communications to staff, highlighting how the company was responding to the crisis.
The decision to close restaurants on 19 March was “not taken lightly”, Rawden says. She says the “only thing we had in the chaos and uncertainty” was to be honest, patient and keep communication flowing.
“The only formula I had as an HRD to cope was to keep communication going,” Rawden says. “Some days we were saying that we didn’t have any answers, and we didn’t know what the next step was.”
Having frequent, open dialogue with staff and business leaders “kept us going” in the period between lockdown and when the government announced the furlough scheme, Rawden adds.
Rawden says the government’s furlough scheme has been a “lifeline” for the hospitality industry. Nonetheless Bistrot Pierre has had to permanently close some restaurants as a result of ongoing difficulties caused by the pandemic.
Before the crisis hit, Bistrot Pierre employed 900 staff across its various sites, but the figure has since dropped to just over 700. In mid-July, the organisation was sold as part of a pre-pack administration. Though the sale saved many jobs, it resulted in six restaurants closing permanently.
The organisation furloughed more than 95 per cent of its workforce. “We literally only had about seven people who stayed on working during the pandemic because we had no money coming in,” Rawden says.
And so the retention and engagement of furloughed staff was key. It was important to focus heavily on health and wellbeing as well as engagement, says Rawden. On top of communication from business leaders, Bistrot Pierre kept staff engaged by offering online training, encouraging staff to participate in cooking competitions and sharing pictures of what furloughed staff were up to.
Returning to work
Once the government announced restaurants could reopen from 4 July, Bistrot Pierre adopted a phased approach to this, where an individual restaurant would pass along what “did and didn’t work” to the next to open.
To make reopening a success, Bistrot Pierre implemented a “massive onboarding” process where senior leaders shared its carefully thought through “safety first” approach. This included communication about personal protective equipment and safety procedures and online training on new policies.
Bistrot Pierre also undertook a Facebook Workplace survey to find out staff’s concerns and what the organisation might do to ease these. “A lot of people were ready to get back to work,” Rawden says. “But some staff were a bit worried, and we drilled down into that to address the concerns they had through further communication and reassurance that it was safe.”
The company’s general managers have been key in supporting people back into the workplace and ensuring they are Covid secure, Rawden says. She adds that having empathetic managers has helped the organisation adapt throughout the pandemic, including to the recent new restrictions on social gatherings of more than six people.
“We have a very test and learn strategy because government guidance is still changing, and we need to replicate that in our restaurants,” Rawden says. “But our workplace model means we can communicate changes right away and then get feedback from managers on what practices did and didn’t work, and how they can be adapted for other sites.”