Jon had seven operations running across Brisbane and Townsville when coronavirus arrived, including three Cactus Jack’s Tex-Mex bar and grill restaurants and two high-end IMC Steakhouse restaurants, employing over 200 staff. Like many restaurant operators, his thoughts went quickly to take-away, but he wanted to be strategic about what he did and how he did it, knowing how crowded the market would be.

“Our leadership team got together and we just put everything on the table. We looked at every idea. We’ve been operating for a long time and we had two very strong brands which we wanted to protect. We knew through this we could probably only keep a couple of stores open, so we needed to think carefully about which ones they should be,” he says.

His Cactus Jack’s outlets are very popular and well-loved, but Jon knew early on that take-away would not work well for the brand.

“The heart of the experience at Cactus Jack’s is going into the restaurant. Plus, we knew it would be difficult to offer our food at the same standard in a take-away format. Our dishes just don’t travel well. In addition, there are already so many chains doing take-away burritos and tacos.”

But while there was plenty of Mexican take-away on the market, no one was doing high-quality steakhouse dishes.

“Our IMC Steakhouse menu is high quality, but uncomplicated, with just three essential items on a plate. These restaurants have a simpler kitchen model and a simpler business model, so we knew we could do well introducing take-away. And there was not much competition in that full nutritional meal space,” Jon says.

The move was all about keeping jobs for his key staff and keeping the brand top of mind for customers so they would be engaged and ready when the doors re-opened. “I never thought it would be profitable,” Jon says. But it was.

In April, credit card data from CommBank showed 65% of customers were first timers. One night they sold 300 steaks off the grill, equivalent to a big Saturday night in the pre-coronavirus days.

He had to upgrade the phone system twice to keep up with demand, and eventually he put on two staff just to take orders from 3pm, offering time slots according to availability on the grill.

Best of all, the venture soon put Jon in a position where he had sufficient cashflow to enrol 120 of his staff in the JobKeeper program, which requires businesses to pay staff up front and then be reimbursed through the government scheme.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, and Jon says on the other side of coronavirus the Brisbane outlets won’t re-open, but the take-away venture will probably be retained in Townsville.

“We’re thinking about how much of this new line we can retain when the restaurants re-open. We’re looking at buying a second grill just for take-away.”

Jon says the support he got from CommBank was critical to getting his take-away option up and running. “My banker knew there would be trouble for hospitality businesses when restrictions were introduced. He was on my doorstep within one day with a solution in mind and ready for a quick turnaround. The amount of paperwork required to organise loans was reduced and the whole process was adapted to make it very quick. “It meant a lot to have that support and peace of mind from day one.”

You can see more about Jon’s steakhouses at www.imcsteakhouse.com.au

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