Cousins Subs moved quickly and aggressively to blunt the impact of statewide lockdowns on the sandwich brand, including the fast-track addition of three more national delivery providers and leaning into drive-thru operations at the third of its restaurants with drive-thrus, and are seeing the best sales growth during the pandemic.
To keep up, Cousins VP of Marketing Justin McCoy has been putting in long hours from the dining room table in his four-seasons porch at home. Diving into the specific campaigns, tweaks and new initiatives to react to the crisis, McCoy said the Wisconsin-based chain is comfortable enough with the economics of third-party delivery to expand beyond DoorDash to work with all of the largest national delivery brands in the coming weeks.
“It’s hard to think of a world that didn’t revolve around this in terms of priorities, because I’ll be quite honest, everything else just stopped,” McCoy said.
Based in Milwaukee, with approximately 100 locations mostly in Wisconsin, Cousins was already seeing favorable results with DoorDash, which was selected due to its integration with Olo.
Pre-COVID-19, DoorDash covered 85 to 90 percent of Cousins’ territory, but the company was able to get its second DSP[delivery service provider] up and running within the first week after the official pandemic declaration. The company is currently adding a third, with a fourth yet to be named national provider coming online soon.
“Right before this all took place, we were beginning to look to open up and expand the number of DSPs we were working with, so we were in the middle of that, and then this broke, which accelerated those negotiations,” he added. “Opening up revenue channels right now is extremely important … but when this happened, it really exploded.”
Cousins also has a native delivery program for customers to order delivery directly through CousinsSubs.com, which is enabled by Olo’s dispatch service and fulfilled by DoorDash since only two Cousins restaurants have their own delivery drivers on staff.
Illinois entering a statewide lockdown was “our low point,” McCoy added, but the brand has since seen steady improvement in sales volumes week over week, with last week being the brand’s best sales since the crisis began.
A common thread running through high-level responses at Cousins is trying to be proactive, which was part of the reason the brand rolled out its free delivery promotion to last through the end of April, “if not longer.”
With many restaurant brands uneasy with the economics of third-party delivery, Cousins is comfortable with the commissions on those orders, with McCoy comparing them to coupons that often offer similar 20- or 30-percent off deals.
“You need to look at the third-party DSPs no differently,” he added. “You’re essentially paying what would add up to an equivalent coupon discount percentage to get a guest who isn’t necessarily your guest right now.”
For other brands weighing similar moves, McCoy stressed the importance of negotiating acceptable rates with delivery providers, and possibly charging a premium on orders that come through national delivery brands.
After talking about curbside pickup for years, but never putting it in place, Cousins was able to ramp up a rudimentary curbside pickup program in less than three days. Going forward, the company is looking at dedicated shelving for delivery and curbside orders, which is part of a more formal Easy Pickup program the company is still developing.
So far, the best performing Cousins locations are the 30 to 35 percent of restaurants with a drive-thru attached.
To educate customers on new ordering channels, the company has also spun up grassroots marketing efforts that include prominent banners outside each restaurant advertising all the ways customers can place orders in this new era.
In addition, the company has tweaked its marketing campaigns through its loyalty program, specifically shortening the timeframe to incentivize customers to come back to the brand since their last order. Previously, those messages went out after 60 days, but now customers receive such offers just seven days after their last order.
Originally intended to cover Milwaukee’s central business district, the still-fresh commissary location has shifted its focus to nearby residential areas to compensate for the loss of workplace catering orders. That has also included significant marketing efforts to inform customers about the new option for delivery.
“We’re a 100-unit brand, and there are many brands out there far larger than we are,” McCoy said. “But one thing I’ve tried to bring to the table that our leadership team has brought to our system is to not think small. We think big. We continue to push, and try to be at the forefront of everything we can from a technology standpoint,” McCoy said. The impact of things like third-party delivery, online ordering, loyalty, apps, social and the ever-evolving world of tech can be overwhelming and scary, but would encourage brands of all sizes to embrace it.