Food … from catching, growing and harvesting it, to preparing, serving and enjoying it … from hook and farm, to table and fork; each and all transcend cultures the world over. Whether it’s the intimacy of a home cooked meal or a celebration at your favorite restaurant, eating is a ceremony that serves to unify parties and satisfy the senses, while ensuring we obtain the nutrition needed.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed, nearly overnight, the entire calculus of restaurant management for serving locals or out-of-towners, to deciding what gets put on the menu, in staffing considerations and now, most particularly, in diner spacing.
For those able to get away this year, summer break brings not just rest and delight to the vacationer, but revenue to resort areas who depend on it for the largest share of their annual incomes. This season, Michael Forhez was fortunate enough to find sanctuary on the near magical peninsula of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
During his time, Michael and his wife, biked, swam and read while mostly self-catering three squares a day. They also visited their local favorite, the nationally famous Mac’s Shack, for fresh caught lobsters, harvested oysters, and home-made sides, all served with well acknowledged New England style hospitality.
In those weeks Michael had a chance to get to know John Newman, whose leadership —along with an outstanding, professional staff— helped see Mac’s not just cope under such trying times, but actually thrive. We’re grateful for the time John invested in speaking with us, and hopeful that the kind of success revealed in this story might provide some ideas and inspiration for others to follow.
Michael Forhez (left) and John Newman (right) with a delicious order of Mac's Seafood.
Mac’s Shack is known for fresh oysters and live lobster that they’ll even ship to your doorstep. Founded by Mac Hay and his brother Alex 25 years ago, they’ve mastered the art of sourcing the freshest and most sustainable seafood from local fishing families, paired with the best possible service.
Today, the restaurant has expanded to offer both casual seafood eats and elevated cuisine. They are also one of the largest employers in the area with 80 full-time employees. That number expands to 400 during summer “high season” during normal times.
Over delicious plates of shrimp, a bucket of fresh oysters, and a few bottles of New England’s finest lager, Michael asks how the restaurant is doing.
MF: There’s a lot to discuss here, but first, can you tell us what those early days looked like for you, your operation and team? What were associates most concerned about? What about your customers…were they still coming in…were they expressing concerns for how they could shop…if you could stay with them?
JN: The early days of the lockdown were a test of our resolve. We knew we had built a strong company, and had the team around us to persevere, but so much was unknown and Mac instituted a “one-day-at-a-time” approach. Saying that, Mac had no intention of sitting around to see what would happen; rather we took each day as an opportunity to fight. One day at a time meant doing something every day to be proactive in the face of uncertainty.
Over the course of days and weeks, we implemented new systems for online ordering, curbside service, delivery, heat-and-eat meal kits (Mac’s Meals), Grab-n-Go platters, contactless payment, a loyalty program, a new website, and a beer and wine program in Eastham. We knew we needed to position ourselves for the best possible chance of survival, implement or invent new systems, and be alert and imaginative.
Some employees were understandably reticent to be customer-facing, due to the risk of the virus. A few employees opted to take extended time off from work, and thankfully a number of provisions allowed them to earn some income. An overwhelming number of employees have continued to work every day, and as of the beginning of the Governor’s third stage of reopening the economy, the Front of House Staff we needed to lay off in March has also returned to work in our restaurants.
As far as customers, something interesting happened. Second-home owners flocked to the Outer Cape beginning in March. I remember talking with customers in Eastham during what is typically a quite slow time, four months ago now unbelievably, who said, “We’re here for the duration.”
Face masks were not yet a thing, and social distancing was just then beginning to be practiced, but what occurred to us right from the start is that we are built for this. Seafood markets and restaurants were always already held to extraordinarily high standards of sanitation, hygiene, and food quality, and we simply kicked it up a notch. Add to this, quality customer service, also a hallmark of our approach from the start, and you have the makings of providing a sense of safety and comfort for the customer. We have had the benefit in our one-day-at-a-time world of learning and adapting alongside the customer. We have figured things out together.
MF: Let’s talk a little about your operations. You’re vertically integrated, meaning you sell fish directly to your customers as well as run some really terrific restaurants. You also have a shipping business. Would you mind sharing how these segments are working together and apart in the current environment?
JN: Yes, we have an ability to manage major segments of our supply chain, because we own two wholesale plants, five seafood markets, plus our restaurants. As you mentioned, we also ship fresh seafood and provide catering. We can move product through these respective channels, while ensuring its integrity throughout the process.
This has been helpful in the current environment, because the markets, for example, have been strong during a time when the restaurant dining rooms were forced to close. You and I met in the Eastham market, which is a seafood market and “kitchen.” We produce all of our commissary products there, and also have a small grill. Thousands of COVID-19 emigres from New York City and Boston have relied not only on the freshest seafood and other grocery items available in the market over the past four months, but they have also been able to get a Cape Reuben or Scallop Plate from the grill. Recently we added beer and wine.
Note: This photo was taken pre-COVID
MF: Living with COVID-19 has changed, for all of us, how and where we get our food. What it means to go out for dinner. What it means to serve a diner. First, how’s that going so far?
JN: Our employees have been by far our strongest asset throughout this mess. They have been brave and patient, and willing to do whatever it takes for us to be successful. Yes, we have had to train them to work in a strange new environment, but again, they have always observed the highest standards of excellence in safety and customer service.
When employees arrive for their shift the first thing they do is log their personal “wellness” and they wear masks and gloves. They do their best to stay six feet away from everyone, which in a kitchen is impossible. Hosts and servers still greet guests in the same way, and provide most of the same kind of attention to the guests’ dining experience as always. But of course, it is different.
When restaurants were allowed to re-open for outdoor dining only, we appealed to the Town of Wellfleet to allow us to put up a tent in the parking lot adjacent to our patio area at Mac’s Shack. We adorned it with lights and spare tables spaced six feet apart. Thankfully, our guests have seemed to love it, and in recent weeks we have been able to seat parties inside as well.
One of the major changes has been the uptick in online ordering and our servers have had to adapt to managing that system. At least one person every day has the sole responsibility of expediting online orders at our restaurants, and on a busy day in Eastham one employee may be exclusively in charge of answering the phone for curbside and takeout.
MF: So, let’s break this down a bit. You’ve got over 500 associates, cooking in your kitchens, working the back office, on the floor selling fresh fish, and serving it up to in your dining rooms. How are they coping, and what are you doing to ensure their well-being, which I know is so important to you?
JN: Since our first conference call with management in mid-March, Mac’s message was, we care foremost about your well-being. He said, if you do not feel comfortable coming to work, please stay home and take care of yourself. However, if you do want to be part of this fight, we will do everything we can to keep you safe and healthy. We are carefully following guidelines for best practice from the CDC, the FDA, local municipalities, and other governing agencies. Our employees wear masks and gloves, and we have heightened what were already strict practices for cleaning and sanitizing. We check in frequently with our employees at all locations to provide whatever support is needed, whether operational or personal.
Note: This photo was taken pre-COVID
MF: When we met back in March I was impressed how efficient the shop was in conducting commerce. Your staff was working hard but with great care to make sure they and your customers would feel safe while making their choices. Still, you had some technology you wanted to update. Please tell us what were your initial considerations? What was the basis for your selections? How has this all worked out so far?
JN: Well naturally we were seeking an integrated system that would allow us to leverage as many different aspects of the business seamlessly. Integral to this, was being sure any new technologies would interface with our Oracle MICROS Point of Sale (POS) technology. We selected other platforms as our platform for loyalty, gift cards, and customer retention management systems for that reason. Likewise, we went with another online ordering system that allows us to communicate and capture data in one place.
It was evident very early on in the pandemic that we would need to figure out a way for customers to shop without having to touch anything other than the products they were taking home. Online ordering was one obvious solution, but we also began taking credit card information over the phone and offering curbside delivery, and we have put QR codes on the counters in our markets and on the tables at restaurants, so customers can simply scan with their phones to view menus on our website.
Note: These photos were taken pre-COVID
MF: It’s hard to imagine precisely where we end up 18-24 months from now, but it’s safe to say we’ll need to keep eating. What’s Mac’s thinking for the next two years? Can we count on you and your world-class team to be with us as we push through to better days? And, what can we, the shopping and dining public, do to make it better for all of us?
JN: If this challenging ordeal offers any insights, I believe one of the most important will be a recognition that we are interdependent. Given that, it is important to be kind to one another. Whether a family unit, or a company, or a customer/salesperson relationship, we need to practice patience and kindness. This can lead to understanding.
I feel confident saying Mac’s Seafood is here to stay. When your founder and CEO announces at the start of the lockdown that he does not expect to make any money this year, but says we have to be here because our community is counting on us, that inspires everyone to step up.
It goes back to your first question, about our mission and vision. From the start, Mac and Alex, and soon cousin Sam, believed in the importance of community. One of the first things we did when we were told restaurants couldn’t operate, was donate hundreds of pounds of locally-caught fresh fish to nursing homes on Cape Cod. Rather than serving it to guests in our dining rooms, we gave it to a vulnerable population who needed it. Our Mac’s Meals we sold at cost, possibly less, so families who were having to prepare 21 meals a week at home, times however many mouths they had to feed, could simply heat and eat a delicious three-course dinner. These small gestures helped garner good will, and communitas, at a time when our world could certainly use it.
MF: Well…it’s hard to top those last thoughts, John, except to say that Mac’s certainly lives up to them by design and intention. It’s not going to be easy leaving "The Cape” but we go now with great memories, great friends, and a T-shirt, too!
All the best John. All the best to you and your team!
Mac’s Shack is finding ways to thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with numerous other businesses. These are changes that will undoubtedly change the way dining out is experienced, from a delicate approach towards taking care of employees to finding innovative ways to serve meals—and we will all benefit in the long run.
Given the high interest in this blog and the ever-evolving nature of the retail sector during these uncertain times, we’ll continue discussing how businesses can best serve the consumer and get through these times together.
Finally, we’d love to have your comments, thoughts, and stories on how your company has weathered the challenge. If you have a relevant story, pass it on to Michael Forhez.
Thanks for reading! Bon Appétit, stay safe, and stay well!
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