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Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic with Kristen Majdanics | On Top of PR podcast

By On Top of PR

On Top of PR podcast: Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic with guest Kristen Majdanics of Firehouse Subs and show host, Jason Mudd, episode graphicFind out what lessons Firehouse Subs learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and how you can implement these solutions at your company with our guest Kristen Majdanics, vice president of marketing at Firehouse Subs.



Our episode guest is Kristen Majdanics, vice president of marketing at Firehouse Subs. She leads a team of 17 marketing professionals and supports a system of more than 1,100 restaurants.



The one with Kristen Majdanics on what Firehouse Subs learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.



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Five things you’ll learn from this episode:

  1. How did Firehouse Subs prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic?

  2. What lessons did Firehouse Subs learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, and how can you implement these solutions to your company? 

  3. Why will focusing on the local community before a crisis help your company during a crisis? 

  4. How do you track consumer behaviors before and after a crisis? 

  5. How can you be smart and brief with your communications to consumers?


  • “Being a local business with local connections and living that local impact was part of how [the Firehouse Subs’ founders] grew the business.” — Kristen Majdanics

  • “One of the things that has continued to be important to us is watching the behaviors of consumers and following where they lead.” — Kristen Majdanics

  • “What we do is ask what are the decisions we need to make to make guests feel comfortable? But just as important is do your crew members feel comfortable while working?” — Kristen Majdanics

If you enjoyed the episode, would you please leave us a review?


About Kristen Majdanics:

Kristen is the vice president of marketing at Firehouse Subs, leading a team of 17 marketing professionals and supporting a system of more than 1,100 restaurants.


Contact Resources:

Additional Resources:

Presented by: ReviewMaxer, the platform for monitoring, improving and promoting online customer reviews.




- Hello and welcome to another episode of "On Top of PR." I'm your host, Jason Mudd. Today we are joined by Firehouse Subs Chief Marketing Officer, and she is sharing with us, the experience Firehouse had with COVID-19 and the pandemic. We're going to talk about how they prepared, what they implemented, and what lessons they learned from the experience. This is going to be a great episode because you are going to learn how to prepare your business similarly, and pick up a few tips that they used at Firehouse Sub for you and your company. Thank you for watching, we're glad you're here. You're going to really enjoy this episode.


- [Narrator] Welcome to "On Top of PR" with Jason Mudd. Presented by ReviewMaxer.


- Hello and welcome. This is Jason Mudd. I'm your host with "On Top of PR" and today I'm joined by Kristin from Firehouse. Kristin, welcome. We're glad you're here.


- Thank you so much for having me.


- Well tell our audience a little bit about yourself and your role at Firehouse.


- Sure. So I'm Kristin Majdanics I am the vice president of marketing at Firehouse Subs that's based in Jacksonville, Florida, and I have been with the company in the marketing team since 2008. So it's been a long journey with Firehouse Subs. And when I joined there were approaching 300 locations and today we have about 1,180. So quite a different world today than it was when I joined a number of years ago, but there's been a lot of adventure and learning along the way. The marketing team at the time, I was the second person in the department. And now we have about 17 marketing professionals. So again, it's changed quite a bit. We have a lot more to cover geographically, a lot more topics that we cover, social media is part of my team, the digital guest experience, media advertising. So a lot of pieces come into the firehouse marketing world on a daily basis, but that's what makes it interesting.


- That's some tremendous growth that you're describing. And so in the time you've been there, you have seen a night and day shift, and you're still here to tell the story. And you recently... I don't know how recent was actually, but you recently earned a significant promotion. Right? A couple of years ago, I moved into the leadership position for the department. So now I'm kind of driving that part of the bus or the ship.


- Or the firetruck.


- Or the firetruck, much more personnel. Yeah, so it's been, you know it's part of the reason that I've stayed at firehouse as long as I have is there's always something to learn and to kind of challenge yourself with. So moving from I formerly was leading just the brand team. And so moving into leading the overall department and really having to think about all the pieces, just as much as I was thinking about brand before, has been professionally great for me, but also great opportunity for the rest of the team to really build up their skill sets as the system itself has grown. So there's just more need for more adventures along the way.


- Excellent. Yeah. So real quick, I want to ask you just a little bit about you mentioned something about the digital desk experience or something like that.


- Oh, digital guest, yeah.


- Digital guest. Okay, explain that.


- That's what we refer to as the team that handles loyalty website, our app. So that is our digital guest experience. And it started really with one person. And now we have a team of three, that's really responsible for thinking about how do we take the experience that a guest might have in the restaurant in person? And translate it into a version that works just as well if not better in the digital space. So that can include pieces of online ordering. Certainly the app for us is kind of the center of what that team focuses on as well as some other peripheral elements like SEO and components of that that are not always overtly thought of, but kind of fall into that team's responsibility. So we talk a lot about how do we translate what we call firehouse heartfelt service, to a digital format. Because you're missing some pieces you know, the human part sometimes isn't there, so what's the digital version of that. We spend a lot of time working through what those things can be. And it might be a literal translation, So we might say... Just as we say, welcome to Firehouse, when you physically walk into a restaurant, you might find a way to bring that into the app experience or the online ordering experience to translate that kind of one for one. Or we might find other ways to be different things that maybe technology provides us the opportunity to do that we don't do in person, just because it's more challenging. So it's an interesting area, but a really important one, especially the loyalty component with COVID in particular but even long before that. That was an area we really focused on building for the franchisees and for the business overall.

- Kristen, we've been talking off and on, during the global pandemic that we've been dealing with and firehouse has been through significant service modifications, marketing modifications, et cetera, during this period of time why don't we kind of rewind? So, you know, I think in early February, you know, we were hearing about COVID-19 and how it was really affecting other countries. I know I was traveling a little bit and kind of keeping my ear and eyes open to, you know, what's happening. I'm I going to be able to come home from this trip? And things like that. And so obviously we had kind of plenty of notice. I will, candidly admit I personally was really under valuing or under appreciating you know, how significant the impact would be on operations and on the economy. I just thought it'd be a business as usual, we'll try not to catch it, but we'll keep doing things, and obviously I was very wrong. And so kind of put me, put, walk us through where you and your organization was in kind of mid February. And then we'll talk about, what happened after that.


- Sure. I think we were probably similarly in the same frame of mind as you were in the sense that I think people were aware but there have been other kind of irises out there that we kind of work through and the economy deals with it and things move forward. And, you know also our sales trends weren't obviously being impacted in any overt way. So it really wasn't until mid-March when restrictions started going into place, and dining rooms started closing, and some more significant actions happened in the marketplace, that happened to everybody at the same time essentially, that we all really started to think about what is this going to mean? And I think everybody who kind of started to be more aware of this is a something that we've not seen before which I know everyone's probably said a million times. But we also don't know how long this is going to last and what it's going to look like along the way. So you kind of go into that adrenaline mode of solving for where is it going? And how do I steer along the way, not knowing what's ahead. So not an easy task for anybody, but you know, a lot of us kind of found our way through that the best we can.


- Right, right.


- So then what was the trigger that suddenly you realized okay, this is going to be an issue for us?


- For sure. So as soon as the dining room started closing, so that mid-March period kind of around st. Patrick's day up there, we really saw the significant impact in transactions and visits the restaurant, and sales overall, and that was across the industry. So it wasn't unique to us. And what we didn't know is how long that was going to last and what was going to change the trajectory. So we kind of had to ride that roller coaster for a little while, trying to do just the fundamental things to keep the business in a forward motion. So we ended up focusing on fundamental things that in January I never would have thought we would have considered. So letting people know that the restaurants were open and what services we can offer when we're open. So, you know, you can order online, you can pick it up to go. So things that people maybe weren't thinking about specifically before but now it was incredibly important because they may want to be a distant as possible from others because we don't know what we're dealing with. So really fundamental communications on yes, we're open and this is how we can serve you, and this is what we're doing to make sure that things are safe and you are comfortable became the focus which you know, and no planning meeting that I have in 2019 did we ever talk about that as a topic. We needed to communicate. But in 10 days we realized that was the most important thing to tell people.


- So you started communicating that to people. And what were the reactions? And maybe what were some of the initial lessons learned on those communications?


- Sure. We learned very quickly, that local was incredibly important. So perhaps something is a franchise organization. So our restaurants by and large are owned by local franchisees. And, you know, some people punch people see a chain and they think it's just a big corporate entity which for a lot of franchise organizations that's not the case really, and certainly not for firehouse. We are built with local owners, who live in their communities, employ in their community. So really telling people that, because there was this huge groundswell of desire to support local restaurants and support local businesses and help let's all get through this together. And we wanted to make sure that the Firehouse Subs locations and our franchisees were part of that movement. So there was extra effort put in to just pointing that out to folks. And people were very open to it and incredibly supportive at the time and still are. So I think the fact that firehouse also has for a long time invested in communities through the foundation and through other just kind of initiatives locally we already had a bit of that groundwork in place. So we weren't saying something that didn't have any support. People already had a sense of that, but it was a good reminder. So really focusing on that local component became really important. And it was really kind of nice looking back on it, that there was this togetherness and we're going to get through it together and how do we help each other? And so things that we would share via social media, about products, or about restaurants being open. Typically we would see a little bit of activity in the pre-COVID era but once we were all kind of working through dealing with COVID, people were much more generous with sharing that information around. So they kind of helped us amplify messages where we wouldn't have seen that in the past. So those are things again, just communicating the fundamentals. And I think, looking back on it, we were all just trying to figure out how we're supposed to navigate this new experience. And so we're all doing it together. But that local component in particular became a very important piece of the overall puzzle


- For sure. And, you know, I think that it's very... You know, many of my friends who operate franchises our franchise owners, they always say, you know you go from being in the restaurant business to being in the franchising business. And I think it's so appropriate. What you shared is that, you know, the brand is local, right? No matter what your brand is, it's the local experience that that consumer has, whether it's experienced in your store, or the experience, you may have for example, you know, if you go to buy a pair of Nike shoes, for decades, you didn't go buy your Nike shoes at the Nike store, you bought them somewhere else. But it was still that experience of buying that Nike shoe and how well that sales representative was informed, and how they made you feel, during your transaction and after your transaction, that was part of the Nike brand. And so in your case, you're right. The local franchisee is the local brand ambassador and a consumers they don't pay a lot of attention. They just want a good product at a good price and they're out. But I think firehouse has done a good job of giving back to... The Firehouse Foundation has done a good job of giving back to the communities, and firefighters, and first responders in the community. And also every franchise, he is a micro business right? That's serving their community. And so, you know, I think that's really important that franchise ores get that message out there and think about grassroots and local, as opposed to just being this big corporation with a lot of stores. And I think firehouse has done an excellent job at that. And, you know, it's a great brand story, great PR opportunity to tell also.


- It's very much I would say, part of the roots of the brand as well. So Chris and Robin Sorenson, who started it that's how they started their first restaurant, that's how they built it. So philosophically being a local business with local connections and really kind of living that local impact had been part of how they grew the business and saw the business I think, since the early days. So it's nice that we've been able to maintain that even though we have so many more locations. But I think a lot of the franchisees understand that piece of the brand history and kind of where its roots are, and that makes them successful and make the brand successful.


- Absolutely. Well, Kristen let's take a quick break, and we'll come back on the other side and talk more about the lessons learned from COVID and how that's changed firehouse marketing and operations moving forward.


- [Narrator] You are listening to "On Top of PR" with your host, Jason Mudd. Jason is a trusted advisor to some of America's most admired and fastest growing brands. He is the managing partner at Axia Public Relations, a PR agency that guides news, social, and web strategies for national companies. And now back to the show.


- Welcome back to "on top of PR" I'm Jason Mudd. I'm here with Kristin, from Firehouse Subs. We're having a great conversation about Firehouse Subs and how they've grown so fast, and how they've managed through COVID. If you're enjoying this episode please don't hesitate to subscribe or leave us a review on your favorite podcast or video platform. But Kristen, we're really glad you're here. Thank you for everything you're sharing so far. Let's get right back into it and talk about what has changed firehouse now based on operation and marketing in the kind of... We're kind of arguably still in the midst of it, I guess, but the COVID-19 pandemic we're recording this in very late September and, you know, trying to keep this relevant to our audience, you know, in the future. So speaking of the future, tell us what you've learned.


- Wow, lots. I would say one of the things that continues to be important for us, is really watching the behavior of consumers and following where they lead. So a great example is, how they want to order from us and interact from us as a business. So they're much more interested in ordering online versus coming in and sitting down in a lot of cases, the options to do that are restricted. So really just looking at where the channels of trade are going, and then making sure that whatever we're doing from a marketing standpoint, match what the consumers are telling us. So you'll see a lot of our messaging has shifted to focus on those options so people understand. On one level, you would think, "Who doesn't have online ordering? Why do I need to tell anybody that?" But it is important to just to say the very simple thing of, "Yes, you can order online, pick it up and be out the door." We've spent a lot of time thinking about how do we communicate confidence? In the sense of, yes, we have the safety components covered but not take it to the point where we make people nervous or put ideas in their heads. So really thinking about saying things like, your order will be boxed in bags and ready to go which really tells them all they need to know, but says it in a manner that, "we've got this it's well thought through, your safety's important to us," without kind of getting into the really dramatic angles which you can choose to do, but we were really focused on thinking about how do we instill confidence in guests and comfort? Because ultimately that's what they really want from us. So a lot of those pieces came into focus over the past several months and will continue for as long as COVID continues to be a part of our lives I would expect.


- I like that. I think it's important that your communication always be clear and concise. And I tell people all the time, be smart and be brief, right? And if you get into too much of the weeds you just open up more questions, and more challenges to communicating, like you said, such a simple message.


- Right. And it really takes some discipline to set those couple things aside that you want to slide in there. Cause you're sure everyone will get all of the points you want to make. But the reality is if you can really focus in on what's most critical, that's really important. And we've also started to learn too, that especially if we're talking about doing a broadcast spot or a video, you know, there are things that you have to say or want to say audibly, and there are things that you can show. So you don't really have to do both, to get your point across. We might show meats being sliced, without actually saying it. So we're showing the quality key without having the audio have to do that work. So there's a little bit of that massaging of the message that we think about as well. So we don't have to leave everything that we want to communicate aside, but we don't have to give it all the same week either. So sometimes we let the most critical message, for example, in this world online ordering have let that lead.


- So with hundreds of locations, and every location seemingly having different you know, local ordinances and mandates and nuances, are you and your team getting involved at a micro level on each of those markets? Or are you providing some general guidance to the field? Are you looking at things on our region by region? I mean, you mentioned you're headquartered in Jacksonville. Obviously things are different in Florida, than they might be in Seattle, or on the West coast. And even, I was talking to somebody earlier in New York city for example, you know, they're expected to wear mask outside and everywhere they go, even if they're social distancing perhaps, on the sidewalk or even in a park maybe, I believe they're supposed to still wear a mask if they're outside, in any kind of public element or environment. So where do you go to get your information and how are you communicating this? Cause that would seem overwhelming with hundreds of stores. So we have a QA department that is amazing and part of their responsibility, is making sure we have a handle on what those regulations are by state and sometimes more granularly. So at least we understand what we're dealing with. Ultimately, the local owners, the franchisees are the ones that need to comply. So on a marketing side, what our team works to do, is make sure that the assets that we put together are flexible enough. So if someone needs to adjust something to comply with a local regulation, we had a lot of that early on, kind of a little bit easier now. But you know, the number of people that could be in a restaurant, or the social distance requirements, or whether masks are required or not, and all those things are changing really fast. And so we ended up really kind of creating some assets that could be customized even on a per restaurant basis, if it needed to be that granular. So that a franchisee could have the assets they need to comply and make sure they were following all the regulations as quickly as possible. And we didn't want them waiting for, you know somebody in Jacksonville, Florida to make them a sign. So we really tried to kind of deploy as much of that out so that they could be as responsive. Because early on things were changing quite a bit. And fortunately, we're not in that position where there's as much change as often but, you know, we still have local municipalities who'll make decisions changes. And so we have to be flexible.


- Right. Yeah, absolutely. Now, are there any guidelines that your stores are taking or your company is taking in markets regardless of say local reg regulations? So for example, where I live you know, they recently pulled back and said, "you don't have to wear a mask." And if you live in the County, and obviously each city within the County and each you know, business is entitled to create their own rules but you know, masks are now are optional in the County overall. So how are your stores responding to nuances like that?


- In general, the guidance says, you have to comply with whatever the local requirements are. And as we just talked about those varies. So that's first and foremost, we have to be in compliance and following those rules. And then beyond that, a lot of times we talk about, what are the decisions you need to make to make your guests feel comfortable? But just as important, your crew members feel comfortable who are working there. So a lot of operators will make decisions, that maybe go a little above and beyond, because their crew is more comfortable and more confident because of that. So we aren't mandating that on a system wide basis because that really varies on where you are, and kind of how people feel. We want to make sure that there's space there for those kinds of nuances to be considered and really empower the franchisee for the things that they can be discretionary on, that aren't mandated by their city or their state. You know, if they want to add things then they're empowered to do that. Especially if it makes their desk and they're crew feel more confident, more comfortable.


- Excellent. So believe it or not, we're starting to run out of time. So let me ask you maybe a couple more questions. And the first one is you know, obviously this episode is gonna attract you know, other CMOs, and franchise ores, and people that are in the quick service restaurant space, you know, kind of what would be just some advice maybe you would give to them either overall or specifically related to your experience with COVID.


- I would say probably one of the things I've learned, and I think I appreciate it now but maybe not when it was happening. Was the demand on being just so nimble, and really there's so much information coming out, at one period of time. First there was nothing, there was not enough information then there was too much information. And so you really got to a point where, you had to stop kind of say, "This is what I know in this moment, and I'm going to make a decision and I'm going to stick with it until this period of time. And then I can re-evaluate it." Because otherwise there was no way we were going to be able to move forward. So we started to really look at things in shorter spans. 30 day cycles is kind of how we started to look at it. And that is something that I think we may continue, just because it's been helpful for us, we're much more flexible in our planning. Most of our promotions, we now are planning too, one, if things go as we expect them one, if things go a different direction just because it's more efficient and certainly less pressure on everybody, if we have those ready to go.


- And the beer is always good.


- Right. And you know, I think the team is now kind of used to that. So it's not a new idea anymore. And I think it's also helpful from a franchisee's perspective of, "I know there's a plan if something goes an unexpected direction." And so much of COVID has been unexpected and uncertain that I think having a little bit of like "alright, I know that there's an alternative option here, if something happens, I can think about something else and not worry about, you know, going down another path." So that has been really helpful. And I imagine that that discipline may hang along long after COVID is in the rear view mirror.


- Yeah, absolutely. Well, Kristen, I want to thank you for being on the episode. If our audience wants to connect with you, what's the preferred way for them to reach out? Would that be through LinkedIn or social media? What's your PR?


- LinkedIn is a great way to find me. So you can just message me via LinkedIn. So Kristen Majdanics is the name that you'll find, and happy to interact.


- Yeah, and please make sure you say that you heard her on "On Top of PR" as opposed to just a random connection request. And I'm sure we all get too many of those, and like, do I know this person? you know, I'm not so sure. A PSA has always tried to build some kind of context right? So the person is asking, "why are you reaching out to me? And what are we going to talk about kind of thing." Well, that was very cool. I appreciate that. And I also just think if, if you enjoyed this episode you know, the Firehouse Foundation does a lot in the communities where there are firehouse location. So if you have a firehouse location near you, or you just enjoyed what Kristen shared and that it was beneficial to you. Please consider making an online donation. I think you can make them online. Can you to the Firehouse Foundation?


- The Firehouse Subs, public safety foundation. Yes, they will gladly accept online donations, and also anytime you make a purchase, at Firehouse Subs in the US, a portion of that purchase is donated to foundation. So you can do double amount of good, donate online and then buy a sandwich, and that'll include your donation as well.


- I love it. Yeah, that sounds great. And you know, first responders obviously, you know need support as well, but your foundation, your organization has done so much to donate much needed equipment, in communities. And I mean, I'm just really impressed with that story, and maybe on another episode we could talk more about that specifically. Cause I know we could spend an entire show, just talking about the philanthropy, and the vision of your founders, and how they've been good partners throughout the decades that they've been busy, busy, busy growing and expanding the Firehouse Subs restaurants across North America.


- Absolutely. It's such an important part of the story as you mentioned, as brand and part of what helps us grow. Yeah, we should definitely get together and talk about it.


- That sounds good, we'll do it soon. Kristen, again, be well, thank you to you and yours for joining us today. And if there's anything we can do for you, please let us know.


- Sounds great. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.


- Thanks for being here. Be well.


- [Narrator] This has been "On Top of PR" with Jason Mudd. Presented by ReviewMaxer.

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