In the course of three days in March, Punch Pizza went from record sales to shuttering its dozen Twin Cities restaurants and furloughing nearly 400 employees.
“It took us by surprise how quickly it happened,” co-owner John Puckett said. With businesses like Punch upended by coronavirus, we're checking in on some of the entrepreneurs who have shared their founder’s stories on past episodes of the podcast to learn how they are navigating uncertain times.
Prior to the crisis, about a third of Punch Pizza’s business was takeout. When it became apparent to Puckett and his partner, Punch Pizza founder John Sorrano, in mid-March that they may need to temporarily close their dining rooms, they installed phone stations in the basement of their Highland Park location in St. Paul to prepare for going takeout only. But an internal virus scare derailed that plan. “We thought we had a Covid-19 infection among staff. It turned out to be a false alarm, but we just realized, given the outbreak, we were going to have sick employees. We just said, there’s no way we can operate in a safe manner.
“The world can live without Neapolitan pizza for a couple of months.”
That was March 14—three days before Gov. Tim Walz ordered restaurants in Minnesota to shut down their dining rooms. Since then, Puckett says he’s been working around the clock on disaster aid, business interruption insurance, and planning the reopening.
One of his biggest learnings: “Do not work with a bank that you don’t know the owner and senior management team. I thought it was smart to have a big national bank with resources, but those big banks neutered all the local bankers….we got burned. I feel so grateful to the small community banks that have been working around the clock to help small businesses.”
Another change likely to come out of this disruption for Punch: “I don’t think we’ll be buying a lot of things from China after this. Domestic sources, U.S.-made products, even if it costs a little more…we will appreciate those local relationships a lot more.”
As they begin to hire back some staff and prepare for reopening, Puckett says everything is on the table—like the possibility of remaining closed on Sundays.
“When you go to 0 revenue, 0 profits from having a very successful business, you think differently about work/life balance,” Puckett says. “Restaurants are notorious for eating up people. A mandatory day off is an idea my partner and I think would help our culture and make it even stronger.”
A May opening feels overly optimistic to Puckett. He says Punch won’t reopen until he can be sure employees are equipped with protective gear. He estimates recovery could take more than 2 years. “Quick service formats generally have an advantage. We’re going to make sure we have a really great value offer for our quality.”
And when they do open, Puckett says, “I’ll be right in there making pizzas, serving customers on a hands-on basis until we get too big to do that. We want to reengage our entire team on serving the customers.”
After our conversation with Puckett, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Marketing professor Gino Giovannelli emphasizes the importance of taking a wholistic and strategic approach to challenges. "We've got to come out of this better than we came into it."