Operations Leader Feature: Interview with Eric Martino, COO, Think Food Group

Pete Schott
Published On:
Apr 30, 2020

The actions that multi-unit operators are taking to address and survive the coronavirus pandemic are gutsy, brave, lofty, and inspiring. Running a successful multi-unit operation ultimately comes down to execution at the store level driven by nimble, well-orchestrated leadership. But during a time where processes, rules, and regulations change on a daily basis, quickly rolling out new innovative programs across every store location is easier said than done.

Since launching our free COVID-19 offering to enable operators to roll out their coronavirus action plans, we’ve spoken with many operators to better understand what steps they’re taking during this time to adhere to government regulations, keep employees and customers safe, and see what business will look like on the other side of the pandemic. 

This week we spoke with Eric Martino, Chief Operations Officer of Think Food Group, to learn what steps he and his team have taken to adjust their operation and support their 30+ restaurants. 


Tell us about Think Food Group and your restaurants

Think Food Group is the management company that serves the organization over a diverse portfolio of operations spanning from Fast Casual, Full Service to 2 Star Michelin Restaurants and also our newest and latest endeavor, Mercado Little Spain which is located in Hudson Yards in NYC.

Our Fast Casual side, which we call FastGood, is made up of 3 owned Beefsteak locations throughout DC and Maryland, and is also made up of a partnership with Compass groups which houses licensed concepts of ours throughout universities, stadiums, hospitals and Google.

Our full-service restaurants span from the majority of them being positioned in Washington, DC, to Disney Springs, Beverly Hills, Miami and Las Vegas. Jaleo is our oldest concept that currently has five locations, expanding to Chicago and Dubai next year.


As an operations leader, what are some of the biggest challenges that come with managing multi-location restaurant concepts and multiple brands? What’s the most rewarding part of your role?

As a leader of multiple units, one of the biggest challenges and rewards is the same answer, people. The most important decision you will ever make as a multi-unit operator is deciding not only who to bring on to your team but who you do not decide to bring on. You can have the best and most fool proof systems within your operations, but if you don’t have people who are bought into your mission and vision, then you run the risk of dilution.

For my role specifically, the most rewarding part is the growth and development of team members and watching their success happen. Whether, it’s watching a Host execute memorable hospitality or it’s a Senior Director nail a financial forecast, being able to be a leader by serving and coaching the teams around me are the most enjoyable moments you can ever experience because we are never perfect but we constantly strive to be the best we can be as individuals and as a team.


What are some of the larger changes you’ve made to your day-to-day operation in the last few weeks/months because of the coronavirus?

In addition to our hyper-focused sanitation procedures and practices we have in place as restaurants already, we have put in place peroxide and sanitizer spray downs every 30 minutes. We are of course, wearing masks and checking temperatures of our team members twice a day. We have also utilized a QR code ordering system called GoTab that allows guests to order from their phone as well as pay for their items without ever having to come into contact with our Team Members.

For four of our restaurants in DC and Mercado in NYC, we have stood up Community Kitchens which is set up to offer meals for anyone who cannot afford one. We recently reached a milestone of serving over 30,000 meals just between those locations.

Additionally, we have transitioned three of our locations (two Beefsteaks in GW University and DuPont Circle, and also Jaleo in Downtown DC) into mini Bodegas where you can get hard to find resources like gloves, sanitizer and sanitizer wipes, as well as prepped vegetables, flour, yeast and even disinfectant spray!

Lastly, we are also offering delivery and pick-up, with amazing beverage packages to go along with thoughtfully put together large format family meal kits.


As you roll out and communicate these changes to every store, how do you keep everyone in the loop on the latest guidance, communications, updates to new processes, etc.

We quickly put together and mobilized a task force to help with full support of our restaurant teams. This team meets every morning on a call and occasionally in the evenings. The structure we quickly put in place was almost representative of what you would experience in a restaurant opening. Daily, we are receiving and sifting through new information so it was important to put in place clear communication structure so that we can adapt and pivot when necessary. Additionally, we streamlined communication on Microsoft Teams for various channels to ensure we were providing real-time updates and information.


Are you and your field management staff spending less time in stores than normal? How do you verify that stores are following updated procedures and stay connected to daily operations to help support them?

The management teams have stayed intact and are following a very similar schedule as they did pre-covid. We also have a team of four Operation and Culinary Directors, including myself who are around seven days a week from open to sometimes past close to ensure the teams have the proper support as well as us following up on protocols. We are very, very, hands on and during this time when manpower is limited it truly takes a team to be able to serve our communities.


Once stay at home orders and other restrictions are lifted, what will restaurants need to do to help customers feel safe enough to start dining in again? 

I think it’s adhering and expanding on the systems and procedures we already have in place. We are taking these measures very seriously and are sparing no detail to do re-open right. Communication through social media will help illustrate what we are doing and also help alleviate any concerns once our guests decide to come dine with us. They will already be tense upon traveling to one of our destinations, we owe it to them to be comfortable as soon as they walk on to our sanitizing mats!


What other advice do you have for other restaurant owners and multi-unit operators right now?

Find your center. There are a lot of messages of what you should or should not do. It’s all important, but understanding how to filter and navigate them will be a big contribution in making the best decision for your people and your business. I would also say, immediately creating a new forecast and budget factoring how your restaurant operations will change will help create a plan forward.

This will pass at some point. It may be a long road ahead  but there are many lessons in adversity and in this challenging time. As leaders, yes, we must be an anchor but we can also be vulnerable. This is a time where it’s ok to not be perfect or not have the answers. This is why you surround yourself with the best and brightest. The teams you lead may not remember all you said and did during this time but they will remember how you made them feel and I know what side of history I want to be on.

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