FreeRange Concepts CEO, Kyle Noonan, on Reopening in Texas

Kyle Noonan, CEO of FreeRange Concepts.

Kyle Noonan started FreeRange Concepts with his co-founder Josh Sepkowitz in 2011 with Bowl & Barrel and has exploded on the Texas restaurant and hospitality scene ever since with additional concepts Mutts Canine Cantina, The Rustic, and The General Public. When Texas reopened restaurants for limited on-premise dining, Noonan and his team were ready to greet visitors back with both warmth and safety precautions. We sat down to hear how the reopening has been going and how they have been addressing both guest experience and media relations during these COVID-19 times. Check our his insightful in the video interview or the full transcript of our conversation below:

[Introduction]

Bar & Restaurant: Let's talk about business a little bit. Texas has reopened, obviously on a limited capacity, but what has the reopening steps looked like for you all? Maybe give a little background on the three concepts that you have. I know that those also have opened at different timelines.

Kyle Noonan: Sure. I own 11 units throughout the state of Texas. The four brands are the Rustic, which is a restaurant/bar with a 3000 person outdoor concert venue. Another brand is Mutts Canine Cantina, which is a restaurant and bar with a private membership-based dog park, where you can let your dogs run around. We take care of them while you sip on a cocktail under an oak tree. We have a couple of those.

Then we have three Bowl & Barrels, which is a high-end boutique bowling with restaurant and bar. And then our fourth concept is the General Public and that's our truest restaurant, American gastropub.

I believe it was May 1, Texas opened at 25% of your capacity, just restaurants, not bars. And then at May 15th, Texas went to 50% of restaurants and 25% capacity on bars. But what was interesting is that bar tops were not allowed to be open, which I understand because that's where the congregation would probably happen. I mean if you had a hundred people in a bar, probably a hundred people would be huddled around the hardtop. Safe social distancing was probably the most important thing.

What a lot of restaurants and bars saw, the smaller ones, the smaller scale restaurants and bars had trouble. And there was really no difference between 25 and 50% because if you have to have six feet in between each table and practicing social distancing, most places that is about 25% of your floor plan. So the jump from 25 to 50 really didn't impact a lot of restaurants.

I, on the other hand, am a little bit different because our venues are large, 40 to 50,000 square feet. If we're at a 3,000 normal capacity, at 25%, that means we can get several hundred people into our buildings. Then when we went up to 50%, I was able to add double the tables because I still had the square footage to do it.

We're in a really unique position because we do have 50% capacity. We are spreading tables apart, it's six feet apart, but we can still get 500-600 people into the outdoor patio space and restaurant dining room spaces. So there's still energy there, which is nice.

B&R:  This past Memorial Day we saw some places respecting social distancing. If you were down in the Ozarks, it was ironic as they had the big signs saying six feet social distancing, and there would be 20 people in that six feet.

I think the media and how they're playing to this, 500 people sounds like a lot. But I've seen how spread people out, and they appear safe. How are you handling that? Has there been any reports on too many people or has it been mostly positive?

Noonan: Well, there are two elements to this, right? There's the consumer element, and then the media element. The consumer element has been generally positive. There are a few people out there that say you shouldn't be open. We should shut down for the next year or two years, whatever. There are the Twitter bots out there that beat up on you and you kind of become numb to it a little bit. 

Generally, the consumers are just excited that we're back open. And if there is some sort of social distancing practices that aren't being adhered to by the consumers, which is rare, but occasionally it happens. It's a very receptive conversation where we just go over and "hey, remember to spread apart. We've got to keep you guys separated". And then,"oh yeah, I got it, got it, got it. No problem."

We've had no issues there from a consumer side. The consumer side is very excited that we're open. They're very, very respectful to the policies and procedures, and respectful of each other, which is right.

The flip side is the media. The media has been the challenge because the media likes the dirt. They want blood on the streets because that's how it goes, "if it bleeds, it reads?"

That whole thought behind the media stirring up an issue where maybe there isn't even an issue with something that we've seen firsthand. It's something that we were very cautious of, which is why when we first opened, we knew we were a big spot and we probably had a target on our back, so we went above and beyond.

When we first opened the weekend that we were allowed to open at 25%, we were actually kept at around 10% capacity because I didn't want somebody coming in and taking a picture of 20, 30 people crowded around an area just on accident and then making us look bad. And believe me, they tried, but they couldn't find it.

Now I think that the target's a little bit off of our back. It's been three, four weeks now. I guess it's been, yeah, three weeks since we've been open. I think we're old news now, so that's good. But for the first two weeks, I mean the media was looking for stories to try and make restaurant and bar owners look bad.

B&R: That was Cinco de Mayo, so big weekend, and that normally people congregate and love to get out and have some margaritas. You guys have always been pretty media savvy, so that was a very intelligent decision on your part.

The other part of it too is, I saw you guys were focusing on technology and investing in that. You were doing QR Codes and digital menus. What other steps have you all taken to make sure people can avoid touching things or and everything else?

Noonan: I think the first step was when everything shut down and then we were allowed to do takeout and curbside pickup and things like that, we had to shift to a platform where you could order online, which we didn't have.

That was our first tech initiative because historically we've never focused on to-go. We want people in the restaurants, in the bars, creating an energy, drinking in there, being able to do those things. Our to-go business was effectively zero before COVID-19 hit.

We had to do an immediate scramble to try and go and get a system that we could know that somebody could order a burger on their phone and come pick it up. That was the first kind of pivot.

The second one was, once you get into the restaurants, how do we go as digital as possible? And one of the things we had been focusing on, we weren't ready to pull the trigger just quite yet before COVID hit, was the going fully digital with the menu. Where there's a QR Code at the table, you snap a picture with your phone and the menu pops up on your phone.

We were already contemplating that because I mean there's just a lot of money that goes into menu printing. We felt like if we could digitize that and have it not only save us money, but have the updates be a lot quicker. Or even get to a point where if you're out of something, if you're 86 something, you just pull it off the menu, a quick thing.

We had already talked about it, but we didn't feel like the consumer was ready, but we used this as a great opportunity to implement that program, and it's been very well received. I can tell you, we're not going back to paper menus. We're going to be a hundred percent digital now.

B&R: Oh, that's awesome, very smart. Tell me about too, other predictions for the rest of the year, big changes you think? I mean COVID-19 really was a catalyst for a lot of trends that were already happening. What other trends do you think leapfrogged and will be here for the rest of the year and longer?

Noonan: The number one thing that you had in consumer surveys before COVID-19 hit that people looked for in a restaurant and bar was number one, experience. Number two, quality of product. Some surveys had those flipped, but it was one A, one B. Now, without a doubt, it's cleanliness of the building and space. I think that's going to be the number one driving thing for the foreseeable future. I think eventually that will drop down to maybe three on the list and atmosphere and food and drinks will go back up. Service will go back up to the top.

But right now it's cleanliness, cleanliness, cleanliness. It's not only operating a clean business but also showcasing it, really highlighting the things that you're doing. Being dramatic about the cleaning and we have cleanliness captains that walk around. All they do all day long is just wipe doorknobs. We try to be very obvious about it because I want people to feel safe.

The other thing is the social distancing. Hopefully, we will see the numbers trend in our favor over the next six months or so from a number of cases so that people will feel more and more safe coming out.

One of the awkward things is the mask issue. We have decided all of our staff is required to wear a mask right now. We also take temperatures of everybody walking in the door. Well, every team member, not our guests.

Some restaurants we're seeing masks are optional now from team members. Some are saying, you're not even allowed to wear a mask, and so you're seeing different approaches. I think for the time being, it's probably best to just show that you're being ultra-precautious by having everybody wear a mask.

But I do understand the flip side where it feels kind of weird and it looks like ... it reminds me of when you fly to an international airport and you land at the airport, you see military guys with machine guns. It's kind of unnerving and unsettling, and you're like, am I safe here? What's going on? It's that same type of feeling when you see everybody wearing masks in a restaurant.

But I think that that's okay for now. There will be a time though that masks become a thing of the past and hopefully sooner rather than later because it's just it's nice to walk into a restaurant and forget everything that's going on. It's nice to walk up to a bar and forget everything that's going on, and having a mask in your face just is that reminder.

B&R:  Exactly. I mean bars and restaurants are a form of escapism, so to walk into what feels like an ER instead of an operation, a restaurant, that energy and that ambiance is just missed.

You guys have been super engaging on social media. You've done a lot of awesome stuff. You guys had the Chainsmokers on for a tequila promotion. You had the Cinco de Mayo. You have the Kyle's Kitchen, and you're giving out content for free. Really high quality and great recipes. I've had that chicken sandwich at Mutts, and so now I can cook it at home is awesome.

I mean this breeds people seeing you guys doing cool stuff. I think it was, people want to be a part of that, right? Do you think this leads you guys to hiring more members? Because you guys also launched a job fair recently, which is surprising. A lot of places are begging for staff to come back, or they're not bringing staff back because the business isn't there. You guys are going the opposite direction. Can you give a little more details about that?

Noonan: Well, the first part of the question from a digital standpoint, everybody was at home. A lot of the country still is at home and they're on their phones. And so we felt like this is a good opportunity to start really engaging through social media with our consumer base and our communities.

The strategy was just be entertaining and provide value instead of selling. Instead of just come in and buy this or come in and we're offering this, or this is a discount or whatever it might be, let's try and provide value to the audience so that they get something for engaging with the brand.

So, yeah. We've done cool things like interviews with Chainsmokers and Pat Green, different music artists. We do a lot of cooking segments where you can either get the kits at the side at the restaurant beforehand, or you get the ingredient list and go to the store and pick it up yourself so you can cook it with me.

Making cocktails, things like that, wine education, beer education. Just anything to provide value and not necessarily sell was our strategy so that we could just keep the connection with the consumer base. Because we felt like eventually when things do open up, if we already have that empathetic connection with the consumer base, they're likely to come back to us first. That was the strategy.

Then from an employment standpoint, we look at it as an opportunity to build out a team. A lot of companies got PPP money. A lot of businesses did, and we feel like that's a good opportunity to really build an even bigger and stronger team than we had before, which we already had a great team.

We're looking for the best of the best because we are, frankly... I mean I don't know the numbers. I can't say this with ultimate certainty, but I'm pretty sure that we're probably the biggest and busiest places in this entire state of Texas. Because of that, because there's energy, because there's people, and we're able to make some money, we are a desirable place to work, which has been great for us.

B&R: The last question, and you kind of mentioned it, the takeaway kits, the cocktail kits at home. Governor of Texas said that that might stay indefinitely. Now obviously, we got to see what kind of laws are enacted.

What other things are you hoping comes out of this in terms of government support, whether that's at the federal level, state, or local level? What are you hoping stays that has been loosened? Or what are you hoping might get added to help out the bars and restaurants?

Noonan: Well, I think the first thing is this is the first time in history that the restaurant and bar industry has the consumer and our political leaders all feel sorry for us. Because they know that we got the short end of the stick on this deal.

We're looking at it as an opportunity to continue to build a relationship with the community, but also with our political leaders and our regulation boards that are at the city, state, and federal levels.

Obviously, there's a lot of issues with the PPP money that needed to be sorted out, namely having to use it in eight weeks. We're not going to recover in eight weeks. We're just not, and so we need that money for a lot longer than eight weeks to get to weather the storm.

Then I think the ratio that you have to use 75% of it on payroll and 25% on other deemed expenses that they deem worthy. That ratio doesn't always work for certain businesses. Some businesses need it more for rent. Some businesses need it more for payroll.

I think just loosening up that ratio is important, but then also there is going to be a flip side where the health board is going to be even more focused on what restaurants and bars are doing, as they should be.

But the good thing is the industry, the bar industry, the restaurant industry, the club industry, we're used to running clean businesses in conjunction with the local, state, and federal health agencies. We're pretty good at it already.

There's going to be some other measures put in place, but I think it will ultimately level the execution and cleanliness across the board up quite a bit, which I think is ultimately a good thing.

B&R:  Absolutely. Kyle, thanks so much for your insight. What's a good place people can follow you on social media or hear more about what you guys are doing?

Noonan: Sure. Follow me at @kylenoonan.


 

This article was slightly edited for clarity and conciseness. 

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