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Brian Landry On Re-Hiring Restaurant Staff For Pandemic Telemedicine

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Brian Landry is chef/owner of QED Hospitality, a group that operates restaurants and bars in New Orleans and Nashville. When the pandemic forced their establishments to shut down, Landry and his company spun up a subsidiary to employ their laid-off workers in a virtual call center for a hospital system.

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Right around March 16, which was our last weekend of full operation, we could see that it was coming, that we were going to have to halt operations. Emery Whalen, my business partner, was speaking with her brother, Ralph Whalen, who works for a company called Divurgent that does healthcare consulting. Ralph had just been tapped to start a project on behalf of a hospital system that was going to use a virtual call center to convert in-person doctor visits to telemedicine—either a video conference or a phone call. The hospitals would be able to still offer these doctor visits, but from afar, and it would keep patients from having to go to an already overcrowded hospital.

The virtual call center was work that could be done from home and in isolation. Ralph offered us an opportunity, saying, “I have to ramp up this call center in the next week. I know you’re going to be laying all your employees off and closing. What if I hire a bunch of hospitality professionals to make these calls on behalf of the hospital?”

We kicked it around for a day or two. We presented it to our staff and got a lot of interest. Within a matter of days, we started a new company, QED Resources, and signed a contract with Divurgent. We hired about 110 of our employees from our restaurants, bars, and coffee shops to work from home in their roles as customer service agents in the telehealth field. We’ve been doing it ever since, and it’s been fascinating because as hospitalitarians they’re well versed in customer service, and they’ve done a phenomenal job of converting all of these appointments to telemedicine. That can be walking patients through downloading the app on their phone, scheduling their doctor’s appointments, and then converting the in-person appointment to a telemedicine appointment.

It’s really been a phenomenal process to be part of and to watch, and phenomenal for our team as well, in that we were able to keep them on payroll. Their paydays didn’t change, their health benefits stayed intact. It was a win-win-win—the hospital won, the patients won, and our employees were able to continue working, although in a new capacity.

Nothing like this had occurred to us beforehand. On the Divurgent side, they do projects like this all the time, so they are used to quickly ramping up for an immediate need. Ralph’s idea was, “Hey, there’s this enormous field of people trained in hospitality. Who better to jump on the phone in these very uncertain times, where there is a lot of fear, where there is a lot of uncertainty? Who better to jump on the phone than people who talk to customers all day long anyway?” And I think his hunches also played out in that our conversion rates are crazy high. We’re actually contacting thousands of patients a day. It’s not like a small thing.

It’s been wonderful for our team as well. People assume that in hospitality, it’s natural that only those who work in front of house have that customer service gene. But our cooks and sous chefs have really excelled at this too. I would say, in a large part, it’s because they’re used to working with the team. But they also work in service. This is a completely different kind of service, but they have the same patience. The front of house, back of house divide is always something to be cognizant of in restaurants. When we all entered into telemedicine, that invisible divide went away. We were all new, and we were all learning a new skill.

Not only did the front of house, back of house divide go away, but to see sous chefs and cooks being able to excel in this and train a server, or to see a barista in Nashville interacting with a line cook in New Orleans—seeing all of them helping each other navigate—this has been great for our team. I think it will pay huge dividends as we get back into our normal jobs as hospitalitarians in food and beverage. The bonds that have been formed in the last six weeks have been amazing.

We would love to extend the program. We were the guinea pig to see if this idea would work, and it’s worked very well by the metrics on which it’s measured. There are clearly thousands upon thousands of hospitality workers out of work right now. If Divurgent engaged another hospital, or even expanded the current program, we would reach out to hospitality professionals first, probably in New Orleans and in Tennessee because that’s where we’re based. We’d start to hire from the hospitality industry in those cities.

We’re getting closer and closer to the potential to reopen as states are relaxing their stay-at-home orders. But as of today, we have no food and beverage operations. And the places we currently operate are in boutique hotels, so we won’t be making a decision about what reentry looks like alone. We’re going to do that with the hotel ownership. We’re going to do that with the operators of the hotel side. In a hotel, do you open the restaurant first because you may not have travelers right away? Or do you wait until both the food and beverage and the hotel are ready to open together?

I think as of today, there’s still so much to navigate and to keep in mind because of how we’re structured. If we were an establishment that was more in the fast-casual arena or was capable of doing some sort of robust takeout-delivery, that would be a very different conversation for us. Both of our hotels have very popular rooftop bars, for example. I don’t know that rooftop bars are going to be considered essential establishments that may open in the first wave of reentry. It may be that we partially reopen what we do, and that our restaurants come back online before our rooftop bars do. Right now we’re just trying to remain as nimble and as flexible as possible. It has for sure been a blessing that we’ve been able to keep so many people working as long as we have.