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Leading through COVID: Opening Restaurants in a Pandemic

In this series, we talk with Yale SOM alumni about their professional and personal lives during the global pandemic. Seth Goldman ’95, the co-founder of Honest Tea and chair of Beyond Meat, was opening PLNT Burger, a new chain of plant-based restaurants, as the global pandemic struck.

An illustration of a plant-based burger
Sean David Williams

Adapted from a phone interview, April 7, 2020.

From a personal perspective, my wife, Julie Farkas, and I have our three sons home. We’re all working from our house. Being with them and knowing they’re safe is certainly a blessing. 

I’ve kept to my exercise regimen. Being stuck inside and listening to the news is enough to build up some tension. Getting outside to go running or biking or even playing volleyball with my sons is great for physical and mental health.

From a work perspective, Julie and I are in an interesting place. We’re launching a new restaurant concept right now—PLNT Burger offers fast casual, plant-based, climate-friendly meals. 

Food service is just getting pummeled. But part of our strategy is that all locations, thus far, are inside Whole Foods stores. We have two open, we’ll have a third within weeks, and another soon after.

I would never claim that I had the foresight to anticipate that grocery stores were going to stay open and restaurants were going to shut down. But the way that this has worked, we may be opening some of the only new restaurants in the world right now. 

This isn’t to say our launch has proceeded as we imagined. Since the restaurants are in Whole Foods, offering samples was a really effective way to do marketing. We stopped that. We switched from a condiment station to prepackaged condiments, which is unfortunate from a packaging waste perspective, but we had no choice there. And all meals are to go. We’ve made these adjustments to both protect our employees and to create the right optics for customer’s experience.

“When the economy undergoes a fundamental shift, businesses have an opportunity to provide new solutions as we come out the other side.”

We haven’t had supply-chain issues. For many of our vendors, the demand turned off overnight, so they are eager to work with us. I know with Beyond Meat, where I’m the chair of the board, the trend is that demand has shifted from food service to retail. 

Over time, many people have noted that crises have elements of danger and opportunity. From a leadership perspective, that’s certainly the case. With the pandemic, the dangers to our health, to our economy and to companies are real. However, when the economy undergoes a fundamental shift, businesses have an opportunity to provide new solutions as we come out the other side.

We’re seeing a tremendous shakeup of the food service industry. I think it will be a fundamentally different industry when we return to normal. The model of restaurateurs paying the fixed cost of a lease when you have huge variability like we’re seeing now can’t remain. Being able to understand, anticipate, and evolve away from that model is an opportunity. 

The pandemic has made clear how interconnected the world is. I think people feel connected to the idea that the actions we take have an impact on the planet, on our health, and on the health of others around the planet. I think there will be a preference to try to move towards more plant-based diets, which have a lighter environmental footprint.  

This moment is scary. We see people wearing masks and maybe not necessarily being friendly the way they used to be. With social distancing we’re not shaking hands or hugging. You can have Zoom meetings, but they’re not the full substitute. My wife and I both miss seeing our mothers. My mother is 89. We’re finding ways to stay connected, but we’ve got to be really careful.

We’ve also seen a lot of people stepping up for others. Healthcare workers clearly are heroes. But we’re thinking about who provides essential services in a different way. I think people working in a grocery stores are performing essential functions. I think parents may be seeing the essential service provided by teachers in a new light. We won’t return entirely to the way things were.

Department: Feature