illustration of teamwork

Right now, we all know that good leadership is absolutely essential. But there is no cookie cutter recipe for what that looks like. Every industry and every company is different, and during the time of COVID-19, each organization has had to find its own method of enacting positive leadership.

The restaurant industry faces a unique set of challenges, as many employees do not have the option to work from home, and companies are having to reckon with closing locations and adjusting quickly, all the while trying to ensure all employees are taken care of.

One company that is doing a great job of taking care of its team members is Torchy’s Tacos. We recently spoke to Elizabeth Baxter, the Chief People Officer at Torchy’s, about how her team is approaching the current challenges, and how a people-first mentality is shaping Torchy’s response strategy.

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Baxter is the current Chief People Officer for Torchy’s Tacos, a trendy fast-casual restaurant brand that is quickly expanding nationwide. She also supports Make A Wish by being the active Vice Chair on the Board of Directors for the Central & South Texas area.

Prior to her time at Torchy’s Tacos, Elizabeth led a successful career at Walmart, the world’s largest company, starting with them as an Associate Relations Manager and quickly progressing within seven years as their Sr. Director, Performance Management & Global COE. At Walmart,she was best known for her work involved in a new centralized approach to hiring that predictively showed hiring needs, and is now utilized across all Walmart U.S. stores. She was also heavely involved with the COE in Associate Support for Disaster relief, and covered over 30+ natural disasters and events that effected Walmart stores and their teams.

Elizabeth earned a bachelor’s degree in integrated marketing communications from Wichita State University. From owning her own business to building over a decade of experience in Human Resources with large, global companies such as Target and Walmart, Elizabeth has gained a passion and expertise in talent selection, people retention and strategic organizational development. Her main goal is to help grow a company by investing in its people through creating visibility in opportunity, driving culture through diversity, and fostering commitment through connection in values.

What was the process for like you and the other company leadership to decide what the path forward was in the midst of COVID-19? 

Elizabeth:  I don’t know that anything can fully prepare any leader for a situation like COVID-19, where your entire world changes overnight, but fortunately Torchy’s has a strong foundation with some of the industry’s best talent, a strong culture, and values that define who we are as a brand.  When the going gets tough we can always rely on our values of Tenacity, Originality, Respect, Community and Honor to lead the way.

In this case there were so many unknowns but we knew our first priority was to immediately pivot our business to accommodate a new service model for our guests while continuing to protect the health and safety of both our people and our guests at all costs.  We of course shifted our business overnight to provide multiple order and service options for our guests including delivery, curbside and off-premises sales channels.

We made beating COVID-19 the highest priority for our teams and immediately aligned around the actions we would need to take, again centered on doing the right thing for our people.  I believe we did a fantastic job of balancing the challenges while addressing known obstacles as a result of crisis, after all there are many things out of our control and we wanted to take urgent action to address the needs of the business.  Out of the gate we began coordinating daily leadership crisis calls, including all company senior teams and operations leadership, to keep our teams informed and centered on directly addressing every challenge.  This also helped ensure we were leveraging the diverse talents of our team to overcome the obstacles.  

Additionally, we knew the crisis would impact different people in different ways and we’ve always been a brand that puts our people first.  So, from day one we focused on the individual.  It’s not always the easiest approach, but when you are focused on the needs of individuals it helps put into perspective and define what actions we needed to take, in the best interest of our people, our guests, our restaurants and our business.  We were making decisions daily that would define the future of our brand, we didn’t want to miss any opportunity to come out of this stronger than we went in!

What strategies have you been taking on the individual level to support employees?

Elizabeth: We knew we would have to make extremely difficult decisions that would directly impact the livelihoods, health and lives of our people, but again we wanted our people first values to lead the way.  We also knew that our industry would be one of the hardest hit by the pandemic and that many restaurants would likely not survive COVID-19.  As leaders, it is our responsibility to balance care and concern for our people, making good decisions to protect the business and doing what’s right to protect the interest of our stakeholders.  We knew that wasn’t going to be easy.

We had to make urgent decisions on temporarily closing a handful of restaurants most impacted by the crisis, reduce staff by furloughing team members as a result of declining sales, and initiate pay reductions for many of our HQ and support team members.  These were some of the most difficult decisions I have had to make in my entire career, but again we knew that we had a strong cultural foundation that could withstand the challenges.  And any action we took we did so with the right heart and intent.  

While it has not been easy we also did everything in our power to protect our people like continuing to pay for benefits for furloughed team members including insurance and free COVID testing for our people.  In addition, every leader in our organization stayed in close personal contact with all furloughed team members weekly to check in, kept them informed and check on their wellbeing.  Because of that, we have such a small amount of people saying they don’t want to come back. 

On a more micro level, what kinds of leadership have you seen from restaurant employees?

Elizabeth: At our weekly stand ups, we’ve been asking for the stories of what’s happening at every level, and they’ve been pouring in. We send out a weekly communication to everyone including the furloughed team members to share what Torchy’s is doing. A lot of companies are failing to continue to treat furloughed employees as a part of the team. But to us, they are still a part of the team and they want see what Torchy’s is doing.  

There’s a lot of good things happening on the micro level and we’ve been truly inspired by the way our restaurants and individuals are stepping up in the face of extreme adversity.  From organizing blood drives, to feeding hospitals and nurses on the front lines with taco and queso drops, to recognizing and caring for local heroes, and partnerships across our communities, our people are doing all the right things to not only sustain, but strengthen our brand so we emerge stronger than ever before.

We do something called taco money so that employees can get money for tacos. One of my team members shared that he used his taco money and bought as many tacos as he could and randomly dropped them off at neighbors with a note saying “Taco on me.” It started this whole trend. Now my team is always sending me pictures of their taco drop offs.  It’s just a taco, but I think right now everyone needs a little bit of kindness.

While we are of course continuing to do everything we can to attract guests and grow sales during the pandemic, it’s been our people, doing everything they can to make a difference in their individual communities, that is a testament to the true strength of our culture and our values.

How have you been balancing the needs of your people with the needs of the business?

Elizabeth: We always talk about putting people first.  It is our people that make our Damn Good Tacos.  It is our people that deliver exceptional hospitality.  It is our people that make our culture what it is today.  And it is our people that role model our values as an organization.  So, we always lead in the spirit and interest of doing the right thing for our people.  Lead with the right heart and it is hard to make a bad decision.

Of course, on the other side of that equation is balancing the essential needs of the business while driving results and profitability across the brand.  It has not been easy during the pandemic, but I feel like because we have such amazing people across our company, we answered the call in adjusting our business model and approach to succeed during this crisis.  

Essentially, people and business come hand in hand. You can’t just focus on people and not have business, but you can’t do great business without great people.

Is there anything that you can see being a new part of the strategy moving forward because of COVID-19?

Elizabeth:  We have learned so much because of the COVID-19 crisis that we may not have realized in normal operating conditions.  There are a couple of things.  One, is the importance of being flexible.  When I look back over the last 70 or so days, I wear a different hat every day.  My teams wear a different hat every day.  So, we need to be flexible, and say “I’m more committed to the brand and Torchy’s values than I am to this specific job.”  That is what’s allowed us to bring people back on really quickly.  For example, we’ve had to ask some people if they are willing to go from the HQ to doing work in the restaurants. Undeniably, the response has been yes.  So, moving forward we are going to be looking for people that are flexible and more committed to the brand than to the specific job. 

The second thing is maintaining the focus on people and being kind because this is affecting all of us and there is no tolerance for people being unkind or not being transparent.  We are simply not tolerating those behaviors in our culture.

In a lot of ways, that’s the beauty of this, people are more focused on people, which when you’re the Chief People Officer, that’s the best result you could ever ask for. 

What advice would you give to leaders right now?

Elizabeth: I would say the best thing leaders can do right now is to put their people first, let your values lead the way and focus on providing a positive, authentic and healthy culture.  I could stand up and give a speech about what good leadership is across our company, or I could let my heart and actions stand for themselves.  People are looking for their leaders to show compassion, kindness and support during difficult times, can you look yourself in the mirror and sleep well at night knowing you’ve done the right thing to lift up and inspire those that make so many sacrifices to support our business.