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Roti closing a third of its restaurants as downtown lunchtime rush disappears

Abdel Jimenez, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Roti, the Chicago-based fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant chain, is permanently closing 14 of its 42 restaurants nationwide, including six in Illinois.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Roti primarily operated in busy downtown office areas in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis and New York City. The company recently reopened 14 restaurants nationwide for dine-in service and plans to reopen another 14 that have been shut down entirely since last spring, CEO Justin Seamonds said.

In the Chicago area, Roti has reopened seven restaurants for dine-in and plans to reopen another five in the Central Business District that had been closed entirely, but only if workers return to offices downtown, he said.

“We are hoping people come back to work (downtown). That’s been the toughest part across the country,” Seamonds said about the company’s reopening plans.

Roti is in the process of permanently closing 14 locations, including six in the Chicago area that had been closed since the pandemic began.

“We’ve taken an opportunity during the pandemic and worked with our landlords to exit from a few locations that aren’t competitive to reopening,” he said.

As the lunchtime rush in busy downtowns across the country disappeared, Seamonds said the share of overall revenue from its suburban locations increased by about 50% compared with 2019 levels. Sales through mobile orders and third-party delivery services have increased as well and now make up about 50%, a rise from 20% pre-pandemic.

“We expect our digital trade to increase. Digital has been an important recovery tactic for our industry,” he said.

 

Roti employs a fraction of the 700 employees it had before the pandemic. The company has hired and brought back about 200 employees at the 14 stores it has open nationwide. Seamonds said it plans to employ about 500 to 600 workers as it reopens more locations.

Hiring workers has been a challenge, he said. Enhanced federal jobless aid has made it difficult to bring back workers, Seamonds said, forcing the company to get more creative with its recruiting efforts.

“If someone is coming just for the paycheck and are unmotivated to work at your average restaurant job, you have to offer a reason to work that goes beyond pay,” Seamonds said.

Roti managers are promoting the company’s customer service training program as a way to attract applicants. New hires are told the skills they learn at Roti can be valuable and transferrable for any profession, he said.

“We have to offer them a better value proposition. We tell them that Roti is a place where you can learn really strong hospitality skills and be food safe certified,” Seamonds said.

Roti is enticing customers back to its restaurants by offering more set menu items. Roti restaurants operated in a similar fashion to Chipotle, where people customized their meals and workers put together their dish as they ordered. Now, Roti wants to have more preset dishes, Seamonds said.

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