For the first look in our COVID-19 Frontline series, we sat down with Robb Cherne, Director of Operations for Dallas-based restaurant chain, Velvet Taco. This husband, father of 6, and 20+ year veteran of the restaurant industry explains how he courageously leads his team of dedicated employees through this unprecedented pandemic. I am truly excited to share his unique perspective and motivation to make a difference.
Tell us about the Velvet Taco culinary offerings and locations?
Velvet Taco is a young thriving company of 9 years. With a single focus on tacos, we are a scratch based
kitchen and deliver fresh ingredients, handmade tortillas, in-house sauces, slow cooked brisket and pork
along with hand roasted corn to sustain twenty different taco varieties. Velvet Taco is high quality, chef
inspired food in a quick service with an out-of-the ordinary dining experience. Guests are especially wild
about our Weekly Taco Feature where a new taco is introduced each week for 52 weeks of the year. We
have 14 locations in Texas, Illinois, Georgia, and North Carolina.
What do you love most about your leadership role at Velvet Taco?
“I made the decision to move to Velvet Taco just over a year ago. The brand supports a growth culture
to create careers and opportunities for both our salaried and hourly team members.” This philosophy
aligns with Robb’s commitment to support eager young adults who aspire to a leadership role. They can
take on different leadership roles and even become a salaried manager. “I pay it forward from my early
mentors that supported my growth in the restaurant field. I see my responsibility as a leader being able
to provide life changing moments for my team members. I am in a position to help people get where
they want to go in life personally, professionally, and financially. If I offer you a job, I plan on seeing you
grow for decades to come.”
How has COVID-19 impacted Velvet Taco?
“When the NBA announced the close of their season is when everything changed. Things seemed to
change day by day, even hour by hour. Our leadership team came together to develop our plans of how
to adjust and survive the situation and current times. We selected 9 core locations to keep open. We
implemented a limited menu, limited hours and take out only. Our goal was to break even, cover the
bills and keep as many people as possible working.” The team made a gut wrenching decision to
furlough 57 managers and 650 employees. This was an especially challenging time for Robb as he strived
to help young employees thrive not lose their livelihood.
Are your employees concerned about working through the COVID-19? If so, what measures have you
put in place to help them?
There were some concerns initially and Velvet Taco made changes where employees now wear masks
and gloves. The team is more diligent with cleaning chemicals and sanitizers. We have an employee
dedicated to regularly disinfecting door handles, counters, or anything employees and guests may
contact. Employees adhere to social distancing while at work to help each other and guests. There also
are clear instructions to sustain contactless transactions.
How do you keep your staff motivated during this time?
Our team has an inherent passion for our brand and they see we are doing everything in
our power to bring employees back. It was difficult to furlough employees knowing the
affect to their families. “I feel as if part of my soul died and I did not get into this business
for this. I want to get to a point where I can bring back as many as I can. This inspires
them as they come up with ideas and it results into bringing employees back. Right now we
are most concerned about bringing our employees back more than making a profit.”
“There were difficult days and I knew this would impact their families. It made me feel as if part of my
soul died and I did not get into this business for this”
What innovative ideas were implemented to sustain Velvet Taco?
We were learning on the fly of this new reality and made new adjustments.” For example, our team
modified our vendor point of sale to a new format to include a tip line for employees to work off of their
tip pool. Under this new model, 4-6 employees returned to work per location each day. Our managers
are hard working with ingenuity to build on our model and developed the limited menus to support the
drive up windows. As a result our sales are 60% more than our estimate. “This inspires them as they
come up with ideas and it results in bringing our team back.”
What did you learn the most about leadership during COVID-19?
“The most difficult challenge was to wrap my brain around what was really happening and realized that
we are living in a historic moment. We were in a growth mode where we could not find enough people
to fill a growing business and within a moment’s notice we had to adjust to survive. We were able to
pivot and able to sustain after 6 weeks.”
“I learned that through trying times you see people’s true colors and how the employees in our
restaurants have made amazing sacrifices for the good of someone else.” Robb recalls one of his cooks
who not only lost his job at Velvet Taco but was also laid off from his second job. He came in because he
wanted to work just to feel productive. Another employee told the manager to take her tips and give
them to him, just to let him work. “The human spirit is alive and well. This time to slow down allows us
to stop and think about human kind”
How can the community and the Beyond the Waiting Room audience support Velvet Taco and your
employees during this time?
Eat Tacos!! Support the restaurant and entertainment industries in general. These industries are
typically the fall back jobs in a recession where 688,000 Texans in the food service lost their jobs in a
two week period. Restaurants were the first. The President of Texas Restaurant Association estimates
50-55% of the restaurants may not survive. If you are in the position that you can, go out and eat and
– Images courtesy of Robb Cherne and Velvet Taco