- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2020

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - When the coronavirus closes your restaurant, it’s time to think outside the to-go box.

While many of the 500 Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers restaurants have continued to serve its signature chicken tenders through drive-thru windows, the chain’s downtown location couldn’t offer that service.

Now, instead of cooking chicken, staffers at the restaurant on the corner of Third and Florida streets are turning out face masks.

“We couldn’t use our downtown restaurant but we could access it; whereas in malls we couldn’t,” said Todd Graves, the restaurant’s founder, chairman and CEO. “So we started thinking about what we would do with the crew. We could have absorbed them into other stores, but we said, ‘Let’s do something good; let’s make masks.’”

Crew members weren’t required to make masks, but most stepped up to the challenge.



“With the shortage of masks and what’s going on, it just made me proud,” Graves said. “The crew just rallied around the idea. And what’s so cool about it is these weren’t people who sewed. They started from scratch, so it’s a very cool thing.”

Staffers, who have been divided into two teams of four, cut and sew masks for eight hours a day with each team working alternate days.

“We had a couple of crew members who sewed, so we got machines together, and we found out who wanted to be part of the sewing team,” Raising Cane’s spokesperson Julie Perrault said. “They’re not volunteers, because they’re actually still being paid their regular wages. They are social distanced; they each have stations 6 to 10 feet apart, and they have a separate cutting station. It’s all laid out in the dining room at the restaurant. ”

Perrault said the employees work on block scheduling, just as they would during normal operations.

“In all of our restaurants, the same teams are working together,” Perrault said, “and we’re doing that to avoid cross-pollination. If someone were to get sick, we could isolate those crew members.”

Employees who didn’t know how to sew in the beginning have been improving their skills, with each team producing about 100 masks each day.

A thousand masks have already been donated to Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital and another 1,000 will soon be donated to health care workers in New Orleans.

“So now we’re going to go with the smaller clinics,” Graves said. “There are all kinds of other people who need them, so, we’re going to keep making masks until we reopen.”

Raising Cane’s restaurants are in 28 states with the newest one opening last week in Alaska. Graves opened the first Raising Cane’s (named after his dog) in 1996 on the corner of Highland and State streets, just outside the gates of LSU. Even that location, which Graves calls “the mother ship,” has a drive-thru window.

Masks are only being made in the downtown location, but Graves said the chain is looking into expanding the project into other states.

Raising Cane’s purchases fabric from a local store, and each mask is sewn three-ply according to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

Graves said this project not only helps area medical personnel but also his employees.

Raising Cane’s employs 23,000 people, and Graves said that at the beginning of the pandemic, he and his staff adopted the mantra “No crew member left behind.”

“The crew is like my family,” Graves said. “The first thing I got really nervous about with the whole COVID pandemic was crew member safety. We’re serving the public, and, for me, it’s always one of those things that was like, ‘What would I be doing if my children are serving the public?’”

He said the restaurants employ lots of teenagers in part-time jobs, and he wanted to make sure they could work safely.

“That made me nervous, cash flow made me nervous. I rallied our team early and I said, ‘Let’s get a mantra, no crew member left behind, let’s work hard for that.’”

But with business immediately dropping 30% with the shuttering of dining rooms, Graves said he didn’t know if he’d be able to keep all of his employees on the payroll.

“If it got worse and worse and worse, we would be forced to do some tough things,” he said. “Thank God we have the drive-thru, and it’s allowed us to maintain our sales enough to where we didn’t have to furlough anybody.”

And though Graves is distancing himself from his stores during the pandemic, he does stop by and wave at his employees from the outside.

“It’s killing me,” he said. “I can’t go to one restaurant then go to the other, just in case I cross-pollinate. I don’t want to take a chance on spreading COVID. It’s the same with our restaurant leaders, because we’re very hands-on. So, looking from afar is very nice. I’m working from my downtown office, and it’s fun, I can drive by and wave to everyone through the window.”

And, Graves pointed out, there’s yet another perk for crew members making masks.

“We always have this saying that everyone in the company has the title of fry cook and cashier, and that includes me,” Graves said. “So, my title is founder, chairman, CEO, fry cook and cashier. But now the crew members working in the downtown restaurant can add mask maker to their titles, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of them for stepping up and supporting our community in such a meaningful way.”

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