I am amazed, in awe, and inspired by the way many nonprofit leaders – many of whom are women – are leading their organizations through the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. So much so, that I’ve decided to do a special series about Nonprofit and Small Business Executive Women who are living in the trenches, working to keep their nonprofit running, and doing critical work to continue to serve individuals and families during this crisis. I’m curious about their work and the people they’re serving, their biggest concerns, and how they are taking care of themselves and those around them. So I asked!

Carissa Newton, Director of Marketing, Cunningham Restaurant Group

Carissa joined Cunningham Restaurant Group in 2018, where she leads the marketing, communications, and community involvement for all restaurant and corporate locations. She has 20+ years’ experience in a variety of industries including insurance, financial services, technology, security, and hospitality. She has built and grown the strategic marketing efforts for companies of varying sizes. Her success has been centered on marketing tied to clear strategic communication, new technologies, in-depth market analysis, and innovative marketing strategies. Her work now is focused on helping the company navigate and communicate strategically through COVID-19.

Q.  Who are you serving and how are you serving them during this crisis?

A. Since 1997, the Cunningham Restaurant Group (CRG) has been committed to creating unforgettable dining experiences. CRG owns and operates locations in Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. Our vision is reflected in thirty-two restaurants, 14 concepts, an event center, a grow facility, and sustainable, consistent growth.

Q.  Have you added, changed or deleted any services because of COVID-19?

A.  Because of COVID-19, we were forced to make some tough decisions. We were able to keep 21 of our locations open and transition them to an entirely different business model. After closing all locations for full sanitation, we reopened 21 of those locations providing carry out only, with abbreviated menus and altered hours. In addition to carry out, we also introduced delivery in all of our locations for the first time by working with a couple of third-party delivery services. And then lastly, we also quickly spun up the ability to offer online ordering and we are in the process of testing that for a number of our locations.

Through all of this, we remain focused on serving the communities in which we operate. We have donated to a number of charitable organizations through this crisis. We have partnered with Second Helpings to prepare and serve meals to those impacted. We also created a new Community Heroes boxed lunch donation program where the public can purchase boxed lunches to be delivered to area hospital workers. As the program grows, we intend to include other essential workers. Our locations that are open have already done this on a local level and have worked to provide meals for first responders.

Q.  What are your biggest concerns right now? 

A.  The biggest concern for me right now is being agile enough in our marketing and management efforts to be able to weather this crisis. Our hope is to reopen with the same strength that we had prior to this. Now we must be prepared to dial back up to full service as soon as we are able. So, in essence, thinking of the business in two respects: 1) for continuity and 2) for spin-up and continued growth.

Q.  How are you taking care of yourself, your staff and your clients?

A.  For me, it’s a constant job of prioritization and a readiness to react. Positivity and knowing that we are all working towards something so much greater than us is really what has fueled me. I’m trying to stay focused and busy in the areas that matter and on the things that will drive the business forward.

For our employees, it’s working within our management teams to ensure that we are doing the very best we possibly can for everyone, including those who are working and those who are unfortunately displaced. We made the difficult decision, like many businesses, to furlough a portion of our staff. We did this to preserve the company and ensure there is something stable for them to come back to. Taking care of them all during this time has been a major focus of our company and I am so proud of the work we have done.

For our guests, we are working hard to communicate frequently and to continue providing the phenomenal experiences that make them choose CRG over and over again. I’ve witnessed this so many times prior to this crisis but observing how people react and how our team members continue to deliver “WOW” experiences is moving beyond measure.

Q.  What is your biggest need right now and how can people support your business?

A.  Our biggest need right now is keeping our local restaurants alive. Support local by ordering delivery and carry out. Share the good news, the positive stories, and the opportunities that exist. Donate and help wherever and whenever you are able. And when this all returns to normal, return to those local businesses that struggled through this storm. Local businesses are the lifeblood of a community and we have to work really hard to preserve them in times like this.

Q.  What are you reading, watching, listening to, or doing to get through this?

A.  We are inundated with news and information right now and it is often tough to tell what is accurate. I have a handful of sources that I have found to be reliable and I look for insight there. However, I will also say that I am not dwelling on all news or negativity. To get through this, we all must remain positive. To do that, we must feed our energies with the positive side of this crisis. It can be very easy to look at the negative and continue down that spiral, but it certainly doesn’t help in functioning productively. I look for the good and work to be the good. That will make all the difference.  

I also have found my professional working network to be a wealth of inspiration and positivity! I have had friends and vendors alike reach out with offers to help. I’ve had many just checking in to see how we are doing.   I recently became part of the Revenue Collective and have found this community to be an incredible resource as well. So much sharing, networking, learning, and inspiration to be gained from our peers. Never undervalue the power of your network.

Working to “Be the Good” is one of the reasons I am working here at CRG, the core values and how this organization steps up to help everyone in the communities we serve is phenomenal. I have experienced kindness beyond measure and an organization that is making every single decision with the framework of “Being the Good.” I respect and admire it and love that I get to be a part of this.

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