Todd Graves started Raising Cane's in 1996 against the advice of his business professor at Louisiana State University, who thought that a chain that sold only chicken fingers would never work. More than two decades later, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Cane's has grown to roughly 500 locations and made $1.18 billion in 2019 revenue.

Still, like every other restaurant, Cane's took a hit from the pandemic--sales dropped by 25 percent when shelter-in-place orders were issued across the country in mid-March. But unlike other restaurants, Cane's didn't lay off a single one of its 25,000 employees. In fact, Graves just unveiled a plan to hire 5,000 people, issued $2 million in bonuses, and says that sales are up 10 percent from 2020's pre-pandemic projections.

Now Graves is trying his best to save other businesses in Baton Rouge and Dallas, spending about $185,000 of his company's funds on gift cards from local restaurants in those cities. While Graves may never tell what's in the chain's mysterious "Cane's sauce," here he offers his recipe for doing well--and doing good--in the pandemic. 

Set a Good Example 

When the stay-at-home order took effect in March, Graves and his co-CEO, AJ Kumaran, immediately decided to forgo their salaries--likely for the rest of the year--and asked staff to help save their fellow employees' jobs by taking fewer hours. All but 13 of the 500 Cane's locations have drive-throughs, making it easier for the restaurants, which are concentrated in the Midwest and southern United States, to stay open.

Workers at non-drive-through locations were shifted to other stores, with one exception: Employees at the downtown Baton Rouge Cane's were put to work making facemasks for hospitals around the country--and have made over 10,000 to date.

It's important, Graves says, to motivate people by rallying everyone around larger goals: saving their fellow employees' jobs, keeping customers and employees safe, rescuing the company, and, as essential workers, keeping people fed. "People [are willing] to work hard when they're doing something noble," he says of his employees. "They never wavered."

Care About Your Community  

Raising Cane's, like many large restaurant chains, engages in a fair amount of philanthropy. But Graves makes sure what he calls his "purpose in life"--keeping people employed and supporting the communities in which Cane's operates--is part of the Cane's brand as well. In addition to his gift card purchases at local restaurants, he's hosted a virtual graduation with Shaquille O'Neal and Snoop Dogg to raise money for St. Jude's Children's Hospital, and a virtual concert with Better Than Ezra to benefit the Bella Bowman Foundation, which supports hospital workers. 

It's part of Graves's overall strategy to double down on social media and let people know Cane's is a brand that cares about its communities. To do that, he shifted advertising dollars from radio (in part because no one is in their cars) to online platforms and influencers who promote the brand's takeout online

Take the Bad With the Good 

Graves likes to tell the story of how he raised money for Cane's by working as a boilermaker in a Louisiana oil refinery, and then in the notoriously dangerous world of commercial fishing in Alaska. But, he says, neither of those tough experiences compared to what he went through in 2005: When hurricanes Katrina and Rita closed 21 out of 28 Cane's locations, he wasn't sure the business would survive.

But he quickly pulled his team together and says that because of them, Cane's was one of the first restaurants to open back up after the storm: "Katrina taught me, if you rally your team, they're going to show you amazing things." It would seem that Graves is on to something: The employees of Raising Cane's have once again risen to the occasion. 

June 4, 2020