Xperience Restaurant Group CEO Randy Sharpe knows he might be in the minority these days. It isn’t giving him pause. In a dining world defined by everything COVID-19 has changed, Sharpe believes customers yearn for the experience they remember.

“I’m one person and we’re one company, and there’s a lot of different opinions of how to approach the restart and get through the pandemic,” he says. “But we didn’t change our brand. We didn’t scale back our menu. We actually looked for ways to provide a better experience and more of an experience to the guest when we were able to welcome them back.”

This wasn’t the effortless path for XRG, and it surely wasn’t the cheapest. Yet it’s the reason Sharpe believes the company’s 60 locations and nine brands bounced back from early craters better than most, and why it’s positioned to win long-term.

Sharpe, who joined XRG from Macaroni Grill in 2018 after Z Capital bought Real Mex out of bankruptcy for $47 million and rebranded it, shares a story that’s guided him in recent months. When restaurants began to reopen, Sharpe went to dinner with his family at a competitor. His wife missed the venue. But mainly, she missed a specific menu item she couldn’t recreate.

It wasn’t there anymore. “And then that emotion sets in,” Sharpe says.

Restaurants have an unenviable task. There’s no real other way to slice it. How do you keep customers and guests safe and yet not constantly remind them they’re eating out during a pandemic?

If dining is an escape from quarantine behavior, can you suspend reality and also reassure people their personal safety isn’t at risk?

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