Up until a couple of months ago, restaurants were doing well. Our industry is an important part of the US total economy. There are over 500,000 restaurants employing over 11 million coworkers across the country.
It’s now been two months since we started practicing physical distancing, and while we have managed to “flatten the curve,” nothing could have been more disastrous for the restaurant business. If you are a restaurant owner, chances are you are struggling—struggling to pay furloughed co-workers, struggling to pay rent, struggling to try to figure out how you are going to put it all back together. Independent, single unit operators, small and medium multi-unit operators and even big chains like The Cheesecake Factory have notified their landlords that they would be unable to pay rent for the foreseeable future.
May will be a crucial month for our industry as governing officials ponder how to safely “reopen” restaurants, easing physical distancing mandates, while operators are dealing with the practicalities of doing so. Restaurant operators are attempting to navigate the unknowns associated with slow re-openings and what this means to their survival.
Many questions revolve around capacity and seating—bars and catering require limits on group sizes at tables—difficult to source personal protective equipment needed for staff and diners alike, and how to best clean and sanitize the entire restaurant multiple times throughout the day. There are few firm answers, and even the most seasoned restaurant veterans are finding out, often day by day, what they can and cannot do and whether they will be able to survive reopening under these circumstances.
Now we are hearing from various authorities in different states and cities that, under certain circumstances, some restaurants may be allowed to open. Some companies were lucky enough to receive PPP grants and keep people on the payroll, but that will only cover about six weeks of wages. Operators will need to ramp up cash flow quickly. The purpose of this information is to offer direction and provide a framework for best practices for reopenings. The National Restaurant Association, the FDA and local health departments have assembled guidelines to assist operators navigate the murky waters, but there are no guidelines for how to make it all work financially to return to successful operations.
Right now, there isn’t any single, definitive way to get your restaurant open. We don’t know how many people will be allowed to enter the restaurant—some jurisdictions recommend or require limiting seating capacity to 25%. With fewer customers, how can the restaurant pay its bills, let alone make a profit? Let’s discuss the possibilities.
Review and re-engineer your menu —“skinny” it down… less is more. The 80/20 rule says that 80% of sales come from 20% of the menu items offered. Remove (for now) those slower selling items that require unique inventory SKU’s. Focus on existing Signature menu items that your restaurant is known for. Don’t have any? Work with your chef and cooks to develop unique menu items for your eating establishment that can become your Signature recipes. Make sure they are popular, easy to execute consistently, fast to produce (think table turns when you have reduced seating) and are profitable.
Review your inventory—a simple rule of thumb is to only stock those inventory items that are used in at least 5 dishes or account for at least 5% of sales. This takes as much discipline as skinnying down the menu. It’s hard work, but restaurant people are creative and are not afraid of a challenge.
Review your kitchen—is it safe? Is there enough room between stations to allow at least 6 feet between co-workers? Do you need to put up plastic shields to separate stations or will protective personal equipment suffice? Check your equipment and procedures. Are there ways you can reduce GET’s (guest experience time) to move more people through the restaurant more quickly, particularly at peak dining times? With reduced capacity, table turns (and take out) this will be critically important.
Change and adapt to new cooking styles and equipment—consider modifying your cooking style and techniques to incorporate sous vide, Instant Pot and microwave cooking to reduce kitchen staff, decrease GET’s and still produce great, consistent food every time.
Review your dining room—is it possible to maximize seating by adding physical barriers around tables and booths? Protective barriers may enable you to include a couple of extra safe and legal seats. Your guests want to feel safe when coming to your establishment or they won’t come.
Review the need for protective gear—in the beginning of this pandemic we were told masks were unnecessary—that was not true. We think that authorities were simply trying to prevent a run on them when they were so critical for medical staff and first responders. Now, there is no question—masks save lives. Wearing a mask helps protect you and others and is recommended by the CDC when in public, especially in enclosed spaces like restaurants.
In short order there should be enough PPE (i.e., surgical masks and N95 masks) for every need, but cloth face coverings will suffice for us non-healthcare professionals. Have your uniform designer create a signature design or logo’d restaurant face mask (or a series of them) If designer-y or fun enough, sell them to your guests as another source of revenue.
It’s important to wear face masks anytime you will be around other people, especially when ideal social distancing is not possible. A significant number of cases of COVID-19 have been as a result of contact with people who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. It’s a good precautionary measure to wear a face mask to try to trap virus particles that you may be exhaling. Although face masks are not perfect, they do seem to potentially have some effect on risk, so it’s a best practice. It’s important to note that while cloth face coverings are not 100% effective in preventing the transmission of the virus, the physical barrier is believed to slow community transmission, explains the CDC.
Communicate with respect, patience, empathy and hospitality—now, more than ever, you will need patience and a calm demeanor to make your staff and guests feel comfortable. Both groups will look to you as an example of how and what to do. You won’t have all the answers, but if you speak honestly and respectfully with your team, and include them in offering up ideas, you won’t feel so alone, and they will feel that they are part of the solution. Even your guests may have suggestions for you. All input should be welcome. Of course, not every exchange will be positive… so take a breath, count to 10 and remain calm as you try to address complaints, concerns and issues that will inevitably arise.
Check your uniforms—there was a time in this country when every restaurant co-worker wore a clean uniform every day. More recently, but before the virus crisis, most co-workers just wore their own street pants and maybe a shirt or apron (sometimes not very clean) that they carried in.
Now, uniforms must be as clean as the restaurant in order for guests to believe the restaurant is doing all in their power to keep the establishment clean, sanitized and populated by immaculate co-workers. If you can afford it, you might want to consider a change in uniform style or color to signal a change to your co-workers and guests. Most importantly, impress upon your staff, both front and back-of-house, the critical need to start with clean, freshly laundered and ironed uniforms (including face masks) every day.
Make the best of technology—consider contactless payment systems, automated ordering systems, mobile ordering apps, frequent website updates. Find innovative ways to reduce the need for personal contact.
Stay current—Make sure your establishment meets critical FDA and local health department standards. Renew your memberships in your State and National Restaurant Association so you can stay abreast of all changes and requirements—they are your best source of information.
What does the FDA require?
Good sense requires:
Things to consider to safely reopen a restaurant:
Some guests will be slow to return… if you have a mailing list contact these people and let them know the changes that have been made to make their visit both safe and enjoyable. Offer them a re-introduction coupon to prompt trial.
Some people will be reluctant to visit because of financial consequences from the pandemic—keep them in your thoughts and communications. They may come back as the economy improves.
There are only four strategies for building sales; these apply to virtually any retail category:
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Perspectives is an international consulting firm headquartered in Los Angeles. We have been providing comprehensive services to the hospitality industry (upscale, mid-scale and fast food restaurants, hotels, resorts, casinos, theme parks, supermarkets, specialty and convenience stores, airlines, and cruise lines), food manufacturing, processing and distribution companies, for over forty years.
Perspectives' team of experts work step-by-step with our clients developing dynamic and innovative products and concepts for the food and hospitality industries. We understand the symbiotic relationship that must exist between internal assets and external variables. That understanding, combined with our customized research and thorough analyses, makes our client’s goals achievable.
Our expertise and experience encompass the following disciplines:
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