Recently the long-anticipated “second wave” of COVID-19 cases was spurring an indoor dining ban in Chicago, leading to talk of heightened restrictions in the U.S., and bringing back lockdowns in Europe. At a time when COVID fatigue has set in and we’re all eager to congregate again, restaurant operators are in the difficult and pretty impossible position of being arbiters of public safety. Unfortunately, the colder air will make virus transmission even easier than it has been to date: As reported in the Oregonian, Dr. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago medical school said colder air is drier and the droplets that transmit the virus become smaller – so removing masks to eat and drink poses extra safety risks. Instead of pouring your creativity and resources into building a safer outdoor dining area to sustain you in the months ahead, you will likely be better served by going all-in on perfecting your off-premise offerings right now. Think back to how you operated in the early weeks of the pandemic and focus on doing those things again and better. People may be less comfortable eating out for the next several months but they will still need to eat – and the public has become more educated about the low risk of COVID transmission on packaging. Your off-premise menu can help bring some festivity and normalcy to life in these strange times.
The holidays are coming – though they are likely going to look a little different this year, with fewer work gatherings and indoor celebrations filling your dining room every night. But can you still make it a season of goodwill? If you’re looking at a likely downturn in business this year because of capacity restrictions and virus infection upticks, how can you use this time to ensure that you’re still taking care of the customers who can help you come back stronger in 2021? A recent Business Insider report shared the out-of-the-box ideas that Geoff Tracy, the chef owner of several Washington, D.C. area restaurants, has implemented in recent months. He and his teams took on a number of goodwill projects in the early weeks of the pandemic, including offering free car washes for customers and even calling their top-500 loyalty point members and offering to pick up prescriptions, drop off dry cleaning and give rides to doctor’s appointments. To be sure, these aren’t the kinds of tasks his staff signed up for when they started working with him. But the next time Tracy’s customers are looking for a takeout meal – or their first indoor sit-down meal after the pandemic – how could they consider ordering from anyone else? At a time when celebrating looks different, tap into your service mindset. How can you help brighten the day of your best customers? Maybe it’s with a custom meal package created for a loyal guest isolating at home. Maybe it’s something your restaurant has never done before that could supercharge guest loyalty like never before.
COVID-19 is not done with us yet, as recent virus spikes and tightening local restrictions around the country have demonstrated. While everyone wants to avoid a repeat of this past spring’s restrictions, if you were suddenly faced another four- to six-week lockdown this winter, could you power through? What would your top concern be? The restaurant industry management platform Restaurant365 asked this question recently in a large survey of operators that included independent restaurants, restaurant groups, fine-dining and quick-service establishments, and full-service franchisees and franchise brands. The top concern – for nearly 26 percent of respondents – was generating enough revenue to break even. So what can you do now to fortify your operation and make sure the items you are offering are generating the largest-possible profits for you? Are there profits lurking on your menu that you could promote a bit better? Now is the time to identify which items give back to your restaurant. Sure, you might be able to tell right away that your bar menu and desserts are money-makers. Can you reinvent those items for take-away? There are likely other items that may not seem profitable on the surface but save you money because they minimize preparation time and ingredients. The app Eat says high-profit menu items that are often overlooked include, among others, low-prep dishes, nose-to-tail items, foods that minimize waste, and foods perceived as value items.
Restaurant businesses have required some radical reinvention in 2020. Everything ranging from menus to service models to hours has required some assessment and adjustment – often with little advance notice. The same may be true of your staffing plan. As we approach the winter months – and the added challenge of flu season – labor is yet another wild card restaurant operators must be able to manage. Now and in the longer term, it will help you to find way to accomplish more (e.g. orders and prep tasks) with less (e.g. workers and kitchen space). If you had to operate with a skeleton crew today, what would it look like? How many staff would you need to accept and prepare delivery orders? What technology or systems could be made more efficient? Has COVID-19 made any new staffing positions necessary or existing positions obsolete? To what extent have you cross-trained staff to help with kitchen, customer service, delivery or even back-office tasks in specific cases? Could you automate any tasks that people currently oversee? Before you need it, fine-tune your crisis management strategy with an updated staffing plan – and test it to determine where it works well and where it needs further adjustment. While this year has been full of challenges, it has also rewarded operators who have been able to pivot to new ways of working. The steps you take now can help you minimize the hurdles you may face in the months ahead.
If your restaurant has pivoted to mostly takeout service in recent months, you may long for the days when you were serving attractively plated meals. But since takeout is here to stay, can you find a better way to present your off-premise meals? Offering durable reusable containers may help you – and may also help ease your customers’ guilt about the mountain of takeout containers and utensils they have likely accumulated from their favorite restaurants this year. (The Washington Post recently reported the troubling statistic from National Geographic that the U.S. uses more than 36 billion disposable utensils annually – an amount which, if laid end to end, would circle the world 139 times.) Not only is serving food in reusable containers more eco-friendly and budget-friendly if used in the long term – it’s more appealing to customers than eating out of cardboard or from an unrecyclable plastic container that has to then be tossed in the garbage. It also provides an additional means for restaurants to demonstrate (and market) to customers that they are taking steps to minimize their impact on the environment. This Fast Company report mentions Dispatch Goods as one company that is offering a reusable container service that, for a small additional fee, allows customers to set their takeout containers outside in a reusable bag for pickup, cleaning and later reuse by the restaurant. Companies like this are becoming more common and cost-effective for restaurants. Could the model work for you?
Restaurant industry analysts have said that in a period of just a few months, the pandemic has thrust the ghost kitchen market several years into the future. As more ghost kitchens come into the market, traditional operators may need to adapt to shifting budgetary needs and consumer expectations. A Restaurant Dive article reported recently that Peter Schatzberg, founder of Dubai-based Sweetheart Kitchen, said while a typical restaurant processes 15 to 20 delivery orders per hour, a ghost kitchen can process 60 orders – and with a single employee. If ghost kitchens increasingly demonstrate such economies of scale – by churning out orders quickly to more customers, with fewer staff, working from real estate occupying a smaller footprint – it will likely change the game for restaurant operators offering delivery from their traditional kitchens. How could your restaurant adapt?
In 2020, even Daniel Boulud has needed to be creative about finding new sources of financial support. Bloomberg reports that Boulud, who just opened a temporary restaurant in New York City, accepted luxury-product sponsors ranging from a coffee company to a vineyard to help fund the renovation of his new Mediterranean-style dining room and staff uniforms. Granted, Boulud has strong name recognition and a high-end clientele to his benefit. But his story is an example of how a community – whether that be neighborhood patrons, businesses serving a similar demographic, or large corporations that rely on a strong local economy – can come together to support restaurant businesses in recovery. This year has forced restaurant operators to think beyond conventional boundaries. As businesses look to find a sustainable path to recovery, there may be opportunities to partner with others to help pave the way. Could you solicit sponsorships from local companies to help make needed improvements at your business – and look for ways to credit them (and promote their products) both within your restaurant and on your online platforms? Could you contact organizations your restaurant has donated to in the past to encourage them to place orders with you? Are there any opportunities to partner with other restaurants who lack suitable outdoor space and open a winter-time outdoor dining area offsite? Communities need local businesses to thrive. What people and organizations can help you stay the course?
At a time when operators have been struggling to make delivery profitable, curb-side pickup has solved some problems. Consumers like it too: Recent Technomic research found that about 40 percent of Americans who have purchased takeout from a restaurant during the pandemic have chosen curb-side pickup and two-thirds of those respondents say they will continue to use curb-side pickup service even after indoor dining restrictions are lifted. The challenge is that many restaurants offering curb-side pickup created the structure on the fly as the pandemic created the need for it. As a result, the service may not be as seamless as it could be. A recent Restaurant Dive report describes operator challenges such as difficulty managing the high volume of calls from customers placing orders and arriving to pick them up. Busy periods have also made it difficult for operators to notice when a particular make and model of car arrives to pick up food. A mixture of new technology and more conventional reconfigurations can help streamline the process. For example, some online ordering platforms – Olo is one – offer alerts that let restaurant staff know when a curb-side customer has arrived. QR codes or textable numbers can also be posted on signs in designated parking spots outside the restaurant to alert staff inside to the arrival of a customer. Other operators are making new use of interior space once needed for guests dining inside – by redesigning waiting areas as places where curb-side orders can be held at the right temperature and ready to be handed off quickly to an arriving customer.
No question, the restaurant landscape will look a lot different once we emerge from the pandemic. Technomic estimates that 20 to 25 percent of independent restaurants won’t reopen. It’s easy to dwell on the sad realities of losing these businesses, but what if this period is what is required to usher in an industry transformation that many restaurant operators and employees would argue is long-needed? In a recent Eater report, two dozen restaurant leaders were asked to predict what the industry might look like in five years. Many of them see reasons for optimism – but first, they say some broken systems need to be overhauled when it comes to employee compensation, food transparency, consumer education about the true cost of food, management of the supply chain, and changes to the ownership structure of restaurant businesses. In the meantime, what’s clear is that consumers’ demand for restaurant meals won’t diminish – and as the Washington Post reports, new service formats like ghost kitchens are actually experiencing significant growth right now to meet that demand. While the experience of dining on restaurant food may well change in the coming months in years, perhaps the range of new restaurant businesses that emerge from this period will serve as incubators for fresh ideas on making the industry work more sustainably for all.
Fall is the season of preparation. What can you do now to keep business steady through the winter? In Chicago, no stranger to frigid winters, IDEO, BMO Harris Bank and the Illinois Restaurant Association partnered to launch the Winter Dining Challenge, which invites Chicagoans to suggest creative ways that the city’s restaurants can transform their on-premise dining areas to comfortably serve guests through the winter. (The selected ideas will be announced in late September and each winner receives $5,000 and the opportunity to develop their idea at a restaurant or bar.) If your menu and service model are a fit for takeout, double down on your efforts to offer seamless curbside pickup and, ideally, in-house delivery this winter. That includes ensuring your menu travels well, is profitable, is easy for customers to order via your website or app, can be prepared quickly and efficiently in your kitchen, and is packaged in a way that protects both the safety and quality of the food. Or…you might step back altogether. Some operators are considering closing their doors during the winter months. This option may suit operators that are not only financially able to hibernate for a few months but are also used to doing a robust business for holiday parties and groups that won’t be gathering in large numbers this winter. While the loss may be too large for some operators to manage, taking a break may provide a rare opportunity to renovate dining rooms for a new way of operating, make overdue repairs and upgrades, and revamp menus, technology, staffing plans and promotions for a grand reopening in the spring.