The experience of sitting down at a restaurant, ordering a favorite meal and enjoying the service is something so many people are craving right now. But for a lot of operators looking to reopen, the math doesn’t look workable – at least right now. The need to create extra space between tables, significantly reduce overall capacity and limit the kinds of in-person interactions that once helped define service will lead to a further reduction in previously slim margins. So what are operators – particularly those relying on full-service business – to do? Take the creativity you used to develop your business, menu, brand and service and channel it into reinvention. With so many small businesses trying to keep sales flowing, it’s a time when experimentation is needed and missteps are more easily forgiven. Depending on the flexibility of your space, whether you own or lease your property, what extent you can adjust your restaurant’s layout and hours, and the limits of your imagination, you may be able to make sweeping changes. Do you serve a popular seasoning, sauce, wine or other item that can be packaged and sold in a corner of the space you once used for seating? Can you open a small greenhouse in your parking lot and grow foods for sale – or even for your business use at a time when staples like lettuce can be difficult to source? If off-premise dining becomes the norm in the long term, can you restructure your space to accommodate a deli case full of sandwiches and salads to go or expanded catering options? At a minimum, take a close look at your menu to ensure you are maximizing your revenue while seating capacity is limited. People who enter the restaurant industry tend to have vision, learn on their feet, and carry on in the face of risk. It’s time to use all of those traits to your advantage.
If you currently lease your space, you have likely had some interesting conversations – hopefully productive ones – with your landlord in recent weeks. While restaurant operators may be struggling to pay rent, it’s not like there is a long list of businesses waiting to take your place if you were to vacate. Use any good will you have accumulated to negotiate more beneficial terms to your lease. Even the big guys are testing their leverage: Restaurant Business reported recently that Starbucks has asked its landlords for a year’s worth of rent breaks due to the pandemic – and The Cheesecake Factory claimed it wouldn’t be paying rent in April at all. Of course, landlords have their own bills to pay, so if you’re struggling to pay rent, acknowledge your shared challenges. Can you get your rent reduced for a few months initially and then deferred over the course of your lease if you continue to pay taxes, maintenance and utility costs, for example? Can you pay rent on a sliding scale based on your revenue in the coming months – and provide proof of your efforts to keep business flowing? If you are getting support through the Paycheck Protection Program, how can you factor that into your negotiation? Refusing to pay rent likely won’t help your case, but if you can have a discussion about what fixed costs need to be met, you may be able to come to an agreement that’s preferable to the one you started with. What’s more, you may buy yourself a bit more time to adapt your business to current challenges and keep business coming in.
In March, restaurant traffic dropped by 22 percent compared to same period last year, NPD reports, but on the other hand, digital restaurant orders increased by 63 percent and delivery by 67 percent during the month. While operators have long struggled to make delivery work financially, particularly when using third-party providers, the uncertainty of the past couple of months has made the need for delivery ever clearer. So how can operators make the numbers work? In some parts of the U.S., restaurant co-ops are popping up that are providing delivery. While they were developed as a means of helping community restaurants survive the economic challenges of the pandemic, creative solutions like this may be needed on a more permanent basis going forward. Perhaps they are an option for you.
A recent Forbes article pointed out that before the pandemic, the average person visited a store to buy food 2.2 times per week but, according to Zagat, went out for lunch or dinner 4.9 times per week. Pre-pandemic, were restaurants missing opportunities to create new business streams with customers via packaged foods and products – whether those products were directly related to the restaurant or not? As many restaurants are currently offering specialty food items, housewares, branded products and even everyday household goods like flour to bring in business during the pandemic, these changes are ones that could well be worth making permanent if they can help you build closer connections with your customers. As many people are getting into a cooking rut during the pandemic, could you provide a recipe along with specialty olive oil, sauce, cheese, wine or bread could help them recreate a part of your restaurant experience at home? Partnering with other local businesses to find opportunities to cross-sell products or plan future events can bolster your public perception too. Brand perfection isn’t necessarily critical right now either – your ability to be human and understand people’s needs is most important. Are there hidden revenue streams – or opportunities for community support – that you can uncover right now?
Sure, having your customers contact you directly for food is best. But if you are delivering food to customers right now or wishing you could, the pandemic is putting some pressure on aspects of delivery that have been pain points for the industry. One possible example of this is Toast Delivery Services, which just launched a platform aimed at helping operators during the pandemic and beyond. It allows restaurants of all sizes to tap into a local delivery network and pay a flat, per-order service fee under $8 to deliver food within a five-mile radius. No purchase of Toast POS systems or hardware is required.