Even restaurant operators with the best of intentions struggle when it comes to building and maintaining a healthy, supportive employee culture. Will COVID-19 change that? While it may seem like an impossible time for restaurants to invest in better pay and benefits for staff, some believe the current climate will create a bigger opportunity for operators who already have the building blocks of a strong team culture in place – and create yet another obstacle for those who don’t. For instance, restaurants with a strong existing employee culture have not had difficulty rehiring staff – even at a time when many workers are not seeing the benefit of coming off of unemployment. In a Forbes report, owner of the Cincinnati restaurant MashedRoots said, “I think it has become apparent that the way the industry is structured does not create healthy, stable work environments that are able to absorb disruptions and quickly adapt to changes.” As a result, he is changing the way he runs his business and develops staff. Has the pandemic brought to light any aspects of your restaurant culture that, with some adjustments, could fortify your business to survive challenges in the long term?
Just like an investor diversifying a portfolio to protect against risk, restaurant operators would be wise to identify inventive new revenue streams right now – particularly those that have potential to generate sales and loyalty if business from more traditional channels lags in the months ahead. In addition to the obvious benefit of sustaining business, new revenue streams are also an opportunity to reinforce your brand values and, in turn, build loyalty. Chipotle, for one, recently announced it is launching a Chipotle Goods line, which includes not just the usual branded t-shirts but also leggings, baby clothes, jackets, cell phone cases, water bottles, socks, tote bags and even luggage, Nation’s Restaurant News reports. As part of this effort, Chipotle is upcycling 300 million avocado pits it uses each year to create a plant-based dye that is used in some of the products – then donating proceeds to organizations that make fashion or farming more sustainable. When you consider your restaurant’s values, what are you hoping your guests take away from their experience with you? If you take a step back, can you identify how your most loyal guests might be interested in supporting new branches of your business – simply because they make it possible to experience the best of your brand?
As COVID-19 spikes threaten to force restaurants into a cycle of loosening and tightening restrictions, loyalty programs may provide some much-needed stability. In a recent interview with The Spoon, the president and cofounder of Paytronix said during the worst of the downturn, one customer – who was representative of what the company observed with others – saw sales from non-loyalty members drop 75 percent, while sales from loyalty members fell just 20 percent (and their spending was not significantly lower than pre-COVID levels). It’s likely, for this reason, that major brands including Starbucks, Wendy’s and Taco Bell have been either introducing or upgrading their loyalty programs recently – adding new benefits and offering more convenient app-based payment methods. What can your restaurant do to entice customers to become more loyal to your brand?
Consumers are willing to pay a subscription fee for everything from podcasts to vitamins to tech gadgets these days. So why not their favorite restaurant? According to research from the Global Banking and Finance Review, 70 percent of business leaders say subscription-based business models will be central to their future prospects – and yet for many businesses across different industries, subscriptions remain an area of untapped potential. When it comes to restaurants, subscriptions for drinks, food and really anything consumers crave may an emerging way for foodservice businesses to monitor loyalty to their brand and build in some longer-term sales security through recurring revenue. Grub Street reports that Panera, for example, which launched a monthly coffee subscription service for $8.99 last winter, is now considering other ideas including a lunch subscription service focused on kids who are learning from home this fall. It’s easy to see why: A parent who has paid for their child’s lunch subscription is more likely to make a point of coming to Panera for lunch – and perhaps ordering a meal of their own. If you have been offering meal kits or dessert boxes or family-style dinner bundles during lockdown, these items could easily convert to subscription-based services that not only give you some advance warning to source the items you need in your inventory, but also help you secure some recurring revenue for the uncertain months ahead.
As restaurants have struggled to accommodate the need for meal delivery during the pandemic, a number of cities have stepped up to limit the steep fees third-party delivery providers can charge. Restaurant Business reported in late July that Philadelphia – which had just joined the effort alongside cities including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C. – would immediately cap total fees on delivery orders at 15 percent. The report said delivery commissions could not exceed 10 percent of the order total, and separate nondelivery fees could not surpass 5 percent – until 90 days after the end of the current public health emergency. As for what happens in other cities, and, for that matter, across the country after the threat of this pandemic passes, restaurants need to dissect their data and understand their customer base so they can negotiate the best terms of third-party contracts. Even with the major providers, there is room for small restaurant brands to bargain – particularly as provider consolidation remains likely. This Fast Casual report (https://bit.ly/33vocmi) provides some tips about the best ways to secure a fair deal with third-party companies – including what you should know about your profits, customer habits and existing ordering channels to get the best leverage when negotiating an agreement. If you think in-house delivery might work for your restaurant with a little guidance, you can also check out the Native Delivery Best Practices Work Group, an effort launched by the Restaurant Technology Network.
Longtime restaurant workers learn a wide range of hard and soft skills that can apply widely within the foodservice industry and outside of it – from team leadership to supply chain oversight to customer care. A new AI-based service called Talent Exchange is helping workers impacted by COVID-19 to quickly find jobs that align with their skillset. Backed by McKinsey & Company, the company counts Starbucks, Mondelez International and Pizza Hut among its participating companies. It may be worth considering if you’re an operator helping a longtime team member find a temporary job or if you’re scaling your staff back up. Restaurant Business reports that companies can upload a list of information about their furloughed or laid-off employees, then AI can suggest candidates to hiring businesses based on how well they are likely to match a role. Managers can also keep track of where furloughed employees landed so they can reconnect with them down the line.
Even for an industry used to having to adapt to change, the past several months have forced restaurants to take a crash course in being flexible: Offer curb-side pickup. Adapt your online systems to accommodate curb-side pickups and deliveries. Offer delivery but avoid having to pay steep third-party delivery fees. Create an outdoor dining area. Adapt your indoor dining area. Train your staff on rapidly developing regulations. Adjust your menu to align with people’s changing daily routines and fluctuations in the supply chain. In a Nation’s Restaurant News report, the supervisor of restaurant operations for the south Florida casual dining chain Flanagan’s credits cross-training, as well as data monitoring, with the restaurant’s ability to adapt to the rapidly changing environment in the state. The restaurant has been able to keep many of its employees working by training them to package and deliver food and take phone orders, as well as serve customers arriving for curb-side pickup. As regulations have changed, Flanagan’s has relied on data to help determine how many employees they will need where – if regulations call for their dining room to serve at 25 percent capacity, for example, they can look back at their data and assess how they managed staff and service the last time they were at 25 percent capacity. What are your top tools and practices that help you shift gears when needed?
As the easing of restaurant dining restrictions in states across the U.S. has given restaurants a bit of a reprieve from the plethora of economic challenges COVID-19 has caused, it may be difficult to even stop for a moment and ponder the challenges ahead. But as temperatures cool around many parts of the U.S., potentially making outdoor dining less appealing, restaurants will need an airtight off-premise sales structure to sustain business. Many are struggling with that. In new survey research released by Upserve, 47 percent of restaurant operators who responded said their biggest challenge of the past several months has been shifting to a new business model such as online ordering and delivery. Meanwhile, between February and April, Upserve found that online ordering grew 3,868 percent. As winter approaches, how can you fortify your online business and ensure you’re not losing delivery fees to third-party providers? Is your website (and if applicable, your app) easy to navigate for people looking to place an order? Do you make dishes easy to customize due to customer preference or health requirements? Is your menu efficient to prepare and stocked with items that are just as tasty upon delivery as they are served in your dining room? If you offer delivery via third-party provider, are you communicating to customers how much it helps you if they pick up their order instead? Can you entice customers to pick up their order in exchange for a discount or other benefit? People will still crave restaurant food as the virus persists into the cooler months, so how can you streamline the process of connecting them with yours?
Your business likely looks a lot different than it did at the start of the year. Does your insurance? Your coverage may need to adjust to the current environment – and you may be able to negotiate more beneficial terms and payment options. QSR Magazine suggests contacting your advisor to discuss the possibility of a pay-as-you-go option and to ensure your worker’s compensation coverage has kept pace with changes to the number of people you have on staff. Finally, if you’re approaching renewal time, look for a business owners policy that bundles your liability and property insurance at a cost savings.
COVID-19 has turned the employee training rulebook on its head – and it’s a major area of investment among restaurant operators right now. A June survey of senior executives in retail and hospitality found that for 75 percent of respondents, employee training was their highest priority – well above even contactless payment (48 percent). At a time when fluctuations in COVID-19 cases are causing mandates to change at the state and local levels, it’s critical to be able to contact your team (and have them take appropriate precautions) before they even walk through your doors. Can you connect with your staff at a moment’s notice? Before flu season adds to the strains of the past several months, now is the time to assess weaknesses in your communication protocols and ensure everyone on your staff receives alerts about important operational changes promptly – and understands how to adjust to new mandates as needed.