In restaurants just a couple of weeks ago, having a solid plan for off-premise business was highly recommended but perhaps not essential. Well here we are – and for restaurants across the nation, takeout has suddenly become the only option to allow business operations to continue for the time being. Whether you offer off-premise menu items such as takeout meals that customers can pick up outside your door, or you have food delivered, restaurants can play an important role in providing a sense of normalcy and community in these unsettling times. Try to think of your menu and marketing in a new way. What items available through your regular suppliers can be included in care packages to be sent home with people who are house-bound right now? Can you create meal bundles complete with appetizers and comfort food that may appeal to families looking for relief after a day of managing remote learning? Do you have a popular house-made beer that people may crave to relieve some stress at the end of the day? (Note that state regulators have begun to allow delivery of cocktails.) Can you create partnerships with other restaurant operators to pool resources on a temporary basis? How can you think outside of the box and provide food and some much-needed positivity to your customers through the weeks ahead? When spreading the word about your takeout options, think beyond the usual channels – on your social media and email list, encourage people to help promote you to friends at their schools, houses of worship and other local organizations that are eager to help people in your community the weeks ahead.
For many restaurant operators around the U.S., recent weeks have been a stressful blur of trying to keep business open, keeping themselves and their staff safe and healthy, and easing the fears of customers who have been receiving mixed messages about whether or not they should visit restaurants. It’s a time when restaurants need support in many forms – and an important time to lean on your network, at both national and local levels. Consider supporting the National Restaurant Association’s efforts, as well as grassroots efforts underway through Change.org to urge Congress to pass a plan that helps restaurants recover. Food + Tech Connect is assembling a growing list of resources that restaurants can turn to, and Food & Wine has assembled resources too. Also look within your community and join forces with other foodservice organizations to collectively benefit from scale. For example, the Restaurant Response Program in New York is bringing together 30 restaurants in the city, giving them a sum of $40,000 to use their existing food supply and operate as a pick-up/delivery-only food distribution center for a short term. In San Francisco, Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger launched SaveOurFaves, a directory of local restaurants selling gift certificates to help them offset lost income due to COVID-19. In other cities, restaurant operators are forming online groups where they can share each other’s business needs and collaboratively approach the community and legislators for support from a single point of contact. At Team Four/Value Four, we have created a working group to develop customer-centric strategies and services to help your business recover and build sales momentum. We are committed to helping our customers weather the current challenges and continue to support you as life begins to return to normal – and it will.
As the coronavirus has spread and restaurants have had to transition to a takeout-only model, what are restaurants to do to protect themselves and the customers they serve – and to somehow keep business coming in? Despite the many tech advances that have swept the industry, restaurants – until very recently – have been social places where people are on the front lines. A recent Restaurant Business report, which includes advice from a law firm specializing in employment issues, advises clear communication with employees in several areas: share your plan with them (and make sure it covers employee concerns such as your sick leave policy and your plan of operation during school closures) and provide training to ensure everyone knows what procedures to follow if they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or are diagnosed with it. Day to day, increase your efforts to sanitize door handles and kitchen and bathroom surfaces more often. Some operators are placing hand sanitizer at their building entrances, as well as outside the restroom and at stations in the back of the house. And while delivery was once considered a nice-to-have service, it’s now critical. Even if you don’t currently offer mobile ordering tech, now is the time to adjust your menu and offer a simple takeout menu that can be picked up outside of your establishment or dropped off outside a customer’s door for contactless delivery. Right now food delivery is considered a public service for people who are elderly, vulnerable and isolated, so promote on social media and to neighborhood news groups that you are open and ready to help, and provide your menu and contact information. Finally, encourage people to pick up the phone and call you – it’s old-fashioned but people are missing the social connections that restaurants have long been able to provide. You can provide a valuable way for people maintain those community ties as the industry pulls through this time of uncertainty.
In these shaky times for the restaurant sector, many operators are facing steeply lower guest counts and cancelled catering orders as the spread of the coronavirus – as well as fear about its spread – continues to grow. In light of that, there may be some actions you can take to ease the concerns of guests and keep business coming in over the next couple of months. First, these are times when your email list may prove its worth. Contact your customers and share what you have done in recent weeks to help ensure your restaurant is a safe place to dine – talk about your efforts to enhance your standard cleaning and sanitizing procedures, as well as more recent steps you may have taken, such as replacing your buffet with an à la carte menu, monitoring employee health more vigilantly, increasing the distance between tables or limiting seating. Promote your delivery and the precautions you are taking with it – from packaging food more securely or accommodating no-contact food drop-offs. Share similar messages on your website, voicemail system and social media. This is a time when people are becoming more community-minded and are making a concerted effort to look out for people who are at risk – if you have stories about how your employees are helping people in need right now, share them. Finally, look to other income streams – if you sell merchandise such as packaged food products or gift cards, market those items now and partner with other organizations that might cross-promote them with their own products. You can believe that once fears over the virus have subsided, people will be eager to get out of their houses and gather with friends over food and drinks. Plan now to be part of the comeback.