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.
If you spent years paying business interruption insurance premiums in case your ability to conduct business was ever compromised, you have likely been unpleasantly surprised to find that your policy does not cover pandemics – even, perhaps, when there is no language in your policy excluding them. Now, a number of world-renowned chefs are fighting for that protection. Thomas Keller, Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and many others recently teamed up with the attorney and insurance specialist John Houghtaling to file the country’s first court action to recoup losses from insurers, according to a report from Keller on NBC. They formed the non-profit Business Interruption Group (BIG) (https://werbig.org/) in an effort to help restaurant businesses, large and small, collect insurance claims on the losses they believed would be covered by their business interruption policies. (Foodable conducted this interview with Houghtaling about how restaurant operators can understand their insurance cover and navigate denied claims.) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkdA9bxoNkg&feature=emb_title&utm_source=Foodable+Report+Downloads&utm_campaign=48c90208c4-Foodable_On_Demand_19_015_copy_02_7_29_2019_9_46_C&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_402dfc13cf-48c90208c4-78342785&ct=t%28Foodable_On_Demand_19_015_Wed_9_4_19_9_3_2019_COPY%29 ) BIG has already gotten the attention of the White House, with President Trump urging insurers during a recent press briefing to pay business interruption claims if pandemics are not specifically excluded. (Follow BIG’s progress here.) (https://twitter.com/werbigorg) Meanwhile, the White House has invited number of the founding members of BIG to participate in one of 17 Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups intended to kick-start the foodservice sector.
With weeks of lockdown still ahead for most of the U.S., we’re all yearning to return to “normal.” But until there is a COVID-19 vaccine or some kind of medical treatment available that helps people manage the worst effects of the virus, we are likely looking at continued social distancing in some form. Even if restrictions ease and people are no longer quarantined in their homes, it’s unlikely they will be gathering in large groups to do the kinds of socializing and celebrating that restaurants have, until recently, been able to accommodate. But can you envision a halfway point for your business? In order for businesses to participate in the gradual reopening of the economy, they will have to adopt new practices to help ensure the safety of their employees, suppliers and customers. Will you be able to create adequate space between tables in your dining room, between servers and customers, and between employees? If so, how might this affect the number of tables you turn and staff you employ during a shift? How can you adapt your usual methods of serving food and pouring wine to allow for distance? Can your employees safely get to and from work while maintaining social distancing? Can you adopt no-contact practices for accepting and inspecting deliveries? Is it possible for you to adopt all of these measures while continuing to employ any business-model shifts you are using now to help bring in business, such as selling meal kits and specialty ingredients or providing curbside pickup? Thinking through the possible scenarios now and developing a plan can prepare you to quickly ramp up business – and avoid having to make major decisions on the fly – in the months ahead.
The restaurant industry is a community – and those community connections are providing a lifeline for businesses that need support right now. Beyond government stimulus programs, there are new resources coming about on an almost daily basis in an effort to help restaurants manage through the volatility of these months. One new resource to look to for information and basic moral support is the Coronavirus Facebook group, Coronavirus in the Food and Beverage Industry, for people working in the foodservice industry. The food and beverage market intelligence company Winsight formed the group, which had nearly 4,000 members as of this writing. At a time when it can be hard to keep track of quickly changing news and the formation of new groups aiming to provide industry support, the group is a good one-stop shop for information about topics ranging from COVID-19 news, to restaurant technology, to sources of aid for foodservice businesses. Recent posts included information on new restaurant relief funds, sources of interim employment and discussion on how businesses can maximize the Paycheck Protection Program in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
While the news headlines may be gloomy, don’t lose hope – there actually are foodservice operators who are managing to make lemonade from a whole lot of lemons right now. The ones forging a way through these stressful times are getting creative: Wingstop, which is experiencing an uptick in sales right now, is tapping into an oversupply of chicken and offering a free delivery promotion that is driving sales. Farmers Restaurant Group has shifted to a bodega concept that sells meal kits customers can schedule for pickup using OpenTable. Another operation that has nimbly shifted its approach is Front Burner Restaurants, which operates eight restaurant brands in six cities in the southern U.S. At the start of the pandemic, Front Burner had to furlough 4,000 employees, but it quickly shifted gears to create Furlough Kitchen, a non-profit concept that offers one free meal kit a day from its restaurants to hospitality workers who have been furloughed as a result of COVID-19. Through the support of community donations and anticipated federal stimulus funding, the company rehired employees working in its catering operation, as well as some of its hourly employees who take orders, post on social media and carry food out to customers for curbside pickup. Regular customers, suppliers, vendors and others in the community have been generous with donations and other support, and tips are collected into a pool that is distributed on the pay cards of furloughed employees. Furlough Kitchens currently has two locations and expects to open five additional locations from its existing restaurants soon. In a recent Restaurant Business podcast, Front Burner CEO Randy Dewitt said they are currently funded through the next 60 to 90 days. He thinks that finding a way to keep his restaurants open – even if they’re not profiting right now – should help with their eventual recovery. The community goodwill he is building in the meantime won’t hurt.
On March 26, President Trump signed the CARES Act stimulus legislation into law. The law provides support for restaurant and foodservice owners and workers in the form of payroll incentives, employee benefits, emergency grants and tax relief. (The National Restaurant Association provided a summary of the CARES Act’s benefits to the industry. https://restaurant.org/Articles/News/CARES-Act-provisions-whats-in-it-for-restaurants ) But will the benefits go far enough? Chef Tom Colicchio says no – particularly in the case of independent restaurants. Colicchio is founder of Crafted Hospitality and a visible member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), a newly formed group that is aiming to help save local restaurants impacted by COVID-19. The CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program, a key part of the new law, lets owners of restaurants with fewer than 500 employees apply for a loan of up to $10 million or two and a half months of payroll, whichever is less – and Colicchio said in an interview with Forbes that he thinks it is unlikely the industry will be back on track in that time frame. He is now working with the IRC to advocate for a six-month income replacement program worth $440 billion. Restaurants of any size could benefit on the condition that they continue to fully employ all restaurant staff, as well as pay rent and suppliers to keep money moving through the supply chain. The coalition is aiming to build a strong, united voice that can address lawmakers about what support the restaurant industry needs right now. In addition to providing daily legislative updates, it provides people on its mailing list with a social media toolkit, calls to action that can help operators mobilize their communities and networks, and key messages to use when speaking to the media to help get the word out about what independent restaurants need right now.