Yet another aspect of restaurant life that has shifted in recent months is the typical hour when people are consuming restaurant meals. As people have stayed closer to home – both during and after work – they have also altered the lunch and dinner rush. Even as lockdowns have eased, those changes may persist: A Datassential survey of 1000 consumers that was conducted in May found that 35 percent of respondents planned to avoid peak busy times at restaurants – even after lockdowns eased. But instead of seeing this as a negative, could there be advantages to spreading traffic out through the day and evening and not having a crowd for dinner on a Saturday night? Consumers’ perception of time has shifted with the pandemic. Can your incentives capitalize on that? Getting your customers to come in for dinner on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night instead of a weekend may be easier to sell right now. Lunch may not need to fit squarely between certain hours when people are working from home. More people may be open to picking up an extra-early dinner. Case in point: QSR reported recently that Dunkin’ had significantly grown its year-over-year sales between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. as a result of offers to “entice guests to join, reactivate, and use DD Perks to make their transactions.” In other words, the brand effectively enticed customers to come in during once-slow periods. How can you harness your rewards program and marketing efforts to drive traffic at odd hours? If you have a lot of customers who are socially distancing now, you may be giving them just the incentive they need to support you.
The capacity to offer outdoor seating is changing the competitive landscape for restaurants right now. Datassential surveyed consumers recently about their perceived safety of a long list of places, ranging from food trucks to grocery delis to stadiums. Restaurants with outdoor seating topped the list, with 63 percent of consumers perceiving them as safe places to go when restrictions are lifted. But is outdoor seating a feasible longterm solution, particularly as the weather gets cold? Air quality has been a key factor in allowing restaurant dining rooms to reopen during the pandemic – and ventilation of indoor spaces is likely to become a growing concern for operators who want to continue to serve people in dining rooms. In Florida recently, McDonald’s unveiled its first net-zero energy restaurant, which includes a new automated energy system and passive ventilation dining room designed to circulate air and regulate temperature. Further on down the ladder, look for more restaurants to incorporate potential air quality fixes like ultraviolet lights – such as the ones installed in the grated ceiling at Marlaina's Mediterranean Kitchen in the Seattle area. The technology holds promise: NPR reports that research shows close to 90 percent of airborne particles from a previous coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1) can be inactivated in about 16 seconds when exposed to the same strength of ultraviolet light as in the restaurant's ceiling.
At a time when food delivery providers can charge commissions on the order of 30 percent, restaurant delivery is facing pressure to evolve – and fast. The good news is that new models are appearing all the time – and they are building on the community spirit that has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. Fare is a new commission-free food delivery service that CaterCow just launched in New York City. Instead of delivering small, individual orders, it offers a select menu of foods that must be ordered in advance and are then delivered in bulk to a person’s door within a specific building or neighborhood. While it requires some planning and coordination across households, the only charge is to the recipient, who pays a delivery fee (which starts at $3 and climbs based on the size of the order, according to Restaurant Dive). The restaurant keeps the rest. As restaurants have had to close in recent months, or even in the best cases, adapt their models to the current environment, consumers have become increasingly aware that restaurants need patrons to meet them halfway. That may translate into a willingness to forgo some convenience for the sake of ensuring a restaurant’s profits. Can you entice your customers to adapt to picking up meals themselves if you offer a discount or a free item in exchange? Could you mine your tech to identify pockets of customers, then offer a deal to cost-effectively deliver meals in bulk to apartment buildings yourself? Could you partner with nearby restaurants to share a delivery team? Now is the time to think creatively about how to get food to customers – and to tell them how they can best support you.
As if it wasn’t important to know your true food costs before the pandemic, it’s all the more crucial now as many restaurants around the country are having to operate at a reduced capacity, rethink their menus and determine where to best allocate diminished resources. By getting an accurate handle on your waste, over-portioning, theft and even the shrinkage of ingredients, you can see what menu items are really costing you – then adjust your promotions so you encourage guests to select your highest-margin items. A recent webcast from Restaurant365 reinforced the power of tracking actual vs. theoretical food costs as a means of accomplishing this. Theoretical food costs are what your food costs should be based on the cost of your ingredients, while actual food costs are what your restaurant actually spent. There will be variance in those numbers, but getting a more precise understanding of where it comes from can help you minimize it. While there are a number of places to focus to help cut waste, it can be most helpful to analyze your individual ingredients and identify those with the greatest cost variance. Drilling down like this can help you zero in on what needs attention or adjustment, whether it’s your portion control of a certain dish, the prices you are getting from a supplier, or the need for a substitute dish on the menu.
The need for many U.S. states to revert to tightening safety procedures due to rising COVID-19 infection rates has added yet another challenge to the list of obstacles restaurant operators are managing right now: How to manage fluctuating labor needs. At a time when many operators were rehiring – both to meet consumer demand and the requirements of the Paycheck Protection Program – the closure of dining rooms and renewed consumer wariness about the safety of eating out have made it necessary for operators to pull back on hiring once again. It raises the question of how restaurant operators and the industry overall can hang on to their top talent. Your practices around employee engagement and development can help you differentiate yourself. Focus on relationships. The co-owners of the a Baltimore based restaurant group told Restaurant Dive that during the temporary closure of 14 of its 15 restaurants, they called their hourly workers every week to check in, raised money (and matched it) for gift cards for those employees, and held weekly grocery giveaways for workers. Another operator assisted with employee transport via Lyft and also increased wages to demonstrate a willingness to invest in employees in not only good times but also in difficult times too. Of course, providing financial rewards isn’t possible for everyone right now, so finding ways to make the work meaningful continues to be important. In a recent Eater report, a Miami restaurant manager said she is trying to take her current service model – which is basically that of a food fulfillment center that bags food and sends it out the door – and make it a meaningful one for employees who are used to making the in-restaurant experience memorable for guests. How can you make your current restaurant experience a meaningful one for your team?
Whether we’re talking about seniors isolated at home in recent months or businesses trying to navigate the challenges of lockdowns and a strained economy, it’s clearer than ever that our relationships with other people and organisations can provide a lifeline. To support one another, businesses – particularly those with complementary needs – are creatively stretching the traditional boundaries we have grown accustomed to in an effort to keep the economy going. For example, a recent Foodservice Impact Monitor from Technomic said that to protect employees threatened with job cuts, McDonald’s and the grocery store chain Aldi created an employee-sharing partnership in Germany. The agreement allows workers from McDonald’s to sign up for temporary work at Aldi. It helps Aldi to manage the surge in business it has been experiencing and helps McDonald’s to manage its reduced staffing needs at the moment – all while keeping people employed. Looking at your operation and how your need for staff and support likely ebbs and flows, how can you make the best use of the resources you have? You may have expertise, tools, staff or inventory that can benefit other businesses and organizations in your community. Whether you compete directly or not with those organizations, you collectively contribute to what makes your community appealing to consumers. Consider what you can offer and then tap into your local network to pool resources.
In 2019, the annual employee turnover rate in the restaurant industry reached 75 percent – an all-time high. Labor challenges – whether in finding and hiring talent, providing training, allocating resources to pay and reward staff, or some combination of the above – are a key concern for the vast majority of restaurant operators. COVID-19 has added yet another wrinkle to those challenges. If labor is a challenge for you, you might learn something from Susan Reilly-Salgado, a former doctoral student who, more than 20 years ago, wanted to write her dissertation on the successful hospitality culture that restaurateur Danny Meyer had developed. She approached Meyer, agreed to work in his restaurant for six months, and then partnered with him to create the Hospitality Quotient (HQ) – a set of six soft skills they thought a high-performing employee in Meyer’s restaurants should possess. These skills – curiosity, empathy, integrity, kindness, self-awareness and work ethic – comprise just over half of the skills an employee should possess to do their job well, they believed, with the remaining skills being the technical skills needed to do a specific job. Even if your restaurant offers very different food or serves a different clientele, these qualities should translate. An empathetic employee will make an effort to ensure a guest with a severe food allergy receives the correct dish – and will be mindful of their safety as we emerge from the pandemic. A curious employee will take an interest in learning new skills on the job and will likely spark the kinds of new ideas you need to operate successfully in the current environment. As you look to bring employees back on board or even hire new staff, consider it an opportunity to elevate your service. When you screen applicants, what questions can you ask that will bring HQ qualities to the surface – or demonstrate that a person lacks those qualities?
Everyone needs to eat – but the experience of eating at a restaurant or enjoying restaurant food is something that will keep consumers coming back to your business, particularly if they have had to cook for themselves for several weeks on end. Recent Toast research found that 78 percent of Millennials would rather spend money on an experience such a restaurant or activity than on an item at a store. Whether guests are dining at your restaurant right now or opting for delivery, you can fine-tune the experience you offer. First, focus on making your brand come through effectively via delivery. Ensure your menu of delivery items travels well and represents the best of what you can offer off-premise – and take care to update it online, particularly if you have introduced new items recently. When you send out an order, help customers connect with your business – Deliverect suggests small acts like a handwritten note or a smiley face on a receipt can go a long way, or you can enclose a small photo of your team to introduce customers to the people who are working hard for them behind the scenes right now. Provide vouchers or other promotions to increase future deliveries and in-house orders. Think about how you can get people back to your restaurant once people are ready to dine out again: Stay in touch with other business owners in your community to plan potential events together, and keep your conversations with guests going on social media (share some photos too) so you’re front of mind for them when they are ready to dine out.
To be sure, there are plenty of gloomy news headlines about the restaurant industry right now – and more than ever, restaurants need the support of their communities to recover. But at a time when it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the multitude of challenges standing in the way of rebuilding business, take heart in the examples of operators who are somehow doing better than ever right now. They are succeeding, seemingly, through a combination of letting go of ego, ignoring the desire to keep items on the menu out of sentiment, being willing to flex to new business conditions each day, and focusing on what people need right now – even if it doesn’t necessarily mesh with the polished brand the restaurant had in its beginnings. Take Alinea veteran Eric Rivera of the Seattle restaurant Addo. A report from Wired details, Rivera has been offering an ever-changing menu of items ranging from $9 food bowls, to meal-and-wine packs, to eat-at-home versions of his 20-course tasting menu during the pandemic. He has even thrown in some Game of Thrones- and Seattle Mariners-themed dinners to mix things up. The constant changes give him some new fodder for social media promotion on an ongoing basis, and people are linked from Addo’s social media posts to its Tock sales platform, which allows customers to order meals in advance (and Rivera to better manage inventory and waste). Addo’s dining room now looks more like a warehouse and the employees who once served a roomful of guests are now staffing in-house delivery for the restaurant.
“No one really had this in their playbook.” That’s what one conference planner said in a recent New York Times report about how the pandemic has forced changes to conferences and business meetings – and the hospitality surrounding them. Restaurant operators who hosted events before the pandemic have faced an equally steep learning curve. Now, as guests begin returning to dining rooms and we all look forward to being able to safely gather in larger groups for parties, weddings and less formal celebrations that have been put off in recent months, how can you plan accordingly? If you’re feeling ready to take bookings for events later this year and into 2021, your event management protocol will naturally need an update – and it’s something you can promote to your guests now to encourage their business and demonstrate your commitment to keeping them safe when they gather. As you think about replacing buffets and self-service stations, how can your menu, service model and staffing plan flex to accommodate it? Can you cover or wrap food items, plates and utensils to minimize cross-contamination? Serve individual plates to guests either at the table or in a buffet line? Transition to fixed menus that minimize waste and are easier to prepare and serve? Adapt your indoor and outdoor spaces to ease traffic flow and allow for better ventilation? Your service agreements – both with guests and any vendors you use – may need an update as well to help protect safety and ensure you are protected legally in case lockdown measures force cancellations down the line.