If you’re getting more takeout business right now, is your take-out packaging up to the task? Having the right packaging will help you not only ensure your food arrives in good order, but it also enables you to broaden (or at least not limit) the variety of items you feel comfortable including on your off-premise menu. Safety-seal and clearly label items so customers who are gathering in groups can easily identify their meal in the bag without opening each item first. Finally, at a time when your customers are likely to be ordering more takeout but there has been a decline in the use of reusable cups and containers due to safety requirements, consider the environmental impact of your packaging and lean toward easily recyclable materials.
In a recent interview with Restaurant Technology News, OneDine CEO Rom Krupp said he thinks of COVID-19 as almost a compliance event – something that restaurants simply must adapt to accommodate, just as they have installed ramps for the disabled and offered gluten-free menus for gluten-sensitive guests. In that vein, it’s something restaurants will have to take actions to support not just in the near term, when large portions of the population are restricted in their movements and ability to connect with others, but also in the longer term as older and immune-compromised customers continue to have to think about their risks. As you adapt your safety procedures, think longterm. What products, technology and processes can help you minimize contact between your employees and guests on a permanent basis – and how can you implement changes in a way that inspires loyalty and protects your brand?
Remember when restaurant safety was something guests valued but didn’t necessarily need or want to see? How times have changed. Guests appreciate seeing how you’re protecting their safety and it can make a difference in which restaurant they choose. The Fish City Grill restaurant brand, which has outlets in Texas and surrounding states, introduced a handwashing timer that goes off every 20 minutes to remind employees to stop and wash hands – all within earshot and in sight of guests. Can you take any additional steps like this to not just improve your safety practices but to make them more visible? This could include having team members wipe down front- and back-of-house surfaces within view of guests, posting in-restaurant signs and social media messages about your new cleaning protocol and employee safety measures, introducing tamper-proof seals on your packaging, or, if you offer in-house delivery, promoting the safety benefits of having a safety-trained restaurant employee protecting your customers’ food in transit. You can also display a digital dashboard on a tablet at your cash register to keep guests informed of the last time a team member sanitized your dining room, restrooms and kitchen.
Research shared in a recent Datassential webinar said 72 percent of consumers don’t trust others to act responsibly when non-essential businesses (including bars and restaurants) reopen. As consumers begin to gather again, they don’t necessarily want their restaurant experience to feel just like it did a few months ago. They have new expectations of not only business operators and staff but of the other consumers around them. While one irresponsible guest can negatively impact the experience of others despite your best efforts, there are steps you can take to set expectations for all guests before anyone even sets foot inside. The Datassential research found that the vast majority of restaurant guests favor such actions as requiring those picking up takeout orders to wait outside and having only one person in a party enter at once, offering seating only to those who have made reservations and pre-orders, prohibiting large groups and designating certain hours for vulnerable guests only. At the top of the list of actions consumers said helped to build trust: maintaining six feet or more distance from others (85 percent), having staff at the door to manage your facility’s capacity (83 percent), requiring customers to sanitize hands upon entry (81 percent) and ensuring any guests at the bar have a seat (81 percent). Don’t be afraid to overdo when it comes to communicating safety.
COVID-19 has not only demonstrated how important it is to wash hands and monitor personal wellness to limit the spread of the illness; it has also shown the vulnerability of the supply chain, both in terms of its likelihood of being interrupted and its possibility of contamination. In the coming weeks, the FDA will be releasing its New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint. It will outline the agency’s strategy to create “a more digital, traceable, and safer food system” in the next decade. It is expected to provide information on enhanced traceability of the supply chain, tools to help protect and prevent contamination caused by food ordered online, and guidance on further developing food safety cultures on farms, in food facilities and in homes.
As restaurants reopen their dining rooms, there has been much focus on maintaining distance between tables. But don’t neglect your kitchen. While a few months ago, it might have been workable to have your back-of-house team working side by side and shouting across the room in a space with passable ventilation, that won’t work now. If your staff prepared each dish in a line, can you adjust your procedures so one person is responsible for preparing and plating each dish – or better stagger staff to allow greater distance between them? In the interest of limiting the spread of the virus should one of your staff be infected, can you create teams of employees that rotate on and off shifts together? While the National Restaurant Association and your local authorities have offered reopening guidelines, you know your kitchen best – and what safety precautions are most likely to fall by the wayside during a rush. What weak points can you address to protect your employees and business?
Local governments have been focusing on outdoor dining for good reason: As the weather warms and we need air conditioning to keep spaces cool, the risk of spreading virus particles can increase indoors. Recent research from the University of Oregon and the University of California, Davis, found that the path of air circulation within a restaurant plays an important role limiting the spread of the virus, particularly because the air stream in a restaurant can carry virus particles beyond the six-foot social distancing guideline. However, risks improve in situations with a window and an exhaust fan helping to manage air flow. The research team created a visual model to show the differences in transmission in a closed room where indoor air is recirculated and in a room that circulates some outdoor air through a window. While circulating outdoor air isn’t workable in every restaurant or every part of the country, Boston 25 News reports that Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, one of the authors of the research, said you can test a building for the presence of the virus and then take steps to adjust air circulation patterns to minimize risk in your facility.
Many restaurant operators managing the stress of rebuilding business are encountering an extra challenge: how to ease their employees’ anxiety about everything from wearing face masks during service to handling guests who aren’t respecting your new safety procedures. People who are comfortable in their work environment are more effective employees – and are more likely to stay employed with you too. A Restaurant Business report (https://bit.ly/2XgBuQd) highlights efforts a number of operators are taking to ensure employees get the emotional support they need, as well as the training required to handle current stresses. When in doubt, communicate with your team – by regularly surveying them about what’s working and what isn’t, giving them a point of contact and other resources to turn to at any time with concerns, and using tech-based communication platforms to help keep them informed about what’s happening with your business each day.
Even during pre-pandemic times, menus were among the dirtiest items in a restaurant. How you present your menu now can not only make a difference to the safety of your business, but also send a message to your community about how you are protecting their health right now. If you can, opt for chalkboard or digital menus that can be adjusted as needed and don’t need to be discarded after each use (like paper menus). If you use laminated menus that can be cleaned, follow the proper precautions: Food Safety News advises cleaning and disinfecting them after each use with a soft cloth, separating used menus from clean, avoiding harsh chemicals or submerging menus in water, and letting menus dry completely before reuse. One alternative to this in your dining room is posting each side of your menu under glass on each table for easy viewing and cleanup.
It can be easy to get caught up in the new bells and whistles that may protect the safety of your restaurant and improve guests’ perception of your safety practices in the months ahead. But you can take some comfort in focusing on the key food safety practices you had been following – plus ensuring your employees wear a mask. A recent survey of 1,000 adults by the International Food Information Council Foundation found that of the food safety actions businesses can take right now, consumers view the wearing of protective equipment, frequent cleaning, the wearing of gloves while working, and the availability of sanitizers or wipes as the most important. While top responses were consistent from April to May, having employees wear masks while working jumped to the top of the list in May – at 36 percent. It sends an extra signal to guests that you value their safety.