Even in the midst of mass unemployment and deep uncertainty, restaurants that have found a way to remain open are somehow continuing to make their customers and communities feel cared for. But what about caring for the restaurant employees who are taking the risk of coming to work and serving the public right now? Or the millions of others who are currently out of work? Challenges to employees’ physical, mental and financial health abound right now. There are ventures springing up throughout the country to help. Efforts like Furlough Kitchen and HospitALLity House are helping to address hunger by providing free meals to laid-off hospitality workers. A charity organization called No Us Without You launched in Los Angeles to help undocumented restaurant workers in the city. Restaurant Careers and Hospitality Relief Dashboard are offering leads on grants, interim work and other assistance. Finally, a list of resources, https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus-how-to-help/#restaurants-and-food-workers, from CNN includes links to other sources of support for restaurants and food workers, as well as suggestions for communities looking to help the industry right now.
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.
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.
If takeout meals, meal kits or refrigerated meals to be prepared at home represent a larger percentage of your business right now – or you suspect they will in the future – make sure your packaging and heating instructions have kept up with the changes. Prepare clear cooking and reheating instructions and label your packaging accordingly (and don’t forget to list common allergens). If food can be refrigerated or frozen, include consume-by dates too.
Restaurants in many parts of the country are trying to navigate this strange in-between phase in which businesses are beginning to open and welcome customers back inside their doors. Your employees, customers and you may still be unsure about how to adequately protect everyone’s health at this stage – and people’s concerns about how to balance health and economic challenges still run the gamut. As much as you can, use clear signage at your front door and on your website homepage about your restaurant’s current safety policies and the wearing of masks indoors and when social distancing is difficult. If you are being stringent with employees about the wearing of masks, make sure you have extra masks at your front door so any unmasked person entering your restaurant can wear one too – and politely refuse service to anyone who doesn’t cooperate. It’s possible to welcome people back and emphasize how much you have missed them while also ensuring you protect your business in the ways you and your state authorities see fit.
COVID-19 has made food traceability, transparency and protection all the more important – and difficult, particularly as meat facility workers have fallen ill in recent weeks and social distancing rules have limited in-person audits and inspections. So what can operators do to ensure their food supply is as safe as possible? Take this time to urge transparency from your vendors and understand what systems they are using to trace food through the supply chain. Uncertainty in the global food supply chain is also likely going to drive food businesses to think even more locally. Is there an opportunity right now for you to source more ingredients locally – or adjust your menu so you can?