We’re all suffering from Covid fatigue – and a desire to get back to some semblance of pre-pandemic life. But restaurants are in a tough spot: They will likely be unable to relax pandemic safety policies while local regulations continue to change and the public’s concerns about safety rise and fall with the presence of new virus variants. (And for some time still, customers will be taking precautions based on their personal health and vaccination status.) How does a restaurant keep pace with the shifting environment – and keep staff informed about ever-evolving regulations? A recent report in The Atlantic about how we might manage the virus going forward may provide some clues. Several experts interviewed for the piece, including an infectious disease physician and global-health expert, anticipate we will adopt a tiered system of response – similar to how we categorize and respond to hurricanes. Rather than flipping a switch – masks or no masks, well-ventilated indoor dining or no indoor dining at all, for example – we can expect gradations. Future approaches will likely include pieces of the safety protocols you have had to adopt over the past two years – with some choice involved in how far a business goes. Going forward, how can you adapt your training procedures to flex with current environmental risks, as well as to concerns of employees and customers? Consider how you can provide just-in-time updates to trainees by packaging and delivering the content in new ways.
For consumers with food allergies, eating out can be a minefield. But restaurants that earn the trust of these guests stand to win customers for life. To send the clear message that you take food allergies and sensitivities seriously, get out in front with your messaging. Online, ensure your website includes ingredient lists and identifies common allergens – that information can easily help an allergic guest decide in advance to eat with you. In your restaurant, post a QR code that guests can scan for allergen-specific information – and ensure it’s in plain sight on menus and in the locations where guests place orders.
At the start of the pandemic, many restaurant industry experts noted that “safety has become the new hospitality.” Nearly two years later, that continues to be true, and the beneficiaries of this hospitality are not only customers but also employees. In fact, at a time when hospitality employee turnover has hit record highs, FSR Magazine suggests operators make a concerted effort to market their employee safety. This is especially important as we approach the winter months. Think about it: If people are eager to get out of the house for a meal in the midst of flu season, they want to be extra sure that their server isn’t working while under the weather – or that they aren’t taking unnecessary risks by going out to enjoy a meal. Your employees (and prospective employees) also want some assurance that you are doing all you can to keep them healthy at work, while also respecting their need to miss a shift if they do become ill. Recent research found that the especially high turnover rate in the hospitality industry in recent months is due, in part, to employee concerns about getting sick while on the job. Consider what you can do to incentivize employee health – vaccination bonuses are just one example – and then promote your policy on your website and social media.
The likelihood of lingering COVID-19 infections, along with other seasonal illnesses, could make staffing more challenging this winter. To help ensure you’re doing all you can to minimize the spread of infection on your team and help your employees feel safe coming to work, consider how you can adjust your procedures to make employee-guest interactions safer and more efficient. Encourage guests to review your menu, order and pay via QR code. Consider adopting tableside technology that allows a guest to push a button if they need help so your staff can visit tables only when needed. Adjust your procedures for delivering and clearing dishes so your staff aren’t having to stand close to each person in a party. Where possible, stagger seating throughout your indoor and outdoor dining areas to minimize congestion. Finally, listen to employees who have concerns about sickness this winter and encourage the team to share possible solutions – making them feel heard can go a long way in making them feel safe.
This winter, we could be in for yet another season in which the spread of viruses makes people hesitant to eat out. Now is a good time to ensure your indoor dining areas feel as safe as possible. While it’s more common for COVID-19 to spread through close contact with an infected person, airborne transmission can occur in spaces with poor ventilation. The CDC advises you have your ventilation systems checked to make sure they are operating efficiently, and also increase the circulation of outdoor air by opening windows and doors and prioritizing outdoor seating. Also consider running your HVAC system at maximum outdoor airflow for two hours before and after it is occupied, checking filters for proper installation and function, and possibly improving the engineering controls of the system to enhance ventilation efficiency.
New safety standards are in the pipeline that could impact your procedures and the frequency of inspections for back-of-house workers exposed to dangerous heat. In response to increased episodes of record-breaking outdoor temperatures in recent months, the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) is drafting new standards for restaurant kitchens in an effort to encourage practices like having cold water readily accessible, providing breaks to allow workers to cool off, and helping new workers to gradually build a tolerance to heat, Restaurant Business reports. While the final rules won’t become regulations for a number of months, expect an increase in inspections that cover these practices in the meantime.
As flu season dovetails with the Covid-19 delta variant in the coming months, you can expect a rise in employee illnesses and even just false alarms that nonetheless require you to exercise extra caution when serving guests. The reservations platform Resy recently announced it is offering a free way for restaurants to track employees’ proof of Covid-19 vaccination, test results and other details used to track symptoms of illness. Restaurant Business reports that Resy has partnered with Clear to offer Clear’s Health Pass technology through 2022 to restaurants using Resy.
Restaurant workers are expected to be helpful, caring and upbeat – but that can be a tall order at a time when restaurants are under great stress and many customers are behaving badly. Taking steps to protect the mental and physical health of your team can help you retain your existing staff and attract new people to your restaurant. First, provide a supportive environment where your team can acknowledge mental health challenges and feel it’s acceptable to talk about them with a manager and ask for time away from work to manage them. If you can, seek out discounts to local gyms, yoga studios or other facilities that can help your staff blow off steam – or offer to host a group fitness class for your team on a regular basis. You can also turn to help from apps designed with hospitality professionals in mind. Two are Sanvello, which provides support for a range of mental health concerns, and Ben’s Friends, a substance abuse support network for people in the industry.
Throughout the pandemic, a major barrier to the reopening of restaurants has been the air quality of indoor spaces – and how operators can ensure their dining rooms are safe. As restaurant operators reopen their indoor dining rooms, many are investing in systems and products that promote air filtration and ventilation as the pandemic winds down – and for protection down the line. The investment can be substantial but also a major selling point for guests concerned about safety. If you’re considering anything ranging from small tabletop air purifiers to HVAC system updates, consult with someone who can assess how air moves around your facility – including the locations and spacing of vents and air filters, as some purifiers inadvertently increase the spread of aerosols if spaced incorrectly. Also consider the noise of any new units you install – they shouldn’t require guests to speak more loudly to be heard, and again, spread more aerosols. Finally, have a means of measuring air quality in your restaurant and understand how the number and locations of guests, and your efforts to change ventilation and filtration, can impact your air
As you open your doors to guests this spring, the windows and doors helping you ventilate your facility could also make it easier for pests to find their way inside. Check screens on windows and doors for holes and other damage, and if you have storage areas or outbuildings that haven’t been used as frequently during the pandemic, check for rodent activity. Inspect the exterior of your facility for cracks and trim back any brush that could harbor pests close to your walls. Ensure any sticky spills aren’t left for long periods, particularly if you have staff and guests circulating regularly between indoor and outdoor seating areas. Finally, since insects can hitch a ride into your kitchen on contaminated food, be sure to check your food deliveries for pest activity upon arrival and to store them promptly afterwards.