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.
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.
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.
If you’re open for business right now, you can take some extra steps to keep your workplace and team safe. First, at a time when bad news is rampant and often unreliable, take your cues from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization or local authorities on the state of COVID-19 containment in your area. Direct your staff based on those reports to ensure you make decisions using accurate, up-to-date information. Then trace the path of your team each day and identify actions you can take to protect people: Does your team use public transport to reach you? How can you help them protect their safety en route? Can you update your cleaning protocol to ensure your team has clean hands when they enter your facility? How can you ensure physical distancing in your kitchen? What technology tools at your disposal could enable some people to complete tasks from home? If a team member becomes ill, what is your back-up plan? Down the line, it is likely that we’ll have to manage either new mutations of the coronavirus or new virus outbreaks. Preparing now may help sustain your business.
As the coronavirus has spread and restaurants have had to transition to a takeout-only model, what are restaurants to do to protect themselves and the customers they serve – and to somehow keep business coming in? Despite the many tech advances that have swept the industry, restaurants – until very recently – have been social places where people are on the front lines. A recent Restaurant Business report, which includes advice from a law firm specializing in employment issues, advises clear communication with employees in several areas: share your plan with them (and make sure it covers employee concerns such as your sick leave policy and your plan of operation during school closures) and provide training to ensure everyone knows what procedures to follow if they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or are diagnosed with it. Day to day, increase your efforts to sanitize door handles and kitchen and bathroom surfaces more often. Some operators are placing hand sanitizer at their building entrances, as well as outside the restroom and at stations in the back of the house. And while delivery was once considered a nice-to-have service, it’s now critical. Even if you don’t currently offer mobile ordering tech, now is the time to adjust your menu and offer a simple takeout menu that can be picked up outside of your establishment or dropped off outside a customer’s door for contactless delivery. Right now food delivery is considered a public service for people who are elderly, vulnerable and isolated, so promote on social media and to neighborhood news groups that you are open and ready to help, and provide your menu and contact information. Finally, encourage people to pick up the phone and call you – it’s old-fashioned but people are missing the social connections that restaurants have long been able to provide. You can provide a valuable way for people maintain those community ties as the industry pulls through this time of uncertainty.
While at the time of this writing fewer than 20 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed in the U.S., the illness had still created a ripple effect: Across the country, many Chinese restaurants have taken a hit due to the panic associated with the illness. Even if you don’t operate a Chinese restaurant, you can likely appreciate the challenge of trying to manage a sudden health crisis that threatens your brand – or even your entire restaurant category. The widespread nature of supply chains, along with the increased risk of viruses and weather-related crop damage, mean your restaurant could face a brand crisis at any time. It’s critical to have a contingency plan for responding to such events so you don’t have to create a plan mid-crisis. In a report from the Vending Times, Steritech’s Paula Herald suggests brands should take such steps as securing food supplies and distribution agreements, developing a food security plan to protect their operation from theft in the case of shortages, reviewing and refining their sick-leave policies, developing a plan to manage widespread absenteeism including limits on public transport, cross-training staff so workers can easily step in for others who are out, and keeping (and discussing with employees) up-to-date-communication plans and staff contact lists so they’re not struggling to get in touch with their team during a health crisis. Are you confident in your current crisis response plan – and in your team’s ability to carry it out?
Certain foods that have been served to guests can be served again to other guests – but those foods need to meet strict criteria. As Statefoodsafety.com reports, food in an unopened package that shows no signs of contamination can be served again. So, undisturbed packets of condiments, creamer, sweeteners and crackers are all fair game. The same cannot be said of the bread basket that returns to the kitchen untouched.
In the wake of recent reports that the FDA and CDC knew of three E.coli outbreaks connected to romaine lettuce that infected nearly 300 people and killed six, a number of researchers in the food safety industry have gone on the offensive. The editor of Food Safety News, for one, declared that in articles it prints about the agencies in the coming weeks, it would attach warning language saying “both agencies have shown a reckless disregard for the public’s right to know, and their reliability going forward remains suspect.” Restaurant operators can decide for themselves how much trust to place in the agencies when it comes to their supply chains, but in the meantime, some are taking actions ranging from omitting menu items with poor track records on contamination to relying on product recall coverage to protect their business in the case of an outbreak.