As of this writing, states were starting to announce changes to mask mandates and updated policies regarding how fully to open businesses. Stark differences were emerging in different regions, which may put restaurants in an awkward position in the months ahead – particularly those serving customers across state lines. Now, perhaps more than earlier in the pandemic, it’s important to scrutinize your stance on mask wearing, maintaining social distancing and other pandemic-related protocols. If your state is easing restrictions, how do you plan to manage resistance from staff and guests who are anxious about getting life back to normal? If your state is sustaining or doubling down on restrictions, how can you manage resistance from people with pandemic fatigue, knowing that your business could make news for the wrong reasons if you ease precautions prematurely? Anticipate what lines your business is unwilling to cross and how you can communicate about them in a constructive way to guests and staff alike.
Are your customers always right? Of course not. But for decades, many restaurant operators have behaved this way, aiming to accommodate anything customers request or demand (and sometimes taking abuse in the process). Many customers have adopted the expectation that this is okay. But the pandemic may spur a change in thinking. Right now, your ability to operate safely and continuously, retain your employees, minimize staff illness and prevent the spread of the virus requires firm boundaries. What lines are you unwilling to cross for customers? Consider how you would respond to everything from lapse in social distancing in your dining room to a tantrum from an unmasked customer. Be clear about your policy with employees, provide language to help them handle a difficult situation professionally, and back up your team as needed. (This applies to abuse you receive from customers online too.)
You may have found ways to socially distance tables in your dining room, invent curb-side pickup service outside your restaurant or create an outdoor eating area where one didn’t exist before – but how feasible has it been for you to make the changes to your kitchen that the pandemic has mandated for safety compliance? Restaurant kitchens generally conjure images of busy, loud spaces where people collaborate side by side, proper ventilation is a challenge and mask wearing can hinder both communication and comfort. That model doesn’t work anymore – so what can be done to both keep your kitchen busy with food preparation and minimize risks to staff? Futuristic Labs founder Goutham Gandhi says automation, which has become the norm in so many other facets of our lives, still has a long way to go in the kitchen – and the pandemic may fast-track its deployment. In a recent Modern Restaurant Management report, he predicts that the use of tools such as Riku, an automatic rice and curry maker that creates a range of recipes, will become the norm. This winter may prove telling in that area, particularly if and when operators experience last-minute labor shortages due to illness or lockdowns. Even if the automation of food preparation tasks isn’t practical for you, it’s still important to assess your menu and identify ways to minimize the labor and time required to prepare it. That may involve incorporating more speed-scratch and frozen foods, and identifying areas where labor-saving tools, technology or procedures may help you do more with less staff.