How to Reopen Your Restaurant – Safely and Profitably

As states begin to allow businesses to reopen, most in 3 phases of lessening restrictions, all restaurant owners are scrambling to decide what to do. Questions like “can I afford to reopen my dining room with only 10% capacity”, “when will we go to phase 2 and phase 3”, “is there a possibility that I will have to shut down again” and “should I just wait until things return to normal” run through our heads 24 hours a day. We read all the information we can find and post the CDC guidelines on our walls, but still there is no solid answer.

Well…there is no solid answer and the best advice is to make the decisions that are right for your business, but it is absolutely time to start making some decisions. At Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting we have been digesting the same information as everyone else has and we’ve consolidated it into 7 ways to ensure that your restaurant reopens safely and continues to thrive and grow in uncertain times.

Accept That Things Will Not Ever Be the Same Again. If you are waiting for things to return to normal, it is not going to happen anytime soon as the coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. On top of that we have been shut down for two and a half months. That is a massive reboot to our system. The way we think is different, the way we dine is different, and our routines no longer exist. Consumers are returning to the world in all different levels of fear, anxiety, denial, irritability and with a general feeling of loss. The way we run restaurants will need to change. The restaurateurs who understand this will stand a much better chance of succeeding.

Commit to the Safety of Your Guests, Your Staff, and Yourself. If there is one thing that has remained consistent it is all the things you can do to make your restaurant environment more safe and these are things you must adhere to that probably will not go away for a long time.

  • Remove tables and block off booths to allow parties to stay 6 ft apart.
  • Remove extra tables to allow for larger walkways
  • Do not seat groups larger than 10
  • Have staff wear masks and wash their hands frequently
  • Do not allow sick employees to work and take the temperature of all staff before they enter the building

Beyond these there are a number of additional suggestions that go even a step further.

  • Use disposable single use menus or coated menus that can be sanitized after each use
  • Have guests use hand sanitizers as a part of the seating process
  • Use only single use condiments eliminating all items that are normally passed from one table to the next
  • Have servers use gloves to deliver food and to clear tables. Remember that gloves are single use. They should be discarded after every use and hands should be washed every time.
  • Eliminate any self-serve processes
  • In new construction, build restrooms with handwashing stations outside the restroom

Let’s face it, everything on these two lists is a hassle, but the fact is they are now part of our daily work lives. We need to master them and Train, Train, TRAIN our staffs to execute them 100%.

Raise the Bar on Your Takeout Game. Take-out has officially become a necessity for all restaurants. If you shut down and did not master take-out, curbside pickup, or home delivery during the last two months, you need to figure out which is best for you and master it now.

Three kinds of take-out guests have evolved:

  1. Those that are comfortable going inside and interacting with people to get their food
  2. Those that are more comfortable with the limited interaction and convenience of curbside pickup
  3. Those who are more comfortable with having someone deliver food to their home.

Of all of these, we believe curbside is the one with the widest appeal and with the most innovative focus. Unless you live in the same building as the restaurant, walking in to pay for and pick up your order has a zero-convenience factor. Two months of shut down has taught us that delivery comes with a multitude of fees, an additional set of hands touching the package, and food that may ride all around town as drivers consolidate pickups into multiple deliveries. Companies like Swipeby are starting to pop up with technology allowing customers to order and pay on a mobile app. The restaurant uses a tablet to receive the order and GPS tracking alerts the restaurant when the guest is within a one-mile radius…the phone never has to ring.

Even if you don’t go all out with a new ordering platform, you need to at least evaluate your takeout process and make sure it is the best it can be. Eliminate waiting on the phone, search for solutions to allow payment before arrival, evaluate your packaging to preserve food quality and use your social media to market your process. Print take out menus and make sure they go home with all your guests.

Maximize Outdoor Seating. For the first time in history landlords and local governments seem to be working together to help struggling restaurants. With limited indoor seating, outdoor dining will allow you to increase your seating capacity and it is also safer. Sunlight and open air are much more appealing to wary guests than spending time inside a room breathing the same air as everyone else as it gets blown around by heating and air conditioning systems.

If you have outdoor dining space do everything you can to make it visible and attractive. If you do not, work with your local government to obtain waivers for temporary outdoor dining. Some cities are already offering 3-month temporary outdoor dining permits for free. Sidewalks and even parking lots can easily be converted with some temporary fencing, patio furniture and umbrellas to a space where people can actually be seen enjoying a restaurant experience again.

Just like strict sanitation and curbside delivery, outdoor dining is more important than ever and here to stay. Even if it costs money to create your outside space, make it one that can be used year-round and begin to develop it for the future.

Embrace Technology. And by embracing technology we mean start with the cell phone. Apple pay allows your cell phone to pay your check without touching anything. Tablets allow pay at the table options so that your credit card never gets handled by anyone else. These are simple suggestions but open your mind up a little more to the possibilities of minimizing contact by texting your order to your server. Honestly being able to have a text conversation with my server sounds fun. Or if you want to eliminate crowds inside the restaurant, you can always text guests when their table is ready. What if hosts actually gave menus to guests and they waited outside to be greeted by their server. The server could use a tablet to place drink orders, appetizers or even the entire meal outside in the open air, before leading guests to their table. This is a jumble of ideas, but this is also a time for “what ifs”. Restaurants must evolve and using technology is a great way to do it. The tech world is already thinking like this. Be prepared to be bombarded by salespeople with all their new ideas.

As a side note. Cell phones are nasty. You should wipe your cell phone regularly with sanitary wipes. Restaurants will need to provide sanitary wipes and encourage guests to wipe down their phones before placing them on the table.

Use Marketing to Drive Monday through Wednesday Business. Although there are exceptions to the rule most restaurants do the bulk of their business Thursday through Sunday. Limited seating will limit sales during this period and make it harder for guests to get in. The answer is move some of that business to the front part of the week. Ease of getting a table is your first marketing bullet. Guests have not experienced it yet, but they will soon grow frustrated with the difficulty of getting a Friday or Saturday night reservation. It is time for a paradigm shift, and we are just the people to turn Tuesday night into date night. With menu item development, price manipulation and good marketing, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday can become busier sales days. The specials that you work so hard on for Friday night or the 4 course with wine pairings you have ready for Saturday will sell just as well on Monday and Tuesday if you get enough people excited about it. So, will all you can eat lasagna. It all depends on your location and the style of your restaurant but there is a way to drive sales throughout the week. Honestly, I think we have not focused on it in the past because we just needed a break from the past weekend and before the next one starts. Finally, there is the opportunity to create some consistency in daily sales rather than banking on the weekend.

Get Creative. Every time there is a crisis, restaurants suffer and then they come back. Everyone felt people would never dine out again after the great depression and more recently, we all felt restaurants would never recover from losses after 9/11. When Katrina devastated New Orleans, we were all sure we had lost a hundred years of dining traditions. In each case there were casualties, but the restaurant industry survived. It survived because we are a group of extremely creative people. We are also an industry built on a sense of community and on a need to share success with our fellow restaurateurs. Restaurants need to evolve and evolve quickly to grow and remain profitable, but we are one of the most well-equipped industries to accomplish that.

Think outside the box. Is this the time that part of your building should become a grab and go market? Does your takeout menu need a family style section? Or do the slower internal sales provide you the opportunity to develop a “ghost restaurant” as a second menu coming out of your kitchen that is promoted only by delivery services? Every restaurant has unique opportunities to capture new business and to appeal to new dining trends. It just requires challenging yourself to question and create.

So many restaurants were hanging by a thread before the pandemic for so many reasons and a lot needs to change. Menu item prices need to reflect the true cost of ever-increasing ingredients, guests need to be ok with paying more, workers need a fair wage and benefits. None of this can be solved immediately or by one person, but now is an incredible opportunity to remake our industry.

At Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting we are eager to be a part of this process. We will continue to digest every piece of information and data we can get our hands on and do our best to help restaurateurs work toward a rewarding and profitable new normal.

Michael Maxwell – Partner, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting

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