As we look back on a year with COVID and look ahead to a future without it, it's time to start thinking about how to safely re-open restaurants. Depending on where you're located, the American experience of restrictions has been drastically different. However, regardless of whether you had to shut down completely or modify your offering to keep serving throughout the pandemic, there's a lot for the restaurant industry to still consider for the post-COVID period.
Challenges still to come
To say this coronavirus pandemic experience has been a challenge for restaurant owners would be a gross understatement. Businesses across the country are struggling, but reduced restrictions in cities are on the horizon. What restaurants do now can make all the difference in how this transition goes ahead.
There are three key challenges that restaurant businesses are going to have to manage:
1. Getting customers back to the restaurant
2. Keeping your venues, restaurant workers, and customers COVID-safe.
3. Complying with all the CDC, federal government rules, and your cities rules
When your bottom line has been hit, the natural focus will be to get people through the door and drive sales up. However, any COVID concerns could see your restaurant forced to shut down again. The steps forward have to be balanced.
8 tips for opening the restaurant after COVID
Using the CDC recommendations as a reference, what follows is a best practice guide for re-opening restaurants after COVID-19 restrictions have lifted. Including both marketing and COVID-safe tips.
1. Determine your service options
According to the CDC, you have four options to consider when resuming service, factoring in COVID risk levels. The highest risk is, of course, re-opening indoor dining with indoor seating and no distancing implemented, especially if you have a popular restaurant: it's going to be packed. This is not recommended until an all-clear has been announced and everyone is COVID free.
The safest route is to do take-out or delivery only, but of course, this is not an option that is really helping you to re-open. What restaurants should be aiming for is a hybrid that sits in between these extremes.
Social distancing helps to reduce contact between people, which keeps them safe. Indoors, all tables should be separated by 6 feet. If you have the capacity, keep patrons outdoors as much as possible. To keep orders up while obeying restrictions indoors, you can encourage takeaway, curbside pick-up, or deliveries.
2. Put social distancing and contactless practices in place
When you open your doors, you're going to need communication tools to let your customers know how you're running your venue. Put up signs that detail how many people can be inside, how the tables must be arranged, and perhaps even stickers on the floor to signal the correct distance that people should be standing from one another at the cash register.
Speaking of the cash register, contactless is king in the COVID environment. If it's possible, try to avoid cash and implement a POS that accepts contactless payments.
Menus should also be taken online to remove the issue of people touching and sharing physical menus. One great solution is to use a QR code on the table where customers can use their own phones to access the menu. You could take these solutions a step further to include ordering through the online platform, but simply removing the menu is a big step in the COVID safe direction.
3. Check your food inventory
One of the most challenging aspects of operating through these uncertain times is managing your inventory. With roughly 30% of your revenue going toward food on a normal day, miscalculations and losses can really hit your bottom line when it's harder to predict your capacity.
Restaurants should count and measure ingredients to make sure everything is accounted for and consider implementing solutions like WISK, to streamline this process. Paper orders and spreadsheets are inefficient and prone to human error. Plus, they’re not exactly hygienic because they involve physically handling documents.
Software like WISK can help you to quickly and safely take inventory, as well as make automated orders based on your restaurant data.
4. Introduce and monitor guidelines with staff
Your people are on the frontlines. What they do during this period will be heavily critiqued by your customers. Communicating your expectations to them and ensuring they follow your guidelines is critical to keeping your patrons feeling safe. This also makes your staff feel comfortable that you're taking safety seriously.
Here are some best practices to relay to your restaurant staff:
- Everyone should be wearing a mask at all times
- Every table should be cleaned between customers
- Pens and other items should not be shared
- Sanitizer should be readily available around the restaurant
- Staff should be directed to wash hands after collecting plates or handling other items touched by customers.
Outside of how your staff behaves in front of customers, it's essential that you communicate rules regarding their health at work. If anyone is showing even minimal signs of illness, they should know that they must call in sick. Consider reviewing your time off policies to ensure your staff feel comfortable calling in sick.
5. Advertise your re-opening
Whether you had to shut down fully or you've been operating at a limited capacity, any changes should be shouted from the rooftops. People are dying to return to normal. It's a cause for celebration, so treat it like one.
Update your website
If you have a website, add a pop-up that lets people know you're coming back and add a section that details how you will be running things. Advertising your re-opening will need to be a mix of celebration with reassurance that you're welcoming people safely. Your website is the place where you should have the most detail about your COVID-safe plan. You could also feature a countdown to build excitement for the opening.
Promote on social media
Design your social media strategy to have a variety of posts that:
- Let people know when you're opening back up
- Explain what changes will be implemented to keep people safe (add a link to your website for more information)
- Show people how they can find your latest menu
- Hook them with mouthwatering shots of your dishes
- Detail if they need to book ahead or follow any guidelines themselves to enter.
6. Address any concerns your customers may have ahead of time
There is a lot of confusing information circulating around about COVID-19. Addressing common questions or concerns will help you to attract people to your restaurant and also relieve a bit of pressure from your staff when these questions inevitably come up.
If you have a website, you can introduce an FAQ section, or you can simply print this and put it up in the restaurant to direct people's attention when questions come up.
Common questions or concerns could include:
- "Can I get COVID-19 from a food worker handling my food?"
- "What are you doing to minimize contact and reduce the risk of spread?"
- "How do you ensure guests are safe?"
The answers to all of these questions should return people to the measures you have in place to keep them safe. Explain why your food workers are safe, what they're doing to ensure no germs are being spread. Explain how your staff keep the venue clean and limit cross-contamination.
7. Run competitions or deals to build up patronage
To celebrate your opening and ensure you get the number you want through the door, you could run competitions offering discounts or deals to the first 100 or so customers. Alternatively, to get some more reach on social media, you could run a campaign offering an amazing deal which people can enter into the draw for by sharing your post and tagging a specific number of people.
The possibilities are endless for these kinds of promotional campaigns. The best way to craft them is to think of how they can benefit your restaurant and your customers. For example, you could map out your quietest days or times and design a two-for-one deal, or by one, get a free X during those periods to attract more customers. You could also design them based on your inventory. Say you have an oversupply of perishable items; you could introduce a deal that brings people in for that particular item to help you attract more customers while also avoiding food waste.
8. Introduce gift cards
Gift cards are a great way to bring in revenue ahead of time. If you're planning to re-open, you could promote gift card sales to encourage people to buy before you open. Again, your gift card sales could pair with a deal so that you encourage people to pre-purchase before your doors are open, which helps you generate some much-needed revenue to get back into gear.
Post-COVID-19 restaurant re-opening checklist
There's a lot to absorb here, and any oversights can risk health and safety, so here is your ultimate checklist to safely re-opening after a crisis:
1. Check the functionality of your utilities and equipment to ensure they're fully operational and clean before re-opening, including:
- Fridges and freezers
- Ventilation systems
2. Complete a deep clean across all areas of the restaurant, including:
- Fridges and freezers
- Dining area
3. Develop guidelines and training for staff on how to properly clean, stock, and sanitize, covering:
- How to wash hands and how often
- Which high-touch areas need to be cleaned more often (doorknobs, restrooms, waiting areas) - introduce a schedule to ensure this is completed
- What items need to be cleaned after every party
- What to do if they are feeling sick
4. Introduce a rostering plan to reduce risks to your employees, such as:
- Rotating or staggering shifts to minimize the number of staff in the venue at any one time
- Discouraging the use of public transport
- Make sure you have a plan to find staff if others fall ill
- Order sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for your staff
- Introduce policies for dealing with staff compliance around health and personal hygiene
- Put up signs throughout the restaurant on how to stop the spread of COVID-19
- Introduce sanitization stations in key areas around the venue, including restrooms and waiting areas
- Put up signs, stickers, or tape to indicate where customers need to stand in order to comply with safe restrictions
- Introduce circulation of outdoor air by opening windows or using fans
- Remove self-serve options where multiple people touch the same utensils
- Introduce online menus to remove the risk involved with high-touch physical menus
5. Check stock levels to ensure you're prepared for indoor service again
- Inspect all food for spoilage
- Label food items for smooth rotation
- Ensure you're amply stocked with disinfectants and sanitization supplies
6. Let patrons know you're coming back
7. Design campaigns to encourage new customers.
Heading into better times
While there is a lot to do to pave the way forward, the end is in sight, and tightening up processes and precautions is a positive for the whole hospitality industry. If you can make it through this, you can make it through anything.