As many restaurants are now trying to decide how and when to begin offering in-house dining services again, the first thing to be considered is what’s allowable in their state—and when. CNN.com provided a resource on May 2, 2020 that can help with overall opening information, with specifics broken down by state.
In Alaska, for example, the governor gave the green light for restaurants to open up again on April 24, up to 25 percent of their capacity, given that enough space can exist between tables. Fairbanks, Alaska was one of the earliest locales in the country to begin to reopen, with the New York Times reporting on the process.
Other states are targeting mid-May for reopenings to start while Connecticut is targeting May 20, but for outdoor restaurants only. The point is that each state has different paramaters and it’s crucial to know the specifics. It’s also important to continue to monitor changes in policy as this is an ever-evolving situation, including with local health departments to make sure all is in compliance.
To gain insights into what a restaurant reopening plan might look like, we talked to David Allan Staral, a managing director of OPTIC Partners. His marketing and consulting company has been providing COVID-19 pandemic planning services for clients, including those in the hospitality industry—and now restaurant clients are looking to his guidance for a reopening plan.
There is no magic bullet, of course, and a plan that might work for one restaurant won’t necessarily pan out for another. And, as restaurants are having to rapidly shift their business models, it can be challenging for owners and managers to think beyond what’s needed today, making it difficult to think more strategically about the future. That’s where David and his company have stepped in to assist.
Here’s another factor. The reality—backed up by restaurant reservation service data that’s quoted by the New York Times—is that people were greatly reducing how often they were eating out even before governors began implementing shutdowns. In other words, it was the virus that kept many people home, not an official declaration by the government.
So, even when formal lockdowns are loosened up, it’s unlikely that people will immediately return to restaurant dining. In Texas, for example, restaurants were open on May 5, but one open-air shopping center—a place where people should feel more protected because of the fresh air—there were about a dozen people in the entire center, with only three of them eating on a patio-based Tex-Mex restaurant.
This clearly points to a need for a flexible reopening plan that takes into account the safety concerns of diners—one that is also created to align with the ebb and flow of customers as the rate of the virus spread potentially speeds up and slows down again.
So, how can you possibly know how to nimbly respond to such a volatile situation? An article in The Philadelphia Inquirer suggests using a “fast-follower” strategy: “Don’t be the first to open but be poised to follow and learn from others’ mistakes.”
If you’d like to do some pre-planning before a fast-follower approach could be used, here are a broad range of things to consider when crafting your own restaurant reopening strategy.
First, David says, look at your revised staffing needs. With a decreased capacity for in-house service, you will likely need fewer service staff and perhaps fewer people in the kitchen. So, the question is whether what you’ll save in staffing costs will compensate for the reduced revenue, at least to a significant degree.
It’s also important to have a carefully designed plan for recalling workers so that your restaurant isn’t accusing of biased employment policies. Restaurant Dive quotes a legal source as suggesting rehiring based on seniority.
Now think about workers who rely upon tips. If your restaurant is reduced in capacity by, say, 60 to 80 percent, can that person earn a living wage? Will it cover what he or she might receive in unemployment insurance or will returning to work actually cause that employee to have less income?
“Demographics will play a big part,” David says, “including in an area we haven’t talked about yet: the transportation aspect. In big cities, plenty of people use public transportation, so this would increase risks for the diners, as well as for staff and the general public. In a smaller city, the exposure and spread risk would be slightly decreased, if most staff and customers would drive themselves, with less human contact on the trips to and from the restaurant.”
As another early consideration, what about mortgage and rent payments? Restaurant management may well need to talk to their banks and landlords about reduced payments that would fit within their revenue stream during this time of decreased capacity. “Forward-looking revenue projections and payment renegotiations,” David tells us, “will therefore be paramount in getting restaurants back up and running at a sustainable rate.”
If it looks as though your restaurant can financially move forward, given the COVID-19 capacity constraints, then there is another series of issues to consider.
Although the verdict is not fully in about how COVID-19 might have the ability to spread through HVAC systems, at least one field study in China suggests that it can. More research needs done, however, to determine how long COVID-infected droplets can remain contagious once in the air. Are droplets small enough to stay airborne for a longer period of time?
“Currently,” David says, “the highest quality density air filters for HVAC systems trap more than 95 percent of particles that are 0.3 microns or more in size. Coronavirus droplets, though, have been measured at a much small size, one of .05 to .15 microns.”
One group of Canadian researchers is calling the ability to provide clean, safe, and healthy air to indoor spaces as important as the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. They note that, although airborne transmission is not as common as other forms, it’s difficult to control, which is why their research—and the ability of businesses to implement safer HVAC systems—is so crucial.
As a bit of positive news, although definitely not proven, it may be that the coronavirus is spread more effectively through larger droplets. These fall from the air more rapidly than ones called aerosols, small droplets that can continue to float for hours.
As a side note, The Chef’s Garden’s packing and shipping room uses the Extreme Microbial Technologies’ air purification system that uses a three-stage process that pulls air in through a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Hydrogen peroxide plasma is then passed through that air. Through that process, ionized high energy clusters are produced—in fact, millions of them. This system charges the air in a way that allows it to continually be purified, removing environmental contaminants. In other words, the air is disinfected, but so are the surfaces contained within the air.
David points out a form of technology that he sees restaurants turning to—ultraviolet lamps that can reduce pathogens to sanitize dining rooms when filters and systems can’t fully do their part in helping to stop airborne transmission.
“This,” he says, “in combination with higher density HVAC filters—once those filters have been designed and manufactured—may be the best one-two method for continuous sanitation and safety.”
He notes that, although this will likely improve sanitization and safety, it will also be more expensive.
Then there are dining room layout redesigns that put additional spaces between tables—and, therefore, between diners. “In some areas outside of the United States,” David says, “a zig-zag pattern has been rolled out.” What each restaurant can and should do, though, depends upon their specific dining room areas.
Another important issue to address before reopening includes the “no touch” strategy. How can you make your doors no touch? Who will take people’s temperatures, meaning staff and diners, when they enter the premises? How will that add to your staffing costs? Where will you place hand sanitization products?
Restaurant Dive expects employees will need to wear masks and gloves for the foreseeable future. How will this be handled? How will this add to your costs and impact the bottom line?
What about menus? Will you use single serve ones? Stick to daily specials that can be on a sign and/or shared by servers?
Finally, how will you keep track of customer names and contact information if contract tracing needs to occur? Apple and Google will be rolling out their COVID-19 contract tracing technology that relies upon Bluetooth capabilities in smartphones and is intended to be incorporated into government health agency apps.
“In the future,” David says, “perhaps this can also be integrated into restaurants’ existing POS systems.
After the initial restaurant reopening announcement, a good percentage of customer messaging will likely consist of three main topics:
what options are available for in-house dining, as well as other services that are continuing, such as curbside service, delivery, and so forth
what your restaurant is doing to help keep people safe; this should include sanitization policies—and here is the food safety policy that The Chef’s Garden has shared with customers
how you can communicate with diners who are frustrated about the limitations; this includes in person, over the phone, and on social media
Upserve suggests that you continue to communicate with diners, even if it’s not yet time for a restaurant reopening announcement. An expert suggests sharing entertaining content, and you can do that on social media channels, through email marketing, and more.
You can help diners to keep feeling connected to you through videos about a new recipe you’re creating, basic recipes your customers can make at home, and so forth. Get into their mindset and realize that they may need additional tips, such as how to use a knife effectively and safely, that chefs just take for granted. Partner with trusted vendors, like The Chef’s Garden, so that they can have fresh ingredients sent directly to their homes. Send them your takeout or delivery menus regularly and keep them interesting.
The unfortunate reality is that some restaurants will not reopen because of the financial challenges, while others that do open will find that it’s simply not sustainable to operate.
What will that mean for restaurants that do stay open? Will they have increased customer demand and traffic? If so, how will they manage this with decreased premise capacity? Will restaurants that continue to operate have the capacity or risk tolerance to expand facilities in respond to this demand in today’s uncertain environment?
Clearly, restaurants will need to revamp business models. The good news, though, is that the restaurant industry is among the most creative, innovative, and resilient ones in existence.
What’s likely to go on the back burner for now include restaurants that:
offer family-style meals, tapas, buffets, and other self-serve options
provide high interaction experiences, including chef’s tables and other set ups that increase the possibilities for cross contamination with food and/or staff
sing at a diner’s table, perhaps for a birthday
What may become more common includes:
enhanced take-out and delivery options; here is a quote from the Chicago Tribune about what’s already happening: “Restaurants are coming up with much higher-quality meals, and I’ve been impressed at the range of unique and delicious offerings so early into this crisis”
outdoor dining opportunities when weather and space permits; in Denver, there is conversation around shutting down streets so that businesses can expand into the street, making an outdoor festival kind of atmosphere—but with lots of social distancing
“grab and go” and other quick casual places where you can stand and eat
restaurants with private dining areas for families or groups of friends, whether those are literally separate rooms or those with quality room dividers
online chef experiences, such as the Small Farms Provision initiative and the Swing into Action one where The Chef’s Garden collaborates with chefs and other small farms to provide fresh ingredients, recipes, and videos of chefs cooking the food, with the videos found on the chefs’ Instagram accounts
delivered meal kits that diners cook at home while a chef demonstrates steps on Zoom; this could be different from the previous bullet point because there could be targeted “seating times”
more personal chefs cooking in people’s homes
chefs providing cooking lessons, with many of them transitioning into instructor-chefs
food trucks going from being a start up plan for a business to an ongoing, more mainstream method of cooking and delivering food to people
macro-picnics where chefs stage and cook in spaces large enough to seat 200-400 people, properly spaced apart each night; chefs and locations could be rotated
floor markings for cocktail bars, waiting areas and so forth
What the future looks like will probably depend upon whether this is relatively temporary—say, 12 to 24 months before an effective treatment is found—or whether this will be a longtime way of living. “We could also see consolidation among restaurant groups so that they can better manage their costs,” David predicts.
“The list of potential hurdles and items that must be looked at within an existing restaurant model and where the overall industry is headed,” David says, “are endless. Our daily lives, personal and professional, change by the day, even by the hour with the wealth of information that’s hitting media.”
When we asked David to sum up his thoughts, here is what he had to say. “The nimblest of restaurants will be able to capitalize, retool, and continue with business at or close to levels seen before. And, as in any highly intelligent, innovative, and peer-supportive industry, with contraction and disruption comes evolution and ideas never before thought possible. What’s to come? I’m excited to see how we come together and keep cooking for America."