For restaurants that remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic, operations are starting to feel almost normal. Keeping customers safe and feeling cared for, however, takes a few tweaks as service changes from interpersonal to medical.
According to the research and consultancy firm The NPD Group, restaurant sales may have found a bottom. For two weeks, sales have hovered at 41 to 42 percent down from historic trends. It’s certainly an odd time when down 40 percent is good news, but that sustained level may mean things have gotten as bad as they will.
As customers return from their massive pantries and look for something aside their own cooking, restaurant operators need to balance safety and service. Marco’s Pizza President and COO Tony Libardi is looking for his own escape from home cooking and all the dishes that come with it.
He said the company has been doing pretty well with both delivery and carryout, and in markets with the strictest restrictions and shelter-in-place orders, sales have increased significantly. He said the company has done three key things for customers that look to pizza as a comfort to "show that we’re hyper vigilant about their health."
"With this social distancing and trying to keep at least 6 feet away, we had to quickly deploy a strategy about how to make a guest feel comfortable, so we developed this contactless delivery solution," said Libardi. "We were able to embed that into our online software, giving the consumer the option to op- in and explaining what it is."
Customers are able to choose where to put the pizza in notes, and when it arrives, gloved delivery drivers set down the pizza with a sanitized pen and receipt on the box. Then, the driver backs up to a comforting distance.
"We allow them to sign or not, and they take their pizza inside and we pick up our belongings," said Libardi.
The company also created a new curbside operation that worked within the technology stack. The 900-location franchise doesn’t have all the technology bells and whistles like larger pizza players, so there’s no GPS geofencing.
"On the tech side, we’re a little disadvantaged we’d love to be able to integrate that and we’re working on that to be notified that the guest is outside. But for now, it’s putting someone on full time knowing that the car has moved to the curbside space and going to interacting with them at a safe distance," said Libardi. "Those are all touchpoints that create exposure that guest, if they can stay in the comfort of their car, they’re going to feel much better about that experience."
And for those brave souls and essential delivery drivers that come in. Service is less about homey hospitality and more about showing that the restaurant is clean and safe. Prior to COVID, few but the most germaphobe customers probably thought about door handles. But today, Libardi said they’ve moved a scheduled 4-hour wipe-down of handles to a 30-minute cadence. He said every touchpoint with customers has been rethought.
"Even in a carryout experience, when you go into a Marco’s we’ll sanitize the pen before we hand it to you," said Libardi. "It’s the hypervigilant view that we’re taking every precaution."