4 Key Restaurant Tactics in the Time of COVID-19
A rendering of a COVID-19 cell.
Even if you’re not facing direct effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, the endless alerts, updates and grim news have everyone worried.
According to Compass Restaurant Consulting and Research, 80 percent of consumers are aware of the virus, 70 percent are concerned and 20 percent of consumers feel palpable fear. And as seen from the empty toilet paper aisles in many stores, 10 percent are panicking. According to Technomic, 52 percent of consumers in a recent survey said they were avoiding crowds and 44 percent feared for their personal health.
There are several tactics restaurants could take as they operate during this uncertain time, but the following four stand out as ones that need to be addressed.
Keep Things Clean, Really, Really Clean
Cleanliness is table stakes in the restaurant world, but those protocols can get short cut. The base case should be re-train on every cleaning protocol and communicate the seriousness of following the rule book and the consequences of not doing so.
In this incredibly disruptive time for consumers, redoubling those efforts is a smart move. It’s something CapitalSpring has advised in some of its restaurants. For one, it advised operators to set kitchen timers for additional cleaning tasks or as a reminder for key tasks, be it wiping the soda machine or the cash register. It also encouraged tracking sheets and video surveillance to make sure employees are executing those redoubled efforts.
Increased cleaning could curtail the spread of COVID-19, but guests will see and hear about it, too. A restaurant could build some real trust and goodwill by demonstrating that the restaurant is safe and has the consumer’s best interests in mind.
Keep Your Distance With Off-Premises
The CDC advises people stay at least 6 feet away from one another, the distance bodily fluids typically travel. Of course, in a restaurant at the counter or in the kitchen, that just might not be possible. If there is some extra capacity, it might be wise to put a little buffer between cooking stations or registers just to be safe, but off-premises operations are a surefire way to reduce that social contact.
Many delivery services have implemented “contactless delivery” options, essentially leaving orders on the front stoop or at the office door. Jimmy John’s sent out marketing materials telling customers to ask for contactless orders in the “notes” field of the app or website. But for brands that haven’t taken off-premises seriously, now is the time to do so if only to make up for the very likely drop in foot traffic.
Jim Balis, managing director at CapitalSpring, said the drive-thru is a saving grace for the quick-serve industry.
“Fortunately, most of our focus has been on the quick service or fast food space; they’re able to close the dining rooms and just do drive-thru and delivery,” said Balis in an interview on CNBC.
Decide on an Event Strategy
If events or meetings are an important part of the business, operators need to take a hard look at that balance and what kind of social distancing they want to do.
Option one, as an Atlantic article urges: cancel everything. Simple enough on paper, but perhaps not simple when the bills come.
Option two: plan obsessively. Restaurants that host events for other entities, be they business meetings or conferences, should connect with the event organizers early and often. They are likely weighing their attendance numbers, safety and profits as well.
Also, go back and give your contract a close look, perhaps with a legal representative.
"Long after this health crisis is over, courts will be grappling with untold numbers of litigation disputes concerning whether parties are excused from performance of their contractual obligations during this health crisis,” advised Kent Schmidt, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney. “Courts will likely be focused on whether the party seeking to be excused from the contractual obligation is being opportunistic—using the health crisis as a means to avoid contractual obligations that it would even otherwise prefer to avoid.”
He said firms should take a close look at the contractual force majeure clause especially. That clause means “superior force” in Latin, and typically covers “act of God” situations. But Schmidt said the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic could be an easy out of contracts. Communicating with event partners and organizers and coming to a friendly dissolution or postponement could avoid some headaches at least and litigation at worst.
And if an event is going to continue, operators would be wise to wait for a final attendee count before prepping for the event. Late cancellations and no-shows could significantly alter the economics for a restaurant without an all-inclusive event cost or create a lot of waste.
Figure Out a Sick-Time Policy
One unsettling fact rolling through mass media right now is that many foodservice workers do not have robust healthcare or paid sick leave. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 32 million have no paid sick leave at all.
ServeSafe advises that any employee exhibiting flu-like symptoms be “excluded from the operation until they are symptom free.” Good advice, but in a historically difficult labor market, just telling employees to go home may seem cold, corporate and disheartening.
McDonald’s announced that employees in its corporate locations would be paid for up to 14 days if they are asked to be quarantined.
Operators need to think this through, too, and because of lingering joint-employer concerns, that advice might not come from the franchisor. They need to find a way to both keep sick employees out of the operation and from spreading COVID-19 and ensure they return when they're well. What that looks like will depend on the market, but it’s not something to leave to an already stressed assistant manager or shift leader. The decisions need to come from franchise owners.