Restaurants May Never be the Same. But Could They be Better?

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit economies around the world while causing human suffering that we cannot understand. At this early stage of the crisis it is difficult to imagine returning to something that even remotely resembles “normality” for the foreseeable future.

For restaurant operators, the landscape has changed forever. Once states and communities finally begin to reopen their economies, some well-known restaurant brands will be closed forever. Countless mom and pop restaurants in particular will have succumbed to the crisis and will be closed for good.

The National Restaurant Association estimates 30,000 US restaurants have already disappeared. That number could climb to 110,000 or more by the end of April. As cruel as it sounds, this will give strong, stable, and well-run restaurant brands an opportunity to reclaim their pre-crisis share of the food dollar, and a few more.

Brand leaders thinking beyond the crisis and taking steps now to build goodwill and maintain relationships with loyal customers locally – and through social media – can position themselves for quick recovery and long-term success.

Here are some key points to consider when planning your strategic plan after COVID:

Health and safety are not negotiable

This is of course not obvious and nothing new to the food service industry. Nevertheless, every restaurant – even the one with the strictest cleaning and disinfection practices – has had to increase its security measures in recent weeks.

While everyone longs for a “return to normal”, customers are unlikely to patronize a restaurant that returns to its “normal” security routines. Masks, gloves and other protective equipment are just the beginning. Daily checking of employees’ temperature and monitoring of their health will likely be mandatory. Reducing the capacity of the dining room by removing tables and chairs is far from safe. Menu boards and one-way menus can be the norm. Hand sanitizer at every table seems plausible. Mobile ordering apps and everything without contact will be the new standard.

What about “sneeze guards” at the order counter and at the drive-through window? Do you have kiosks installed? These can prove out of date at a time when people don’t touch anything they don’t need.

In the meantime, new front-of-the-house positions – referred to as “security specialists” or “home disinfectants” – will emerge as a new job category. These people alone could be entrusted with the task of disinfecting high-traffic areas such as countertops, tables, chairs, door handles, sneezers, toilets and more frequently and in a clearly visible manner. Forget about trust. Your guests expect your safety practices to be in action, ideally several times during their visit to your dining rooms.

The roadside pickup is there to stay

You’ve probably already mastered the intricacies of roadside pickup. Ideally the contactless variant. Or if you haven’t, soon you will. This is good because this is not a temporary solution. Just as today’s guests have embraced third-party delivery companies, a similarly large cohort is quickly getting used to picking up meals to enjoy in the comfort and safety of their own homes. This habit is going to be hard to break and frankly why would you want this?

In the off-farm era of eating, it may be necessary to rethink your menu to weed out items that don’t hold up well for even a few minutes on the move. Many brands already offer meal sets, take-and-bake items, family packages, and other pick-up options. Again, this is the time to get your guests to try these simple but innovative restaurants. They could become mainstays of the post-COVID food service landscape.

While you’re at it, check out a page from the grocery stores that have kept invading your lawn with their ready-made meals, delicatessens, and salad bars. Some brands, such as Dog Haus and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, have already started selling meat, products, condiments, and other ingredients in food formats. Could you reconfigure some or all of your restaurants to sell these items long after your dining rooms reopen?

A new definition of “eatertainment”

Who could have imagined two months ago that Major League Baseball games would be played in empty stadiums? How annoying do squeaky shoes get at NBA games in abandoned arenas? Who would think NFL and college football could return this fall without fans in the stands?

Here’s another question: how long does it take to get comfortable sitting shoulder to shoulder with 20,000 or more strangers to watch a game?

Exactly.

Given this new reality, how can you prepare now to capture your share of fans staying home? The people at Pizza and Wings will be ready, but why are they leaving? lucrative audience to them?

Could you offer a baseball, hot dog and apple pie package? How about a “home and away” menu for fans of the local teams, where the “away” menu contains items popular in each opponent’s city? Can you create a “tailgate in a box”, possibly with co-op dollars from one of your beer vendors, perfect for Sunday afternoon or Monday night soccer?

And why do you limit your creativity to sports? Concert tours, symphonies, Broadway shows, and other performing arts organizations may soon also be playing in empty theaters. Upscale brands, who usually benefit from pre-show traffic, may offer dinner packages (Broadway Bites, anyone?) Especially for art lovers, including a small cocktail kit perfect for that break!

Other brands can benefit from the increasing popularity of home movie premieres, such as the massive digital debut of Trolls: World Tour. “Premiere Packs” and other cinema-centric meal sets could score points along with the next Hollywood blockbuster.

Hospital workers are the new first responders

Americans have long been grateful for the sacrifices of our military. September 11th brought our collective consciousness to the courage our first responders. Now, COVID-19 has elevated frontline hospital workers to similar hero status.

Countless restaurants have delivered free meals to health care workers during the crisis. Think about how you can continue to spread love after the immediate threat passes. Should you set up weekly or monthly dinners for hospital staff – either in the restaurant or with catering? Do you offer permanent discounts for local hospital workers? Are you planning “Nurses Nights Out” or “Healthcare Happy Hours” with a 19 percent discount on food and drinks?

Continue to show appreciation … for what you are doing in this crisis and what you will do again in the next. They will reward you with their loyalty in the meantime.

What’s next is not easy. A devastating shock in the hospitality industry seems inevitable. Executives who position their brands to do justice to the safety-conscious consumers of tomorrow will not only survive, but also emerge stronger.

Ladd Bureau is the founder and director of Champion management, a full-service public relations, local store marketing, social media, franchise development, and crisis communications agency based in Dallas. Champion represents a blue chip list of customers, including dozens of restaurant brands. Ladd can be reached at [email protected].

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