In the past year, most restaurants have been forced to make more changes to their operations than they ever anticipated, while also following ever-changing rules and advice, keeping their customers updated, and maintaining a level of trust with those consumers.
While less important than customer safety, maintaining a firm brand through these difficult times is critical, says Joseph Szala, principal and strategist at Vigor, a restaurant branding agency in Atlanta. So is weaving together branding and a commitment to safety. As such, any messaging about safety should fit within the brand identity while also being clear and hard to miss. For example, he says, floor stickers marking 6-foot distancing don’t do much good if they blend into the space too much. “Follow your brand’s identity, but look for the highest contrast possible with regard to color,” he says.
He points to the example of Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.’s star logo, which would work well as 6-foot-apart floor stickers.
Consistency is the best way to gain trust from guests around safety and build your brand, says Margot Bloomstein, principal at Appropriate Inc., a brand and content strategy consultancy in Boston. “Your patrons have to have confidence in what you’re doing, so make sure everyone, from the back of house to delivery drivers, all know your standards for things like mask wearing, patio pickups, and cleaning, so they can communicate those standards,” she says.
She adds that, if they haven’t already, restaurants should update their websites and social media to show the updated reality of people wearing masks and social distancing to demonstrate safety measures. They might also consider including a short video to show customers how pickup works in a typical restaurant.
Above all, operators should be transparent, she says. “Speak in detail of what you’re doing beyond the hygiene theater of what they can see,” Bloomstein says. “Tell them how you’re keeping the air clean—opening windows, installing new HVAC systems, limiting people inside. Let that information be known on your website or your social platform.”
She adds that it should be the same message across all channels, and that restaurants should be OK with taking a serious tone, because everyone’s aware this is a serious topic.
Szala also believes this is no moment for restaurants to get cutesy. “Brands must be careful to project a serious tone of voice when discussing their approach to safety,” he says. “Even if it’s traditionally whimsical or offbeat, customer safety is no laughing matter. Serious doesn’t have to mean dire or forlorn. It can be casual, but clear.” To reinforce their branding, Szala adds, restaurants should consider using visuals.
What’s important with the messaging is that it’s one cohesive strategy across all channels. “Consistency is an indicator of believability,” Szala says. “If messages wobble in tone, verbiage, and visuals, it seems as if the brand hasn’t truly taken the efforts seriously enough.”
In the wake of COVID-19, vendors rushed to provide operators with the necessary tools for keeping restaurants clean and minimizing the risk of spreading the virus.
Envysion is one such vendor. The video surveillance company added a new audit, Health and Hygiene, to its suite, so operators could monitor metrics such as mask and glove compliance, social distancing, food safety, and restaurant cleanliness.
“We seem to find noncompliance everywhere, but mostly during down time when customers aren’t around,” says Laura Veeder, one of the company’s auditors. “With COVID, we see masks come off when there aren’t customers inside.”
Restaurant owners or managers can track their restaurant’s compliance scores on a dashboard or can pay extra for an auditing service from Envysion. Complying restaurants can display decals at their entrances and drive thrus, in order to give customers peace of mind, says Cara Grimsley, marketing events manager. “It’s designed to catch people’s eye and tells you the things we’re auditing for,” she says.
Other technologies are helping operators keep on top of the safety processes in their restaurants. Savvy Food Safety, a food-safety consulting corporation, is planning to soon launch TracSavvy, software that will allow restaurants to manage required food-safety certifications and avoid food-code violations. It will help restaurants and chains to ensure every staff member is up to date in their training, which is more essential than ever in a COVID-19 world.
Certifications include food handling and food allergies, but any can be added, says CEO Francine Shaw. And if certifications are expiring, the system will send out alerts to the person monitoring it.
Of course, adding new contactless ordering and payment technologies for customers quickly became a great way for operators to ensure safety during the pandemic.
David Guas, owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia, was one of the countless operators who worked with their POS providers—in his case Toast—to launch more ordering and payment options to customers. Guests can place orders from outside the restaurant and then pick up their food curbside or in the restaurant. Only 15–20 percent pick up curbside, he says. “The majority do still come inside, but may opt to pre-order with Toast to minimize either time inside or time waiting. Toast also allows customers to pay via their mobile device, also meaning less time with an employee and the exchanging of credit cards.”