The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has left the restaurant industry at a loss, as an unprecedented number of businesses have been forced to cease operations. Now, nine months after the first shutdown, one in six restaurants—or a total of 110,000 establishments nationwide—have “closed either permanently or long-term,” according to a new survey released by the National Restaurant Association.
While the landscape of the restaurant business drastically changed in 2020, restaurateurs hold hope that 2021 is a better year. But how can restaurants prepare for a new year, with so much still unknown, and after a year of such struggle and turmoil? Many are asking, what comes next in a post-COVID-19 world and what can operators consider while preparing for 2021?
Consideration 1: Think about all types of germs
Taking precautions to protect customers from the coronavirus is and will be the priority for quite some time. But if 2020 has taught the restaurant industry anything, it’s that providing a sanitary environment and reducing the risk of germs for patrons’ safety should always be top of mind.
The term “germs” is broad and encompasses everything from viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 which is the virus that causes Covid-19 to bacteria such as E. Coli, salmonella and listeria, fungi that creates black mold, and protozoa the causes malaria and red tide. Some of these naturally occur over time causing food to spoil while others can be better managed to prevent cross-contamination in food service.
Prior to 2020, many consumers prioritized the ambiance and quality of food before really considering germs. But the coronavirus has changed the public’s attention and now, an establishment’s cleanliness is now more important.
Have you ever had food poisoning? If so, did you ever go back to that restaurant? Or, have you ever been to a particularly unclean dining environment and recommended the establishment or returned? The answer is probably no. These examples the need for foodservice operators to always rank cleanliness and safety as a top priority, regardless if we are in the middle of a pandemic or not.
The CDC estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. The most common bacteria found in restaurants are salmonella, E. coli and listeria, which can cause food poisoning, chills and fever. Ensuring your foodservice operation and its staff are not only informed of this information but also actively working to prevent these bacteria from floating around, should be a focus in 2021 and beyond.
Consideration 2: Prioritize cleanliness in your marketing strategy
How quickly restaurants can create a safety plan for moving to indoor dining this winter is critical. A lot are likely past that stage; however, broadcasting the precautions you’re taking for customers’ safety to target audiences should be part of the implementation of the safety plan.
Knowing people’s concerns about cleanliness will always be heightened due to the global threat of COVID-19, give customers peace of mind by letting them know you care and you’re going above and beyond to keep diners as safe as possible. Ask staff to talk about the efforts your restaurant operation is taking to tables they’re serving. Get the word out so customers trust you.
The continued use of plexiglass indoors, sanitizer stations and required masks for both customers and employees are actions your customers will notice and appreciate. Share images of your restaurant taking these precautions on social media. Consider antimicrobial-treated disposable napkins, placemats, traymats, or restroom hand towels to stop the growth of bacteria and fungi on contact.
Efforts like these should be marketed on menus, directly on the foodservice product, and shared on in-house dining and social media to foster confidence in a safe return.
Consideration 3: Refamiliarize staff on proper cleaning & sanitation techniques
Since the pandemic, have your cringed from the thought of tables being cleaned with the same rag time and time again? These practices are ones that will have your guests question the cleanliness of your establishment moving forward, while the use of disposable towels and wet wipes will help to boost confidence.
Create a disinfection routine and train staff on proper cleaning timing and procedures to ensure the safe and correct application of disinfectants.
The CDC says restaurants should be using products that meet EPA disinfection criteria and that are appropriate for the surface. Disinfectants should remain on the surface for the contact time recommended by the manufacturer. In addition, when cleaning and disinfecting, employees should wear gloves appropriate for the disinfectant being used.
Consideration 4: Innovate to stand out
While it might be a while before indoor dining feels safe to the masses and restaurants recover from such a traumatic year, innovation surrounding a business model is just as important in the future as it is now.
Years ago, there were only a few options for delivery and takeout. Now, if a restaurant doesn't have an option for both, it’s difficult to earn consumer’s share of wallet. In fact, the global online food delivery services market is expected to grow from $107.44 billion in 2019 to $154.34 billion in 2023.
With takeout and delivery getting more prevalent, how does your establishment stand up against the competition? Now is the time for innovation: Begin contactless deliveries, use tamper-evident bands and seals, look into the algorithm of your deliveries to see if anything can be sped up, for a few examples.
Another trend forcing innovation is the reduced human interaction within dining. Buffets, family dining and shared tables may not be as appropriate today, but QR menus and touchless ordering and payment are here to stay. Create an inviting, warm experience—even if it’s virtual or via technology.
Restaurants might also look at non-traditional sales models that not only focus on delivery and takeout but create dinner and drink kits for customers to make their favorite meal or drink at home. Additionally, selling a “famous” sauce, dressing or spice can make your restaurant brand a household name through offering retail items.
2020 has been a time of tremendous change for the restaurant industry, and most of us are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. If restaurants keep safety, cleanliness and innovation at the forefront of their strategies, customers can soon return to restaurants with as much confidence as they had pre-2020.
Andy Romjue is the president of Hoffmaster Foodservice & Creative Converting, the industry-leading supplier of disposable foodservice solutions. With over 20 years of experience in the industry, Andy shares a fresh perspective and passion for bringing convenient, sustainable and durable disposable solutions to foodservice operations. Andy also works closely with NGOs Lonely Whale, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and more, to help educate the public about our plastic pollution crisis. Learn more at hoffmaster.com.