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

    It's time for restaurant leaders to think beyond the crisis.

    Drive by order signage on grey wooden plank.
    Unsplash/Micheile Henderson
    The era of off-premises dining may require re-thinking your menu to weed out items that won’t hold up well in transit, even for just a few minutes.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has pummeled economies across the globe while inflicting human suffering beyond our understanding. At this still-early stage of the crisis, it is hard to imagine returning to anything even remotely resembling “normalcy” in the foreseeable future.

    For restaurant operators, the landscape has shifted forever. Once states and municipalities eventually begin re-opening their economies, some familiar restaurant brands will have closed forever. Countless “mom and pop” eateries, in particular, will have succumbed to the crisis and shuttered for good.

    The National Restaurant Association estimates that 30,000 U.S. restaurants have already disappeared. That number could soar to 110,000, or more, by the end of April. Cruel as it may sound, this will present opportunities for strong, stable and well-led restaurant brands to recapture their pre-crisis share of the dining dollar, and then some.

    Brand leaders who think beyond the crisis, taking steps now to build goodwill and maintain relationships with loyal customers at the local level—and via social media—can position themselves for a rapid rebound, and long-term success.

    Here are a few important points to consider as you plot your post-COVID strategic plan:

    Health and safety are non-negotiable

    Of course, this is beyond obvious, and it’s nothing new to the foodservice industry. That said, every restaurant—even those with the most stringent cleaning and sanitization practices—has had to elevate its safety precautions over the past several weeks.

    While everyone pines for a “return to normalcy,” customers are unlikely to patronize any restaurant that returns to its “normal” safety routines. Masks, gloves and other protective gear are just the beginning. Checking employees’ temperature and monitoring their health daily will likely be mandated. Reducing dining room capacity by removing tables and chairs is all but certain. Menu boards and single-use menus may be the norm. Hand sanitizer at each table seems plausible. Mobile ordering apps and contactless everything will be the new standard.

    What about “sneeze guards” at the ordering counter and drive-thru window? Have you installed kiosks? Those may prove to be obsolete in an age when people refrain from touching anything they don’t need to.

    Meanwhile, new front-of-the-house positions—call them “safety specialists” or “house sanitizers”—will emerge as a new job category. These individuals could be tasked solely with the responsibility of disinfecting high-traffic areas, such as countertops, tables, chairs, door handles, sneeze guards, restrooms and more on a frequent, and highly visible, basis. Forget trust. Your guests will expect to see your safety practices in action, ideally multiple times during their visit to your dining rooms.

    Curbside pickup is here to stay

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

    The era of off-premises dining may require re-thinking your menu to weed out items that won’t hold up well in transit, even for just a few minutes. Many brands have begun offering meal kits, “take and bake” items, family packs and other made-for-pickup offerings. Again, this is the time to condition your guests to try these simple, yet innovative, dining options. They could become mainstays of the post-COVID foodservice landscape.

    While you’re at it, take a page from the grocery stores, which have steadily encroached on your turf with their ready-to-eat meals, delis and salad bars. Some brands, like Dog Haus and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, have already begun selling meats, produce, spices and other ingredients in grocery-style formats. Could you reconfigure some or all of your restaurants to continue selling these items long after your dining rooms re-open?

    A new definition of ‘eatertainment’

    Who could have imagined, just two months ago, that Major League Baseball games would be played in empty stadiums? How annoying will squeaking shoes become during NBA games in deserted arenas? Who would believe NFL and college football could return this fall without fans in the stands?

    Here’s another question: How long until you’d feel 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 stay-at-home fans? The pizza and wings folks will be ready, but why cede these lucrative audiences to them?

    Could you offer up a “Baseball, Hot Dogs and Apple Pie” package? How about a “Home and Away” menu for fans of the local teams—in which the “away” menu features items popular in each opponent’s city? Can you create a “Tailgate in a Box,” possibly using co-op dollars from one of your beer vendors, perfect for Sunday afternoons or Monday Night Football?

    And why limit your creativity to sports? Concert tours, symphonies, Broadway shows and other performing arts organizations may soon be playing to empty theaters as well. Upscale brands that normally benefit from pre-show traffic can offer dinner packages (Broadway Bites, anyone?) specifically crafted for patrons of the arts, including a small cocktail kit perfect for intermission!

    Other brands can capitalize on the emerging popularity of at-home movie premieres, like the massive digital debut of Trolls: World Tour. “Premiere Packs” and other cinema-centric meal kits could score along with the next Hollywood blockbuster.

    Hospital workers are the new first responders

    Americans have long been grateful for the sacrifices of our military men and women. 9/11 raised our collective consciousness to the bravery of our first responders. Now, COVID-19 has elevated frontline hospital workers to similar heroic status.

    Countless restaurants have been delivering free meals to healthcare workers during the crisis. Consider ways to keep spreading the love after the immediate threat passes. Should you institute weekly or monthly appreciation dinners for hospital staff – either in-restaurant or catered? Offer permanent discounts for local hospital workers? Schedule “Nurses Nights Out” or “Healthcare Happy Hours” featuring 19 percent off food and drinks?

    Keep showing your appreciation … for what they’re doing during this crisis and what they’ll do again in the next. They’ll reward you with their loyalty in the between times.

    There’s nothing easy about what comes next. A devastating shakeout in the restaurant industry seems inevitable. Leaders who position their brands to cater to the safety-focused consumer of tomorrow will not only survive, but emerge stronger.

    Ladd Biro is Founder & Principal 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 roster of clients, including dozens of restaurant brands. Ladd can be reached at lbiro@championmgt.com.