The Restaurant Pandemic Preparedness Toolkit

    What operators need to survive the crisis.

    Restaurant owner hands an order to a customer outside the restaurant; they are both wearing gloves and masks

    istock.com / halbergman

    A Mexican restaurant adapts to the Covid-19 lockdown. The owner hands an order to a customer outside the restaurant; they are both wearing gloves and masks.

    As the industry grapples with the ways business is changing during the COVID-19 crisis, restaurants have had to adapt at a faster pace than ever before. In order to keep up with swiftly changing consumer needs, restaurants need to know what investments are likely to help them survive—and even thrive—in a post-pandemic world.

    Here are the types of tools industry experts think will be essential as the restaurant world recovers.

    Systems

    With consumer fears over human-to-human contact at an all-time high, tools that allow restaurants to conduct business while eliminating touchpoints have risen in popularity. This is a trend Gary Stibel, managing partner and principal at the New England Consulting Group (necg), says is likely to continue even once dining rooms reopen, so restaurants will be investing in systems that support contactless dining, such as mobile payment and ordering.

    “Consumers won’t want to touch something many people have handled, like a touchpad,” Stibel says. “Mobile devices were already important to restaurants before, but they are going to become the principle bridge between diners and restaurants.”

    Bruce Reinstein, partner at Kinetic 12, also predicts low-contact technologies will proliferate the industry, requiring brands to simplify all their digital properties, including apps and websites, so they are usable by all age groups. But he cautions that more dependence on technology in restaurants also means more risk for security breaches, which can severely damage a brand’s reputation.

    “Security and safety are crucial,” Reinstein says. “With digital technology, I may have more physical safety, but if I’m going to be providing my credit card to everyone, I have to know my information is safe, too.”

    This means restaurants must also invest in network security, such as monitoring services or firewalls that can protect brand and consumer data from malware.

    Off-Premises Infrastructure

    As restaurants in many parts of the country continue operating under stay-at-home orders, pickup and delivery are still major pieces of the industry’s pandemic response. Yet because consumer confidence in the safety of dining out has waned, off-premises dining will likely remain popular in coming years, so tools that make delivery and pickup smoother, such as simple mobile apps or beacon technology that lets restaurants know when customers are close to the restaurant, will remain vital.

    Reinstein says that while restaurants are unable to differentiate themselves from other brands with atmosphere or on-premises service, creating an app that makes it easy to place orders, pay, and even tell restaurants what kind of car guests are driving can create a stand-out contactless pickup experience.

    “I wasn’t someone who used curbside much before, but I recently ordered from a restaurant that never had curbside pickup before the pandemic,” Reinstein says. “Because this restaurant quickly learned how to do pickup right, they made me a fan of curbside and the brand.”

    Another way Reinstein says brands might differentiate themselves is by sharing resources, such as apps, with other restaurants to provide more variety to guests and offset the costs of app development.

    “If I want to eat Mexican and you want burgers, there’s a conflict,” Reinstein says. “As a result, some restaurants may make a collaborative effort in which diners can place a single order and pick up multiple items at brands next door to each other.”

    Though some have speculated the virus may precipitate the rise of drone or driverless car delivery in the restaurant industry, as well as in the delivery of goods, Stibel wouldn’t advise brands to count on them as tools in the near future.

    “For the foreseeable future, there will be a human on the other side of that meal, whether it’s delivered or picked up at the store,” he says. For delivery, this new focus on qualifying employees probably means third-party delivery will be less popular than restaurant-owned delivery channels controlled by restaurants.

    Safety and Sanitation

    Though the restaurant industry has always been held to high food-safety standards, consumers are now more likely to scrutinize brands’ cleanliness and safety practices.

    Both Stibel and Reinstein note that while masks are mandated in many locations now, guests will likely expect to see free mask or hand sanitizer stands when they walk into a dining room. Additionally, for brands that don’t already use gloves in the kitchen, those are likely to now be expected. They both also note that multi-use condiment and beverage dispensers that require guest contact are probably things of the past. Reinstein, however, predicts hands-free dispensers will increase in the industry, while Stibel sees a rise in single-serve condiment packaging. Meanwhile, Reinstein foresees technology playing a larger role in assuring guests of food safety.

    “There will be more video and other systems that allow customers to track food, whether it’s in the kitchen or out for delivery,” Reinstein says. “Farm-to-fork traceability will probably also see growth.”

    Yet even beyond food, consumers will want reassurances of safety practices. Stibel recommends the use of HEPA filters to protect employees and guests from airborne particles and also says that brands should “let the cleaning crew out of the closet.”

    “Brands never wanted guests to see someone cleaning before, but now guests will feel safer if they can see, feel, and smell that a restaurant is clean,” he says. “Restaurants might also close for a 30-minute mid-day deep cleaning during one of their slower times of the day to put customers at ease.”

    Stibel also recommends certification programs like ServSafe, which ensures restaurant staff are properly trained on food safety and sanitation procedures. He also suggests there might be programs in the future that certify a brand has met certain standards by providing them with a seal of approval.

    “This is an opportunity for restaurants to make employees as trustworthy and safe as possible by providing them with proper clothes and giving them training,” Stibel says. “You want employees giving guests all the sensory cues that they know what they’re doing—so restaurants can partner with companies like Ecolab, which has been a leader in sanitation for a long time, to make sure they’re taking the right steps and providing their stores with the right tools.”

    Training and Employee Management

    Financial recovery may take a long time for many restaurants, and labor management will be a key part of that recovery. For now, while many brands are operating with reduced headcounts, Reinstein says paring down large menus and cross-training employees will be essential ways of keeping the budget in check.

    “If you’re going to add more staff, you’re not going to make more money,” Reinstein says, “so staff will have to become more multifaceted instead of specialized. They’ll also have to be thoroughly trained in safety and sanitation”

    This means restaurants will have to not only make their training programs more efficient, but also more comprehensive, which could be aided by digital training programs or, as Stibel recommends, certification programs.

    Yet as restaurants reduce payroll expenses, restaurants might also reduce individual hours rather than furloughing staff, Reinstein says. As a result, he thinks more restaurants might share employees with other part-time employers, like supermarkets. This, along with more callouts as the industry becomes more likely to let sick workers stay home, means scheduling and shift swapping tools will be important.

    “A lot of programs like 7shifts and HotSchedules are already in use, but as jobs become more specialized, it’s important that the software makes sure only qualified people pick up shifts in other departments,” Reinstein says. “Now is not the time to have an employee go to the wrong car or talk in someone’s face, so making sure scheduled employees have the right information is crucial.”

    On the other hand, Stibel says he thinks a more human touch will be needed to handle a health crisis. “The pendulum will swing back to being more considerate of employees who aren’t feeling well,” he says. “If someone needs to stay home, managers aren’t going to leave health-related decisions up to an algorithm, even if we were only dealing with the common flu.”

    He does, however, think more brands might schedule flex personnel who are on-call as fill-ins if someone can’t work their shift. Additionally, Stibel says that as many states have announced criteria for reopening that includes testing workers for illness when they enter the building, thermometers and other pieces of health-related equipment are likely to become necessities.

    Packaging

    With delivery making up a larger portion of the business than ever and growing concerns over sanitation, consumers are likely to demand that all restaurants offer tamper-proof packaging.

    “Tamper-proof packaging might not be officially required,” Reinstein says, “but restaurants should assume it’s required. It could be as simple as securing containers with labels, which is what a lot of companies are doing now, or it could be something more complex, like sealed containers, but companies should expect to begin paying more for packaging either way.”

    For the short-term, Stibel thinks food safety will even eclipse sustainability as a top-of-mind concern, but he says restaurants should not lose focus on sustainability either.

    “Climate change is probably a bigger concern to NECG than COVID-19,” Stibel says. “We will figure the virus out like we did with SARS and Ebola, but we are not even close to figuring out climate change. Though in the short term emphasis will shift from sustainability to safety, restaurants need to know that both are important.”

    Though it is still uncertain exactly what the industry is like in a post-pandemic world, the one thing that is certain is that the world will emerge from this crisis changed, Stibel says. “Delivery and pickup will be much more important. Cleanliness will be front and center. Restaurants should start preparing, because life isn’t going back to the way it was before.”