As officials rush to get ahead of spreading coronavirus and mounting public alarm, restaurateurs are finding themselves on the wrong end of a worldwide lockdown.
As a restaurateur, your priority is obviously the safety of your team and your guests. But after ensuring a safe environment, you’ll need to get proactive — and creative — to stay afloat during the current period of lower dine-in business.
This article presents strategies and tips to help restaurants minimize the revenue impact of the coronavirus, and for driving new revenue where possible. We’ll cover the above-and-beyond precautions your restaurant needs to take to accept dine-in guests, how you can streamline your operation temporarily, and promotional initiatives you can take to drive revenue.
In these surreal times, remember that this situation is a chance for you to leverage and deepen relationships with your loyal customers. They’ll be the ones who will carry your business through the uncertain times ahead, and who will help you return to normal when the world emerges again.
No one knows how long this situation will last. Some are hoping that warm weather will slow the virus’ spread and let health officials get a hold of the situation; others are preparing for a very bleak few months. The only thing we know is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
The below advice falls into two categories: preventative measures you can take to minimize the revenue hit of the current slowdown, and proactive initiatives that can help you drive incremental revenue now — while setting your restaurant up for an eventual return to normalcy.
The first step in combating coronavirus is to make your restaurant as clean as possible. The EPA has created a list of disinfectants that are effective at killing SARS-CoV-2, which you can find here. (Note that regular soap really is effective. The virus is coated in an oily membrane, which means it is disintegrated by soap and water.)
Pay special attention to any surface customers touch, like light switches and doors, and any system that circulates air. Provide antibacterial gloves for your team, especially if they handle cash. (Some operators are going temporarily cashless.) Finally, many restaurants have scheduled multiple daily professional cleanings. Take every initiative you can to keep your restaurant disinfected.
But don’t just clean to make your restaurant safe. Send a message to your customers that your restaurant is a haven from what’s outside.
Leave a hint of disinfectant in the air. Have your bussers make performances of wiping down tables and chairs after each guest leaves. Put up signage touting your frequent and committed sanitizing efforts. Add disinfectant napkins to service.
Make an abundance of caution part of your brand. Put language about your efforts on your site and in your booking flow. If you choose to put more space between tables, broadcast that on social media. Do everything you can to make guests seek out your restaurant as a place of refuge.
Lastly and most importantly, if you are not able to guarantee sanitary conditions, consider closing your restaurant.
Lower rates of walk-ins and new bookings mean that you should plan to overbook more than usual.
You can also minimize no-shows by communicating with guests to confirm existing reservations. It’s a good opportunity to reassure guests of the precautions you’re taking, and to offer any promotions you have to get them to complete the reservation: a complimentary appetizer, drink, loyalty rewards, etc.
Thorough, public sanitization is a given if you want to remain open during social distancing. But how should you react when a customer starts coughing?
Some restaurants are going to extreme measures to keep their staffs and guests safe. In Los Angeles, restaurant Sichuan Impression is taking its customers’ temperatures at the door and denying entry to anyone who refuses or shows symptoms.
If that doesn’t sound appealing, make sure your staff is trained on how to react when a customer starts displaying symptoms.
In general, make sure your team has a plan in place for dealing with a sick customer. Protecting your employees and making the other customers feel safe remains your number one priority.
Beyond reducing staffing and / or hours of operation, here are some other ideas you might look into to right-size your business costs.
If you find yourself in the position of ordering a smaller amount of food or supplies, inform your purchasing by pulling recent purchase history from your POS system. Look for two things: which menu items you can temporarily eliminate (those ordered less frequently) and which meals your most loyal guests tend to prefer.
We are all in this together right now. Seek out and take any opportunity you can find to partner with a local restaurant: share kitchen space, resources, staff, supplies, etc. There are no restaurant competitors right now, only partners in weathering the storm.
As the coronavirus pandemic grows, various levels of government are likely to step in with emergency fiscal stimuli to help businesses survive. The details of any such plans are unclear as of this writing, but make sure to stay on top of the situation and avail your business of any assistance being offered. In New York City, for example, city government has made this financial assistance available. Contact your local chamber of Commerce to find out more.
Don’t settle for reactive, defensive measures to fight the slowdown. Now is a time to engage your loyal customers and find creative ways to bring them in when things return to normal.
Putting more inventory on booking channels is a start. To keep traffic up during the coronavirus, put together special events, email outreach, and social media.
Even if diners end up going to restaurants less frequently during this period of social distancing, they might still come together for notable calendar events, such as Easter, Passover, Mother’s Day, Graduation celebrations, and so on.
This is why it’s essential to market your restaurant as a particularly sanitary environment: if you can convince guests that you’re offering a safe place, where better for families to meet?
Use social media to stay top-of-mind for your followers. Make sure your most loyal customers can see that you’re open, see your sanitization efforts, and know about any events you’re planning.
If you own your guest data, you’ll be able to pull the email addresses of your customers and send them messages to update them on your restaurant’s status and promotions. The more personal the email, the better. It’s a great way to reach people stuck inside, and there’s a good chance they’ll appreciate the invitation to come out of their houses for a safe experience.
Given the constraints of a likely pared-down menu and slower foot traffic, here are a few ideas for how to drive people into your restaurant if you are still seating guests:
As businesses continue to discourage travel and more employees work from home over the next few weeks, you’re going to be surrounded by a population of confined people going stir-crazy.
Think of it this way: this unfortunate crisis could end up putting an entirely new daytime audience of locals close to your restaurant all day. People are still going to want to connect and help one another out, and they’ll need a venue to do that.
Market your restaurant as a safe place to gather. Reach out to your local customers and encourage them to come in for a lunch promotion; print up T-shirts; make it a genuine place of social gathering — again, a refuge — and you’ll probably end up making them into long-term customers.
Take care of your locals so that they can take care of each other.
Not every restaurant is going to be able to remain open during this time. Consider following the lead of Seattle’s Canlis, which closed its fine-dining restaurant while opening up a pop-up burger drive-through in its parking lot. Create versions of your food for families to enjoy at home. People will likely still gather in small, private groups during social distancing, so providing them with catering options from your restaurant can keep you top-of-mind.
Help your customers start to make plans for a return to normal by selling gift cards for future dining experiences. You can market this as a community-minded purchase for customers who want to help your restaurant survive the crisis with a bit of cash flow. If you don’t currently offer gift cards, you can still sell gift vouchers for prix fixe experiences valid for the next 18 months. Get creative, appeal to your community of loyal guests, and help them help you.
Engaging your regulars is going to be critical during the coronavirus. These are the people who probably already see themselves as part of your community. They are the diners whose preferences you know and who you can cater to better than anyone else.
Reach out to them with personal letters, emails, calls, texts, whatever you can. Let them know you’re open, that you’re safe, and that their business is welcomed now more than ever. If they come in, personalize service and cultivate an experience of abundance. It’ll be a welcome change from what’s going on outside your walls.
The coronavirus pandemic is a worldwide crisis, unprecedented in living memory. Not one expert or government official knows how long it will last, nor what the ultimate economic damage will be. All we can forecast now is that if people become scared to gather in groups, the scars on both the economy and the society will last a very long time.
Use this economic slowdown as an opportunity to build real relationships. Your restaurant is in the business of selling experiences — human experiences and connections that transcend food or finances. The coronavirus is a peculiar crisis in that it deprives us of the one thing that helps people adapt to crisis: each other. Your restaurant can be the place people come to get that connection back.
Offer your community a safe place to come together, get to know them, serve them. You will inscribe a place for your restaurant in your community’s shared history.
From the SevenRooms team to our people in the hospitality industry: stay safe, stay connected, and let’s all get through this together.