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 masks 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 proliferate 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. He also recommends that restaurants “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, they might also reduce individual hours rather than furloughing staff, Reinstein says. As a result, he thinks more restaurants might share its staff with other employers offering part-time work, 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 cold.”
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.
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.”