Inside an empty restaurant with brown booths.
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Don’t be afraid to lean in to a reduced menu.

Planning to Reopen Your Restaurant? Here’s What an Expert Would Do

Should you have bar service? Silverware? There are no shortage of things to consider.

We’re now firmly in the reopening conversation. The list of states lifting restrictions continues to grow, and while this remains a market-by-market conversation in terms of specific regulations, restaurants are preparing under pretty similar directives. What do guests want to see? How can you make employees feel safe? It starts with those two questions, but there are no shortage of nuances to consider.

Jim Osborne, the SVP of customer strategy and innovation at US Foods, chatted with FSR about best reopening practices and where operators can begin addressing this new reality.

So let’s start from day one, once your restaurant decides to reopen. How do you address the layout? Most states are putting capacity limits in place already. What are some creative ways operators can space out tables, remove communal seating, and so on?

The layout of the restaurant will likely be informed by the state’s health guidance, and whether the restaurant is allowed to open at 25 percent capacity, 50 percent capacity, so it’s best to start with a good understanding of the regulations in place.

Specific to your question about seating, operators should absolutely get creative with the set-up of the dining room and flow. Stagger the seating pattern. Keep diners physically separated by no less than 6 feet. Indicate which tables are “open” and which are “closed” very clearly—either sign them, place an artifact on them, or physically remove them to maintain this distance.

In table service environments, unless legally mandated, consider allowing “closed” tables to remain as ”spacers” between remaining tables. Visually indicate they are closed and remove seating. An uncrowded restaurant can be desirable. A vacated one may be disconcerting.

Limit or consider no bar service. Bar and counter seating is discouraged, and possibly not allowed. If opened, ensure bar seats are 6 feet apart. Closed bars may be used as employee space, providing easy access to supplies, beverages, and bar sink for handwashing, decreasing the need to enter kitchen.

A lot of operators have spoken about “getting things off the table,” like salt shakers, ketchup, etc. How critical is this? And what are some things you’re seeing, from disposable menus to digital payment?

Right now, it is important that restaurant operators make customers feel safe, so from a perception point of view, it is critical to do everything possible to ensure customers their well-being is paramount. In the short-term, restaurant operators should consider disposable or single-serve products. And, we also suggest adding hospitality cards on table describe commitment to diners and staff, and outline cleaning protocols.

Similarly, for menus restaurants could consider digital menus or single-use options. Operators are also getting creative with contactless payment, allowing customers to pay online to avoid passing credit cards or cash back and forth.  

On the menu note in particular, especially given supply chain concerns and uncertain traffic, are there steps restaurants can take to prepare? Like pared-down options perhaps?

Restaurants should absolutely consider simplifying their menus. A tighter, more focused menu allows kitchens to better plan labor and prep needs and run a more sanitized kitchen. Refocus external communications to celebrate a carefully crafted, reduced menu. Focus on what you know guests will love and tell a story that highlights what your restaurant does best. Consider pre-selling items to anticipate capacity and plan the dining floor.

Additionally, we’ve seen incredible creativity and innovation over the last eight weeks as restaurants literally pivot their entire operation. Don’t be afraid to lean in to a reduced menu. Your patrons will likely be much more understanding as we’re all experiencing the same challenges. They know they may not find ground beef at the grocery store every trip so getting creative about a different cut of meat or perhaps even veggie or seafood options and celebrating it on social media is a great option. 

Turning to the dining room service itself, how do you make customers feel as comfortable as possible, beyond just wearing masks and gloves? What are some tips to assure guests you’re doing everything you can?

Restaurants need to communicate clearly and frequently with guests, which includes “pre-arrival” communications and alerting guests to new “terms and conditions” related to dining at the restaurant. Messaging should be posted on websites, social media pages, in any phone message/“on hold” messages guests listen to when they call the restaurant, etc.

In addition, there should be signage throughout the restaurant detailing the precautions restaurants are taking and verbal assurances from servers that management is doing everything possible to ensure a safe and healthy experience. US Foods has seen restaurants post pledges in their windows, telling customers they are doing their part and asking customers to do their part, which means avoiding the restaurant if they feel sick or are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

Training servers and staff will also be critical. Customers won’t feel safe if servers are not distancing or forget to wear gloves. Building new training programs, putting in place new policies and procedures, ensuring all staff is practicing proper hygiene and knows how to adequately sanitize a surface will be critical. Guests should see staff wiping down the seats, backs of chairs, the table and any other surfaces before they sit down.

Even small things like using white gloves in front of house, and black gloves in back of house, is a sign to guests that the restaurant is taking its precautionary measures seriously.

We have also seen restaurants move to reservations only and prohibit walk-ins to limit the number of guests in the restaurant and avoid potential crowding as people wait for open tables.  And if you have the space, separate exterior entry, waiting & dining zones.

And what about for employees? This is a topic that doesn’t seem to get as much attention but is still crucial as restaurants reopen.

We’ve heard from many restaurants with questions about how to create a safe working environment. Preparation and putting in place new policies and procedures will be very important. We recommend all restaurant staff undergo training on how to set up and shut down the restaurant with a deep clean, using tools like color-coded cleaning caddies and bottles clearly labeled so all staff know how to use them. We also recommend asking employees to take certain steps before coming to work, such as taking their temperature and filling out a screening questionnaire that asks staff to confirm they are not coughing or experiencing shortness of breath. Restaurants may also consider breaking up shifts to avoid employee crossover and limit exposure if someone gets sick. If a restaurant typically opens from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., they could instead open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then again at 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., allowing the day shift to clean the restaurant before the evening shift arrives.

Talk about some of the behind-the-scenes changes that need to be made. What are some core operating procedures restaurants should invest in, from cross-training of staff to cleaning practices, to business modeling for profitability?

First and foremost, understand what your new P&L is going to look like. With reduced table counts and increased expenses, it’s critically important to know how to plan your business and ensure you’re equipped to manage through a different time than you’ve experienced before.   

Training staff will likely be one of the more significant behind-the-scenes changes restaurants will make. Restaurants should prepare to invest heavily in training staff on everything from cleaning techniques to how to interact safely with guests to how to properly use personal protection equipment.

Restaurants should also invest the time to create new or rethink old policies and procedures and take this time to write or rewrite the playbook. For example, the playbook could include a cleaning and sanitizing schedule, list of approved cleaning chemicals, policies on employee health and wellness, procedures for non-compliance, potential contamination procedures and plans for internal and external communications.

Investment in new equipment such as fans to keep air rotating or infrastructure changes to open kitchens and installing barriers where furniture is immovable will be costly as will be purchasing a surplus of PPE, cleaning supplies, etc.

Zeroing in on the staff concern. Many restaurants are worried about rehiring employees and getting their locations full operational again. Are their ways to quickly ramp up this process?

We recommend keeping in touch with employees and updating them on any new plans, policies and procedures that will be put in place when they return so they are aware of what to expect.

We would also recommend using the time now, while the restaurant is still shut down or limited to take-out/delivery, to plan and prepare as much as possible. Delegate if possible and share some of the planning work with employees, such as asking them to come up with different staffing schedules for scenarios where the restaurant is open at 25% capacity, 50% capacity, etc. Also, to relieve the burden of immediately reopening, consider a phased reopening, where you open with a limited scheduled and pared down menu, before ramping up to longer hours and a fuller menu. 

Contactless and touchless operations appear likely to linger well past COVID-19. For full-service operators especially, what are some key platforms to accomplish this?

My favorite platforms are Toast, Chow Now, and Resy and we are always open to working with operators to showcase these technologies with them along with the benefits.

Toast is a platform that allows restaurant operators to quickly and easily set up digital channels like online ordering, a mobile ordering app, contactless delivery and e-gift cards. No hardware or POS purchase is required. Chow Now is an online ordering platform for US Foods that can start working on a restaurant’s operation quickly and easily. If a restaurant doesn’t already have a website, an optimized site can be complete within an hour of signup. Customers also get commission-free access to new customer through ChowNow’s ordering marketplace, as well as its ordering integrations on Yelp and Google.

Resy is a complete restaurant reservations and waitlist system, including table management, ticketing, web and app booking, CRM, POS integration and more.  They’ve recently announced they are providing 100 percent relief on all Resy fees and billing through the end of 2020.

Additional comments from Jim:

As operators continue to seek new information and guidance, I would recommend visiting our website. We have established “MAKE IT NOW” online resource platform here designed to help operators support their employees and adapt their businesses so they can survive and in some cases, even thrive. We offer weekly webinars and regularly updated tools and resources. A sampling of some of the resource topics found on the “Make It Now” site include:

  • Navigating the CARES Act and accessing financial resources
  • Best practices for calculating cash flow
  • How to ramp up takeout and delivery operations
  • How to create engaging social media content to stay connected with customers
  • Tips for pivoting to retail