Operators need to please customers’ diverse interests, keep guest zones safe, and establish clear communication between staff to achieve post-pandemic success.
As states begin to lessen restrictions, restaurants are grappling with their local and individual circumstances to determine a reopening strategy. Some are seating in dining rooms, albeit with lessened capacities. Others are allowing guests to dine in outdoor and patio spaces only. Still others aren’t seating at all, but instead continuing only with curbside and delivery efforts.
Like restaurants, consumers are developing a diverse set of responses to the “new normal.” Some are rushing to shop and dine out as soon as local retail and foodservice businesses open their doors, looking for the familiarity of pre-pandemic life; others remain indoors, preferring not to take any chances; and others are in limbo, waiting to see if coronavirus cases worsen as people begin to venture out again.
US Foods’ new guide for operators, the “Restaurant Reopening Blueprint,” was constructed from federal government, CDC, FDA, and other guidelines, as well as from interviews with key groups including diners in the U.S., diners in China, restaurant workers, and restaurant operations consultants and chefs. The finished product outlines eight principles for an effective reopening—prioritizing health and well-being; staying nimble, or preparing to operate in an iterative way; tightening menus to allow for simpler, more sanitary kitchen operations; establishing your restaurant as a trusted public gathering space; maintaining a buffered, sealed back of house; maintaining a buffered, contactless front of house; seeking opportunities to create new rituals and positive signals for guests; and focusing on transparency and communication.
The blueprint divides post-quarantine customers into three groups of diners: those who want to “get back to normal,” the “cautiously optimistic,” and those who want to “wait and see” before leaving their homes to dine out. It recommends that operators attempt to shape their restaurants’ experiences to match these diverse customers' expectations.
This isn’t a simple task, but, when customers are broken into the trio of groups previously mentioned, that delineation can provide a foundation for a successful reopen strategy. Operators can assess individual groups’ dining desires and expectations, and then piece those together to create a comprehensive plan. The key is to offer something for everyone.
For instance, guests who'd like to get back to normal life might enthusiastically return to favorite establishments, but be aware of and frustrated by elements of the dining experience that differ from before the pandemic.
“I feel like I’ve been in jail for 45 days,” an anonymous “get back to normal” customer says in the blueprint.
For this type of guest, the optimal operator approach might be an overt signaling of the new normal, as well as the use of “we’re in this together” language to reduce customer frustration. Operators can also encourage these visitors to become ambassadors of sorts, providing them with ways to share their recent successful dining experiences with their peers, like leaving a good review of a restaurant on Facebook or Yelp.
For the cautiously optimistic, it's recommended that operators allow diners to see and understand new safety protocols, as well as consider hosting a soft opening where to-go dining is still marketed as a primary offering. It’s important to make this group aware of any new safety processes to alleviate worry and prove that their restaurant of choice is taking the virus seriously.
When it comes to those guests who are continuing to wait on a full green light to leave their homes, gaining trust will be even more difficult. Operators should slowly work their way up to offering dine-in to these guests by continuing to provide contactless and to-go options until the guest feels safe, reiterating new safety protocols with each guest interaction.
Putting yourself in your various customers’ shoes can produce a reopening strategy that works for each individual customer and concept. Remember, just like customers, restaurants are diverse, meaning that reopening will look different for all brands.
Safety should be the primary focus in all guest zones
Regardless of individual reopening strategies, though, one element of reopening remains consistent among all brands—customer safety is paramount. While restaurants vary in cuisine, experience, and physical design, US Foods’ blueprint outlines something that nearly every eating establishment has in common: four physical guest “zones” including pre-arrival/arrival, entry/exit, dining room/bar, and restrooms. Typically, the customer experience unfolds across all four of these zones, and each area must be a part of any new safety, social distancing, and sanitizing plans.
The opportunity to amp up guest safety and educate them on new measures begins in the pre-arrival/arrival zone, even before diners enter your front doors. At the crux of this zone is guidance and information—educating the customer before they leave their home and as they approach a restaurant’s entrance.
“Dining out is a planned event now more than ever,” an anonymous diner in China says in the blueprint. “Information online is not always up to date and I always have to call the restaurant to confirm, which is frustrating.”
To make this zone airtight, then, operators should begin with their websites, social media channels, presence on restaurant search apps, and any other digital tools, like online reservation platforms. Providing up-to-date information and education on new procedures such as fresh off-premises options can eliminate guest confusion, making for smooth reopenings and satisfied visitors.
After the digital side is considered, the blueprint recommends putting clear site signage in place along sidewalks and/or guests’ paths to the front door; separating exterior entry, waiting, and dining zones and allowing for 6 feet of space between parties in these areas; creating a convivial outdoor dining area; and distinguishing dine-in entries from takeout points. To achieve safety for these areas without ruining the guest experience, operators can add decorative elements as spacers for socially-distanced areas, lighting, flowers, and music in outdoor dining spaces, and creative, attention-grabbing signage to explain new protocols.
“People have a tendency to be drawn to things that move,” the blueprint reports. “Use ‘dynamic’ substrates like lenticular, prismatic, or holographic signage materials to suggest motion on otherwise static notifications.”
The next zone, entry and exit, should be as low-contact as possible. The blueprint suggests purposely disrupting your restaurant’s direct entry path, creating turns that will slow a diner’s pace. This will help guide the guest through all necessary signage. Once visitors reach an actual entry point, noticeable, graphically simple signage should be in place to clearly explain the requirements of entering the establishment, such as wearing a mask or undergoing a temperature check.
If possible, operators should separate the entering and exiting guests with lanes that ensure no diners cross paths at these points. Highly visible, socially distanced staff should be in place to guide customers through the entry/exit processes, and, when available, touchless or contactless hardware, like foot handles or touchless hand sanitizer dispensers, should be available.
Once guests have safely entered the restaurant, they are in the dining room, which is the most risky and thus the most crucial for operators to manage safely. It is here that diners will spend the bulk of their time inside your business, and it’s necessary to implement a list of safety measures. These include staggered seating patterns with six feet of space between all tabletops, lessened capacity, limited or no bar service, staff-only exclusion zones, and high visibility cleaning activities.
In the dining room, there’s a balance to strike: The space should have enough available tables to avoid vacancy, but avoid overcrowding at all costs. Leaving closed tables in place as spacers between occupied tables can lend a sense of normalcy to the dining experience while also adhering to social distancing measures.
“An uncrowded restaurant can be desirable,” the blueprint states. “A vacant one may be disconcerting.”
The final guest zone, restrooms, were tricky to keep clean and safe pre-pandemic, but now the stakes are higher than ever before. Clearly marking pathways to the restrooms are top of mind. Diners should be blocked from high-flow areas, kitchens, and staff-only zones to protect against accidental back of house contamination. Operators should provide a comfortable, clearly marked waiting space outside of restrooms to allow proper social distancing inside. Guidance on how customers should pass each other when space is particularly constrained, as well as paper towel dispensers outside of restrooms for guests who do not wish to touch door handles, are also valuable additions.
Inside the restrooms, contact-free is the way to go. Whenever possible, restaurants should provide door kicks, foot handles, touchless faucets and soap dispensers, and easy access trash cans that are within an arm’s reach of the door. An abundance of single-use paper towels and a visible and timely record of frequent cleanings can also give customers further peace of mind about the cleanliness of the facilities.
“I would love to see the disinfection intervals and who is in charge on a piece of paper,” one anonymous diner says in the blueprint.
Team communication is crucial
Good team communication has never been more necessary. Food preparation spaces need to remain sealed off from any visitors, and guest zones need proper staffing to ensure customers are receiving the service and health and safety education they now require—and this is all impossible without continued and clear communication between all staff.
“Strong role distinction and coordination will help plan the flow of space, the safety of staff and customers, and the movement of food from the kitchen to the table,” the blueprint says.
Pre-pandemic, an operator might have broken their team into two groups, back of house and front of house. It’s now necessary to look at any restaurant team as three groups: customer engagement, restaurant safety, and back of house.
Each member of the front of house staff (a.k.a. the customer engagement and restaurant safety personnel) needs to know exactly which tasks fall under their responsibility. Customer engagement workers, which include floor managers, hosts, servers, section captains, and service-facing bartenders, should greet guests, educate them on protocols and menus, maintain the restrooms, process payments, and overall guide and verbally enhance the customer experience. They should not transport food from the kitchen, enter the back of house, clear food from tables, box up leftovers, make coffee, refill beverages, reset tables, or return food to the kitchen.
Conversely, restaurant safety personnel—food runners, bussers, back waiters, bartenders or beverage-makers, and bar backs—should coordinate with the back of house leads to transport food from the kitchen to tables, clear plates, box food, issue refills, make coffee, retrieve drinks from bartenders, and reset tables. These employees should not engage in any customer education or take orders, greet customers, process payments, or cook food.
Although customers should not have the opportunity to enter or interact with the back of house spaces, these kitchen areas require the same stringent sanitation methods as the guest zones. Most kitchens are limited in square footage, and back of house employees like chefs, kitchen managers, line cooks, and dishwashers should oversee timely cleanings, as well as manage who enters and exits these spaces, to ensure the areas stay as safe as possible. The blueprint suggests that lead cooks work to control when and where other team members may enter, establishing a buffer between food prep areas and the food pass area, or front of house.
Back of house staff should receive any food safely delivered from dining areas, perform inventory and ordering tasks, cook food, sanitize and wash dishes, clean and sanitize kitchens, and develop social distancing solutions for small spaces. These team members should not deliver dishes to the floor, engage with customers, or enter the front of house at any time.
Furthermore, back of house employees are responsible for five out of seven steps in a restaurant’s food preparation journey.
“Every food item entering the site must follow normal safety procedure with increased care—especially at the inflection points between food delivery, food preparation, and food consumption,” the blueprint reports.
Take a look at the optimal food prep journey: First, the kitchen manager must receive deliveries. This person should unbox delivered foods outside of kitchen prep areas and place the foods into sanitized vessels before carrying them into designated storage areas in the kitchen. Then, they should stock ingredients into the appropriate storage areas while wearing gloves, being sure to wash their hands after stocking.
Once an order is fired, the line cook will prepare ingredients at a pre-sanitized work station while wearing gloves, a mask, and a head covering. Any tools used are immediately sent to the dishwasher for rapid sanitization and cleaning. Then, the line cook plates the cooked items on a freshly cleaned plate, brings the dish to the pass, and alerts the lead cook (or whichever team member is in charge of the food pass process) that the dish is ready to be delivered. Finally, the line cook will check the dish, wipe the rim of the plate with a sanitized cloth, cover the dish with a cleaned and sanitized plate cover, and coordinate with a designated food runner to deliver to the guest.
After this, the food journey passes is under the jurisdiction of front of house staff. The food runner removes the plate cover and delivers the dish, and then the food busser clears the finished dish from the table, waiting until guests depart to retrieve empty plates and returning the dish directly to the dish sanitation area.
Key in all staff duties, including the food journey, is the delineation between front and back of house. The front of house staff should designate responsibilities before they arrive for their shifts in order to easily determine entry points and service flow patterns. Back of house employees should enter through a back service entrance with masks and gloves, and should receive clean uniforms upon entry.
Further distinguishing various team members and their specific roles can result in not only a clean, contactless customer space, but a sealed food preparation space as well, making for an entire establishment that delivers a safe experience, from food delivery to finished meal.