Tables outside an empty restaurant.
Unsplash/Markus Spiske

Even with masks, eye contact and speed of service remain important.

9 Steps for Restaurant Success in the COVID Age

Brands find opportunity in uncertainty.

What a unique and challenging time it is for the restaurant business. Yet it’s also one that provides opportunities.

In a time of unease for customers and staff, the industry was thrust into the COVID-19 landscape of operational challenges, while new customer segments emerged. Customers with unique safety needs contrast with a new breed of escape seekers.

Families and couples seeking a break from cooking and “date-nighters” are nothing new, but if you serve spirits, you are very likely seeing an influx of millennials whose bars and clubs shuttered for safety concerns, creating a diverse customer mix across the sector.  

Regardless of your intent, you are now faced with having to be everything to everyone, while protecting yourself and your business in the process. It is likely that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on your business, and in turn you have quickly adapted to this new reality. From redesigning seating arrangements, simplifying menus or changing the ordering process entirely, to launching new apps, and adding delivery service with not a moment to spare, restaurants are tasked with becoming the public house they’ve often dreamed of becoming. A gathering place for food and fun. The closest thing to a “night out” anyone has.  

This summer gave restaurants an opportunity to reevaluate safety measures each day as the calendar moved closer to winter, when there will be no outdoor seating available for much of the U.S. How can you build on this opportunity while staying safe and maintaining customer trust? How will you evolve? Here are nine steps to consider from the obvious to the strategic:

Keep one step ahead of your state’s safety protocols. Like grade schools are facing, we are not completely sure what the best approach is to encouraging safety besides using appropriate disinfectants, requiring masks, and social distance.

Stay in constant communication with your staff on all policies, keep tabs on their thoughts and concerns. They have more responsibility than ever.

Show you care. We are ALL online now, watching brands on social media and in the news. We would rather see your safety policies on your website and social media than find out in-person. And bonus points to the brands and franchisees that applaud global causes rather than suppressing.

Safety first. Service expectations must come after safety—a masked and sterile environment is a baseline requirement today. Brand trust has progressed from a marketing ideal to something quite literal. Create a great guest experience on top of that and your odds have never been better for customer retention and frequency.

Consider opportunities to shorten customer-server dialogue. We are not suggesting you lose your “fun factor,” but it is worth rehearsing more succinct service scripts to shorten face time, cutting back on the opportunity to contract or pass the virus. Scripts on safety protocols are important and may require frequent revision as local situations change.  

Speaking of face time, the common service expectation “greeting with friendly smile” may now be hidden by a mask, but eye contact and speed of service will remain important. Changing your interior layout and making sure your restroom signs are visible will also help corral patrons more safely through the dining area.

Reinstate your customer satisfaction surveys and mystery shopping programs. Many restaurants have longstanding customer satisfaction surveys and mystery shopping programs to help validate all corporate expectations are being met. While it was unfair in part to judge certain levels of service early in the pandemic, it is time now to bring those programs back into the fold with added COVID-19 related survey measures. Visibility into each location is critical to maintain brand consistency and confirm compliance with state safety protocols. From there you can move forward and find ways to improve.

Look inward at employee satisfaction and engagement. The communication flow from corporate has likely been a steady downward stream—so give staff a chance to respond to that and provide suggestions. Launch a monthly pulse survey program to gather feedback in a formal manner. Among the questions you may want to answer are: How satisfied are your staff? Do they feel enough safety measures have been taken? Are they receiving all the essential benefits they need? What is missing? Be empathetic to your employees. Investing in the full scope of employee needs reduces turnover and improves customer loyalty.

What about your brand refresh? For some brands, their initiatives were too big to hold back during the pandemic. Marketing campaigns were launched for products and services misaligned with quarantine culture. Alternatively, Taco Bell among others have reacted to the new environment. Simplifying menus to reduce the cashier or server’s role in the ordering process is an important consideration. It makes sense.

Unfortunately, it is not the best time to conduct intercept research initiatives to test new menu ideas. Adding masks, alcohol wipes, and lower customer traffic to what was already a logistical hurdle is asking a lot. Many clients have had to cancel or re-think their in-person research programs because of safety as well as concerns regarding the projectability of results.

Online Equals Opportunity. Online qualitative and quantitative research will guide decisions in 2020. As the business environment has changed so too has our researcher toolkit. The 2020 pandemic has without a doubt legitimized the expanded use of online focus groups, for both client and respondent. This will help bring fresh respondents into the mix. Market research panels and related customer surveys have also been granted a refresh as people have more time at home to complete surveys.

Segmentation studies are needed to better understand who you are servicing most during the pandemic and what their needs are regarding safety, products, and services. Also, discovering how traffic has changed since before COVID, and why, will help guide your strategy for bringing former customers back.

With the uncertainty of knowing when things will go back to normal, a proactive researcher will tread onward. The Spanish Flu of 1918 lasted a couple years, and while certain countries gave hope that early containment of COVID-19 was possible, recent news suggests otherwise. Your brand cannot afford to wait this out. Research can be a costly investment, but it can also provide the insights necessary to steer in this environment. Market research reduces uncertainty, and we could all use more certainty these days.

Researchers find opportunity in uncertainty and know how to adjust their methods on the fly. Some information is better than none, and good market intelligence could help position your brand to increase market share during this pandemic, or for some, keep it afloat.

Onward we go. Stay safe.

Ken Rutka is Director, Research & Analytics, at Second To None, a brand experience and customer satisfaction research firm that has helped highly respected brands across North America achieve customer joy for over 30 years. You can reach him at ken@stn.com.

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