Inside a restaurant.
Unsplash/Marco Chilese

Keeping guests apart is just the beginning.

What Should Restaurants Stand for During COVID-19? Safety and Creativity

Going the extra mile is a no-brainer for operators.

Throughout the evolving stages of COVID-19, your brand will benefit if you’re presenting a cohesive, well-executed safety strategy. While branding should always highlight a restaurant’s unique “personality,” make sure people know you’re serious about the pandemic, and a top priority is keeping them safe.

Adhering to basic personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements and industry standards to pass public health inspections is table stakes—but not sufficient. That a restaurant’s survival depends on how customers perceive its COVID-19 strategy is supported by a recent Zagat’s Future of Dining survey. Nearly three quarters of 6,500 diners polled said health and safety was by far the biggest factor to influence their decision to dine out in the coming months.

Going the extra mile is a no-brainer

Brand elements that emphasize protective measures will continue to be critical for attracting and maintaining guests since the timeframe for COVID-19 is unknown and may continue beyond current estimates. But, even if consumers become blasé about safety procedures, they won’t tolerate restaurants that let up. It only takes one scare for customers to flee if they don’t feel confident that all safeguards are consistently in place and adhered to by restaurant management and staff.


The more a restaurant confidently and professionally communicates and illustrates safe dine-in practices, the more likely it will attract clientele leery about venturing out and keep those who are comfortable but insist on continued safety. Any perceived lapse can damage reputations and kill business.

Delta Airlines moved quickly with safety precautions and procedures to meet passengers’ needs and build confidence during the pandemic. These ranged from masks and empty seats to modified boarding protocols and disinfecting all aircraft with regular spray fogging. Just like Delta established an ultra-safety niche for its brand, restaurants can differentiate themselves by earning a consumer mindset that says, “As a customer, I’m comfortable that this restaurant is doing what it takes to keep me safe.”

Enhance the total experience—beyond food

While safety is paramount, it’s also vital that branding elements continue to convey the holistic experience and essence of your restaurant that entices people.

In addition to missing the food, Zagat’s survey found the dining-out crowd definitely misses the opportunity to socialize with friends and family – both at neighborhood favorites and new discoveries. A representative write-in comment from a respondent said, “Whether it's fine dining, neighborhood or casual, I really enjoy the interaction and food that I don't cook at home – and the energy!” Noting that people can start to socialize with careful social distancing and related precautions will reassure consumers that you’re reopening safely.

During this time, consider enhancing your restaurant experience—plus your revenue—beyond the menu with select logoed merchandise like tee shirts, hats, aprons, coffee mugs, etc. You can also get free visibility for your brand by encouraging people to post a fun photo on social media showing your items. Have them tag your restaurant and be entered in a contest for a free dinner or prize. You can get even more creative by adding hard to find “signature ingredients” and cocktail kits that fit your brand image.

Consumers are eager to support their local restaurants. Consider incorporating their input with a simple digital scorecard following their meal: Are we meeting your expectations during the current pandemic? How can we serve you better? Include a sincere thank you and a promotional offer for a return visit.

Leverage sourcing and marketing partners

Restaurateurs have a passion for food and the restaurant experience – not for operations tasks and marketing support that can be time consuming and overwhelming. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Harness the buying power of a single-source provider for a range of products/services to meet COVID-19 needs.

For example, a valuable partner can provide a flexible kit to cover myriad safety basics with cross-sale  savings. This can include items like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, signage, single-use menus, placemats, table cards, employee information and instruction sheets and more. Packaging is a growing area for investment with added incorporation of an establishment’s brand—the walking billboard concept.

On the marketing/digital side, a partner can provide value by evaluating and updating your website regularly to factor in the pandemic and bring innovative recommendations to the table to boost revenue. Creative tactics can include email blasts to stay top of mind plus new menu offerings, weekly specials, curbside offerings and gift cards.

For example, Chef Jared Hucks at The Alden Restaurant in Atlanta developed an alluring dine-in fixed price menu with three signature options for each course. This successful strategy limits food and service handling and the range of ingredients, while delivering a gourmet meal and a special outing – at an unbeatable price.

An easy, free way to ramp up your digital profile is setting up a Google My Business account, if you haven’t already. This enables people to search and easily find you online with maps. Don’t underestimate the pull of social media, and make sure your channels reinforce your website. You can keep Facebook and Instagram fresh and lively with photos of your guests, behind the scenes tours, cooking demonstrations and free dinner “drawings.” For example, restaurants in the increasingly popular “farm to table” niche can reinforce their healthy ingredients, authentic recipes and links with local farmers via rich photography and videos that make people want to escape and experience your restaurant.

Think outside the box

Necessity is the mother of invention. Take the Main Street Pizza Company in Farmingdale, NY, which opened just five months before COVID-19 hit. Without a track record of regular traffic, the pizzeria got creative—first with pizza kits and then a popular “Bored Game” take-out pizza box that resembles a monopoly game, complete with a set of dice. It offers a kids and adult version. Additional innovative promotions included a monthly virtual bingo night via Zoom—with prizes—and a partnership with a local brewery to make IPA pizza dough.

Look around the corner

While the restaurant industry has coped with many issues and crises over decades, we are in uncharted territory and don’t know how COVID-19 will play out. There’s no consensus on potential future waves or timelines for successful treatments and vaccines. To mitigate anxiety and inspire confidence, operators need to stay flexible and move quickly to meet the situation by taking the public’s “temperature” to determine best practices for each next normal. This strategy can help preserve the much-loved national pastime of “going out to dinner.”

There’s no limit to fresh ideas that can preserve health and safety while also giving your brand pizzazz. Put together a brainstorm team with a mix of internal folks, customers and friends to come up with your own special concoction for success.

Tom Riccio is the president of Promotional Solutions at Deluxe. Promotional Solutions provides a range of products to help restaurants and other businesses manage their COVID-19 response, from floor decals that help people maintain proper spacing to signage that tells passersby a restaurant is open—and more.