How Michael Biddick's Blend 111 in Virginia is preparing for a brutal winter season.

In fall, the National Restaurant Association reported that nearly one in six restaurants (representing nearly 100,000 restaurants) closed, either permanently or long-term. Before COVID-19, December was a critical month for many restaurants with end-of-year corporate parties and holiday events. This year is quite the opposite. The combination of a national rise of coronavirus cases, the onset of winter, and exhausted relief funds is a trifecta of worry for full-service restaurants. The initial 100,000 restaurant closures may just be the start of a brutal winter season.

With lower revenue and an uncertain future, it is also difficult for restaurants to justify any expenditures to encourage guests to dine with them. Still, in the competitive restaurant business, with fewer diners, making sure that when they go out, they come to you, is as important as ever. There are some steps that all restaurants can take to survive the next few months.

At Blend 111, we were lucky in the fact that the building owner, town, and county allowed us to expand and create and outdoor patio space. This was great in summer and fall, but when the weather turned cooler in November, visitors to the patio dropped significantly. First, we added heaters. We found that the propane tank top heaters are much more effective compared to the sold-out patio heaters and are a small fraction of the cost. We were able to buy one for each table outside to keep the space warm. Many wholesale clubs also offer propane refills, significantly less expensive than tank exchanges. The cost to join the club can be recovered in a few fill-ups. We also bought a large number of blankets and sell those as well. We sold out of our initial blanket supply and reordered after just four weeks. 

Inside, we are fortunate that we had a new HVAC system before COVID-19 struck. However, we also added air particle filters at each table to increase the localized airflow. These are also inexpensive but check on the cost of replacement filters and how often you need to change them. We made these and other improvements incrementally so do not feel you need to make large investments all at the same time.

While the federal paycheck protection program (PPP) and small business administration (SBA) Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) received a lot of press, check with your state, county and town to see if they are offering any grants with funds that they received from the CARES act. This can help fill in some gaps for payroll and rent, and also fund some improvements.

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Guests want to help, but many are not sure how. With legitimate concerns around indoor dining, restaurants need to communicate with their customers on how they can best help them get through the winter and also change their offerings to adjust to the colder weather. Below are some ideas that you can share with guests that want to help. 

  • Dinner Outside: Ask guests to bundle up, brave the weather and have dinner outside. Have them bring a blanket, their warmest coat and boots and maybe even some hand warmers. With heaters, warm food and efficient service they will have a memorable experience and support a restaurant at the same time.
  • Make Reservations: If you take reservations, ask guests to make them. In an environment of lower staffing levels, understanding what the guest volume will be helps the restaurant plan accordingly and result in a better experience for everyone. 
  • Add Lunch Outside: With the daylight, offer a unique outside lunch. Guests will enjoy some sunshine and consider adding warm soup and other hot items to your menu.
  • Carryout Dinner: Order carryout directly from the restaurant. The delivery services take up to 30 percent from the restaurants. Ask guests to pick a night and order carryout from you each week.   
  • Gift Cards: Offer gift cards to use post-pandemic, if some of your guests are not comfortable with carryout or delivery. Better yet, ask them to buy a few and give them as gifts this holiday season.
  • Gift Baskets and Merchandise: If you offer merchandise, put together holiday gift baskets. We combine wine, coffee, gift cards, wine and other items for a unique offering that also supports a local, independent restaurant. 
  • Social Media Postings: Request that guests post a review and tell others about their experience. Each posting may result in 7-10 more people going to the restaurant. 
  • Communicate with the Restaurant: Ask guests to communicate with you on areas for improvement. With less staff and fewer resources, restaurants are trying their best, but always open to ways that they can improve. This is always more helpful that posting a “negative” review. 
  • Respect Safety Measures: Make sure that guests understand your safety measures and that you enforce them. Not only does this protect your staff and guests, but also it will make them more comfortable when they visit your restaurant.  
  • Indoor Dining: If guests are in a low-risk category and indoor dining is still permitted, ask them to dine inside. Be sure to share with them the steps you take to keep indoor dining safe.
  • Ask Guests to Visit on Slow Nights: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday? Pick your slowest nights and develop promotions to encourage guest to patronize you then.

Unfortunately, it will take a lot of extra work, cost, innovation and the entire community to survive the winter. For those restaurants that do make it through the next several months, they will have become much more resilient and efficient. Warm weather, the vaccines and renewed hope may result in swift recovery in 2021, if together we can hold on.     

Michael Biddick is the head sommelier and owner of Blend 111. He is a Master of Bordeaux wine, a certified French Wine Scholar (FSW) and was trained by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Author of the award-winning book “43 Wine Regions” (2018) Michael has been a contributor to Somm Journal, Food and Travel, and Go World Travel magazines. Michael also founded one of the fastest growing information technology firms in the country in 2009, earned a Master of Science in Information Systems from Johns Hopkins University & undergraduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Michael speaks English, Spanish and French. He is also a certified barista & coffee roaster.

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