Restaurants are doing everything they can to maximize off-premises business.

We’re roughly two weeks into the COVID-19 nightmare. And the options have whittled down for restaurants. Operators can either stay open for takeout and delivery, or they can board up and wait until the storm passes. Gone are many early day options, like removing tables, reducing seating, and trying to enforce social distancing inside the four walls, as many fine-dining spots tried. State and city mandates have stripped choices like that in basically every market in America.

Data has trickled out illustrating how challenging this coronavirus reality truly is. Most restaurants are generating roughly 10 percent of normal business through off-premises-only models. J. Alexander’s said it was about 10–20 percent. The One Group, owner of STK and Kona Grill, is making about $300,000–$400,000 per week across its entire restaurant portfolio.

Landry’s, which furloughed 40,000 employees this past week, told Bloomberg its restaurants without dining rooms bring in just 4–5 percent of normal sales.

Smoke Berkeley BBQ, a concept in California, said in a recent release it took staff down from 13 employees to just one—co-owner Sean Hagler. On his street in Berkeley, he said, a 30-resaturant block now has just eight open venues. And they’re all takeout-only.

Darden CEO Gene Lee noted that it takes, on average, six to 10 employees to run their to-go only restaurants. A pre-COVID-19 Olive Garden: between 60–120 hourly team members, a GM, and three to five additional managers. The One Group’s full-time staff has gone from 4,000 to fewer than 100 employees.

A survey of more than 4,000 operators by the National Restaurant Association found 3 percent of restaurants had permanently closed; 44 percent were temporarily shut down; and 11 percent anticipated taking that first route within the next 30 days.

So, while delivery and takeout are lifelines for many restaurants, it’s not an easy answer for anybody.

And for those who do dive in, getting started can take some getting used to. For a bevy of brands, off-premises wasn’t part of their business model and they had zero plans to change that.

Ordermark CEO Alex Canter said they’ve fielded numerous calls from restaurants that haven’t tried delivery before and are rushing to onboard. “It’s kind of all of sudden and I think there’s a lot of fear based on the fact that they’re doubling down on something that’s unproven and untested,” he says. “They don’t know how much staff to keep at hand to service a delivery-only business—something they’ve never done before.”

“When you’re going from physical to digital for the first time, the challenge is you have to think digital,” Canter added. “There are a lot of old-school businesses that have never had to face this.”

Where do you begin then?

MustHaveMenus rolled out a “Coronavirus Response Kit” to help make this process as seamless and, hopefully, profitable as possible for restaurants catching up.

Let’s look at seven tips:

Menu Printed Board With Brown Frame On Table

It’s time to break out every menu trick you know.

1. Create a takeout-specific menu

Here’s a customer response from a recent 1,000-person study conducted by Datassential.

“Don’t have the full menu. Just a few of the most popular.”

That sounds simple enough, but what’s the thinking behind it? Firstly, cutting complexity in the back of the house is critical with a pared-down staff. McDonald’s is even suspending all-day breakfast currently for this very reason (also breakfast sales are dropping in general across the industry, as much as 33 percent, year-over-year, in family dining).

Also, there’s the less concrete notion of do guests feel safe? And how can we get them there? Datassential found that 47 people feel either nervous or at risk during their ordering and eating experience.

A smaller menu could ease guests’ minds because it shows you’re paying close attention to everything. It’s an instant sign of an operator’s deliberate approach to COVID-19.

Returning to the logistics side, as MustHaveMenus explains, “this may seem obvious, but you’ll need a takeout-specific menu because takeout differs in many ways from dine-in service.” Not just in how food travels, but also how you display what’s on the menu.

But yes, the food part is key. Not all of a full-service restaurant’s food and drink items are practical for takeout. Everything needs to travel well and maintain the right temperature, consistency, and presentation, from your kitchen to their door, MustHaveMenus said.

Restaurants need to reward customers for taking this risk, real or perceived. Just like dine-in, if it’s not a positive experience, it’s going to inspire them to head elsewhere.

“For economic reasons, you may want to limit your takeout menu so you can streamline all the extra preparation and packaging considerations,” MustHaveMenus said. “Perhaps sell only the most popular meal items that will travel well.”

Now is a great time to really dive into your menu mix and identify those all-star movers. If they needed to be reworked for take-out, that could be an interesting piece of news to share with customers as well. For instance, a do-it-yourself version of a classic is suddenly available for take-out. That would be an opportunistic time to shoot off an email blast that says something like, “Our iconic Chicken & Waffles, now for delivery!” Not only is this a way to reach customers and show them what’s going on, how you’re still there, and how you’re combating COVID-19, but you can also sneak in sanitary practices and other efforts to reassure them. And if they’re a loyal guest normally, they’ll know and recognize the menu item. It could just inspire that night’s order.

The menu itself should be small and conveniently storable. While most customers will access the menu online or via social media, some will still be happy to have a paper copy they can post on their refrigerator or keep at their desk, MustHaveMenus said. The classic takeout menu formats are trifold 8.5 x 14 or 8.5 x 11.

However, with dine-in restrictions evolving rapidly, and for unknown duration, a traditional trifold takeout menu may not be the best option, the company added. Maybe you’re unsure of the options. Perhaps there will be new pickup or payment products to promote.

“As an alternative to traditional takeouts, consider crafting a special limited-item menu, on a smaller, half-page paper size,” MustHaveMenus said. “This format is cost-effective to print front-and-back and drop into each carryout bag.”

As with any takeout menu, include the restaurant name, phone number, website, and physical address. Hours, service details, and delivery partners could be worthwhile adds, too.

2. An efficient ordering system

If this lagged behind before (maybe it wasn’t needed) now is the time to update. With everything that’s going on, the last thing restaurants want is for customers to show up and wait. It’s like walking around a grocery store amid COVID-19 concerns. You felt OK when you stepped in, but anxiety builds minute by minute as you look around and see people with masks and gloves. The same is true for guests showing up at a restaurant. “That increases their risk of exposure and defeats the purpose of takeout. You’ll want to organize an efficient priority and timing system based on when and how the orders are coming in,” MustHaveMenus said.

Some brands have tried makeshift drive thrus where they take customers’ car make and model over the phone along with the order. This way, when somebody shows up, the restaurant can look out the window and bring the food out. The car provides an extra layer of security.

Here are three tips from MustHaveMenus:

Ordering by phone, email, or text: Give them an expected pickup time and ask if that works. Make sure the order is already packaged and waiting by that time so they can grab it and go.

Ordering on the web: If you have a modern POS system, it’s very possible that your POS provider also allows you to take orders from your website. TouchBistro, Square, and Toast all have online ordering options, and often they let you avoid third-party service charges. Give your rep a call and find out today.

Ordering via mobile pay: If people can pay via online systems such as Google Pay or Apple Pay, they should. This limits face-to-face exposure from swiping credit cards and handing over cash.

The first point is really vital. While it’s not always possible, setting time windows for pickup is more important than ever. Those days of call in, “your order will be ready in 15–30 minutes”—that’s a tough path to follow in this climate. Especially if orders flood in during a brief period. It would lead to the waiting problem. That may not have been a huge deal before, but it definitely is today.

Just look at this response in Datassential’s study:

“If people are picking up food to go, insist that people in line maintain distance from each other. Also place credit card machine on a small table away from the cashier in order to create space.”

The opposite of this is a disaster waiting to happen and almost a surefire way to dissuade potential repeat customers.

Consider opening up takeout orders early in the day, say 3 p.m., and then asking when they’d like to come in. Almost treat it like shifts where you can figure out how many guests per block make sense. And then fill in the slots.

A Restaurant Customer Carries Two Cartons Of Food

Delivery can be a dicey game. But most restaurants have to play it right now.

3. Curbside pickup is worth another look

This goes along with the makeshift drive thru idea. To MustHaveMenus point: “There are extra logistics to work through, especially when it comes to timing the drop-offs from kitchen to curb. Set pick-up order times with customers to help mitigate this. But such a service could win you a lot of repeat business from your customers as their options for restaurants dwindle. This would be a huge announcement on your social media!”

Once more, having exciting news to share with customers is essential. You want to have the ability to build messages off other messages, and present communication that stands out from the “Here’s what we’re doing for COVID-19” email crowd. “Now offering curbside!” Or, “We’ll bring the world’s best wings to your car now!” are pretty enticing subject lines that expand the possibility for more positive outreach.

Also per Datassential, 47 percent of customers said they would be “very willing” to try delivery. Nearly 60 percent (57) said the same of drive thru. For takeout/carryout, it was 46. Curbside was 46 as well. So why not turn your restaurant into a drive thru, and tell everybody about it?

4. Consider grab-and-go products

This is something you’ve seen popping up around the industry. Notably, pre-packaging complete meals and advertising those as specials. “Any idea that helps people make healthy choices fast is going to be important during these uncertain times,” MustHaveMenus said. “Grab and Go Refrigerators or Open Air Display Coolers can be easily ordered online if this is a new area for you.”

Pizza has emerged as a popular option for customers, with 63 percent saying they want it during the coronavirus crisis, according to Datassential. Why is this? For one, it’s a safe and familiar choice. Secondly, it’s an affordable and simple way to feed multiple people. If consumers are nervous about food preparation (they are), ordering five different items feels a lot riskier than just grabbing one.

A solution for non-pizza chains: Well, adding pizza is a possibility, as many have. But so is MustHaveMenu’s suggestion, which is to bundle whole family options and send out emails or direct mail talking about it.

Pizza Inn has three deals running currently: Feed Two for $11.99; Feed Four for $22.99; and Feed Six for $29.99. Think of ways you can structure your to-go menu this way. It could go a long way in helping customers protect their sanity, and their wallets.

5. Determine a delivery service

Self- or third-party delivery is a question many restaurants find themselves asking. Here’s an article on the subject. There are arguments to be made on both sides. Perhaps the first option is a way to keep some employees involved. But maybe you have no choice and need to reach out to vendors to leverage their reach and get on the network. It’s a case-by-case situation with high stakes. Yet the underlying truth is you probably need to deliver right now. One way or the other.

“They can bring you incremental business, but they can also harm your margins,” MustHaveMenus said. Now could also be a good time to partner with more than one service to broaden exposure as much as possible.

Here are some key questions to ask, from MustHaveMenus.

  • How much will it cost? What are the service charges? Marketplace charges? Advertising up-charges?
  • How will orders be received?
  • How will the handling and delivery of food work?
  • What customer service systems are in place and policies are in place?
  • What benefits are different services offering? Example: some are waiving delivery fees

As MustHaveMenus adds, self-delivery, if possible is a really solid opportunity amid COVID-19 concerns. It eliminates food coming into contact with more people (who are not on your payroll) and you can exercise greater control of the sanitary practices. “This can also help to keep more of your staff employed. If you go this route, don’t forget to talk to your insurance company about adding them to the policy,” the company said.

6. Continue to prioritize sanitation

Keep thinking outside the box. Go to extreme measures if you must. Here are some takeout specific ideas from MustHaveMenus.

Limit the amount of people coming in contact with food. This includes people preparing it, boxing it up, and delivering it.

Remember that the CDC has stated that hand washing is still the best way to prevent the spread of viruses—require staff to do it more frequently than usual

If you use a delivery service, know their policy on how their employees are expected to handle food. Example: some services are instructing drivers to leave food at the door instead of handing it to customers in order to limit exposure.

We all want to cut down on single-use takeout products, but given the current climate, it’s best practice to make sure food is fully in a container or bag to hand to people. You can add sanitary wipes to the bag so people have the option to wipe down utensils, boxes, etc. before eating.

If you are doing curbside pick-up, many restaurants are encouraging patrons to call them when they are outside at the curb so food can be brought out to them. This limits the amount of people coming in contact with your restaurant, and customers coming in contact with staff. You can mention this to customers when they call in orders, or put a sign outside your door with your number so people know to call when they roll up. Make sure any staff that brings food out are avoiding hand-to-hand contact if possible and washing their hands immediately after the exchange.

Communicate the measures you are taking to keep staff and the community safe via social media, flyers, etc.

7. Announce your takeout service through all mediums

Don’t forget anything. Social media. Emails. Website. Table tents. Signs on doors and windows. Stickers/other marketing materials. On your menu.

“Essentially, everywhere you can. Communication is going to be KEY during this time of uncertainty—the more customers know what you are doing and how, the better they will feel about using your services,” MustHaveMenus said.

Transparency is everything during a crisis. And if you’re going to go to great lengths to separate from the competition, don’t be afraid to shout it through a megaphone.

Here were some customer suggestions in Datassential’s study.

If ordering delivery/takeout, what would you want to know the restaurant was doing to handle your food safely?

  • Sending sick staff home: 62 percent
  • Requiring kitchen staff to wear protective equipment: 61 percent
  • Requiring delivery & food packing staff to wear protective equipment: 54 percent
  • Tamper-proof seals on food packages: 46 percent
  • Contactless food delivery: 44 percent
  • Fewer staff in kitchen: 43 percent
  • Signage about sanitation/food safety procedures: 40 percent
  • Pack food in wipeable/cleanable containers: 39 percent
  • Include disinfectant wipes with each order: 37 percent
  • Individually wrapping each part of my order: 31 percent
Consumer Trends, Delivery, Feature, Menu Innovations