With some smart planning, the best restaurateurs will make important adjustments during COVID-19 and come back after and thrive.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unquestionably been devastating to the restaurant industry. But, there is a path forward. 

I won’t focus on the widely documented financial lifelines available to restaurants, but rather on communications, as well as my observations on the customer and employee experience.

What should restaurants be doing now? First, step up your social media game—big time. Many restaurants have gone quiet there—or are just running the occasional special for pick-up or delivery. You should:

  • Frequently showcase your favorite menu items, preferably in video.
  • Post an occasional recipe for those stuck at home.  
  • If you’ve been able to help your employees, financially or otherwise, talk about that.
  • Show your employees and how they are living their lives, caring for family members and otherwise adjusting to deal with the downturn. 

Invite your customers (including via polls or contests) to talk about/provide input on different aspects of dining at your restaurant, whether it’s a menu item/changes, a staffer, décor changes or something else. 

What are some other things you can do now?

Assemble your team and families, ingredients, and a few pieces of equipment and set up shop outside a hospital and feed the hardworking healthcare workers (where appropriate and safe to do so).

Even if you had to lay them off or furlough them, stay in touch with your employees. Let them know what you’re planning and how much you want and need them back. Offer to connect them with resources or even jobs as you learn about them.

Start planning for how your restaurant will be (re)configured when you reopen. 

  • How many tables can you remove to accommodate the need for social distancing? 
  • Can you add deals for early or late dining to spread out demand? 
  • Can you set some/more tables up outdoors so you can preserve or add capacity while practicing social distancing? 
  • Can/should you make some décor changes/upgrades?
  • Is adding a drive-thru possible?

What about menu items? You will have many customers who long for familiar dishes, but how should you approach changes or additions? 

Sustainable and farm-to-table concepts were important before. Now, they will be even more so as people are acutely aware of where things come from. Take advantage of this by naming and locating your suppliers to the maximum extent possible.

With the explosion in carryout and delivery, give some serious thought to which of your menu items travel well—and which don’t. Those trends aren’t going away.

Build or upgrade an app. There are a number of commercially available platforms to use. Alternatively, if you’re not already there, sign up for OpenTable, Resy, and the like.

Take a hard look at your formats and features. Buffets and salad bars are a problem. As every restaurateur knows, people don’t practice the best hygiene around them.

Plan incentives and special events now to entice customers. Just don’t use specific dates because that is out of your control. People miss dining out and are already dreaming of their first sit-down meal post-lockdown. 

What should you do when you reopen?

Very visible hygiene is going to be more important than ever. Become a zealot about this. 

  • Always be cleaning. Emulate this classic McDonald’s ad
  • Keep all of the hand sanitizer stations you added. 
  • Make sure your servers don’t bus (and vice versa). 
  • Go beyond just “Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work” restroom signs. 
  • Make sure employees don’t work when sick.
  • And, absolutely require hats and/or netting always be worn by all kitchen staff. 

Try to bring back as many of your well-liked employees as possible. Incentivize them if you can.  People remember staff as much as their favorite menu items. Communicate with them more frequently and openly than before.

Provide new/improved training for your managers. Coaching, motivating and listening to your employees will be more important than ever.

Be ready for renewed union organizing. Union organizers will be out in force seeking new members—in part to replace the ones who left when they lost their jobs. Take the smart steps to blunt their appeal by implementing frequent, credible communications. Be flexible and give as much notice as possible about schedule changes. 

Running a restaurant was already one of the most difficult jobs out there, and there’s no doubt this industry was one of the hardest hit. But, with some smart planning, the best restaurateurs will make some important adjustments and come back after this crisis and thrive.

Nick Kalm is founder and president of Reputation Partners, a national strategic communications firm. He has counseled several of the world’s largest restaurant companies as well as numerous food and beverage companies on reputational issues.

Expert Takes, Feature