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Navigating A New Normal: Helpful Tips For Restaurant Leaders

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

As the nation learns to navigate the unknown, many businesses have been forced to temporarily change their business model, and in some cases, close their doors until life returns to a new normal. This isn’t a day-by-day situation, it’s hour-by-hour.

While COVID-19 has impacted all industries, I want to share some helpful tips on what restaurants in particular should be doing today, tomorrow and in the coming weeks. First and foremost, there are two critical items that should be on your immediate radar: (1) Clear, concise and timely communication with your employees and guests, and (2) Plan for the reopening of your business, while also recognizing that your actions today may impact your reopening strategy.

Communicate. Communication with your employees and guests is critical. Keep them informed on what is going on with your business and what you are doing to keep everyone safe.

Employees. Hearing directly from leadership is critical. Share details on how they are impacted, and direct them to internal and/or external resources that may be able to assist them.

  • If there have been changes to the business model, make sure they know what those are.

  • If there are changes to the support structure, such as reduced workforce at a corporate office, ensure your restaurants know who and how to contact key resources.

Guests. Tell them what’s going on and what you are able to offer. Ideally this information should be front-and-center on your website. Bottomline, keep them informed.

  • Are you open for carryout and curbside delivery?

  • Have you closed locations? If so, tell them, but your main message needs to be what you are still offering.

  • If you’re offering options that you don’t typically have on your menu, such as family-style meals, let them know. Family meal kits such as pizza at home, deli night, and family style dinner with game night are big wins. Also keep in mind that even families who shunned away from leftovers in the past are now quickly popping that Tupperware-filled bowl in the refrigerator for tomorrow’s lunch.

  • Provide recipes for home-cooked meals. It’s a great time to let your chefs and cooks share their favorite recipes.

  • Are you offering free or discounted delivery? If so, be sure to tell them who you are partnering with for delivery and if they can order online or via mobile.

  • Are you promoting gift cards? This is a great way for the community to support you now, and when you re-open. Offering a discount? Share it with everyone, and everywhere. Ask employees to share the details on their personal social accounts.

  • Are you offering a bounce back in all carryout and delivery orders, redeemable once the dining room reopens?

Engage with local media and bloggers. Tell them which restaurants are open and what services you are offering. Make sure you’re included in all round-up stories about restaurants who are providing carryout and curbside pickup. If you don’t have a PR agency or a media list, no worries. Just research what is being covered in your market and reach out to the journalist covering this topic.

Engage social media. Today’s world is about sharing experiences. Reach audiences that are hunkering down at home via social media such as Instagram and Facebook. Don’t go silent right now. This is a time for you to be building engagement. Messaging is critical – it’s not about catchy promotional ideas. The message should be from the heart and capture what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Capitalize on Partnerships. If you’re a member of the Chamber of Commerce, make sure you’re using all available resources. Many have e-newsletters or websites where you can post information about your business. Check around and find out if you have community websites that share information about restaurants. For example, Event Vesta was launched in Omaha to keep people ‘in the know’ and while they are typically a go-to site for events, they are now also featuring restaurant carryout/delivery news.

Share Stories. Restaurants who are giving back to the community/employees and are using social media to share these heartwarming stories, will have more engagement from the community today and once you reopen. It’s been amazing to see how communities are coming together to support neighbors, local businesses and essential workers such as healthcare, first responders and delivery/truck drivers. Let your culture shine by showing how you care about your employees and the people who support your business. Here are some examples of what you can be doing:

  • If you are temporarily closing a restaurant, are you donating food to the food bank or local services?

  • Can you prepare a meal for local hospital employees and first responders? Or drop off a variety of desserts for the emergency department staff? Be sure to contact the hospital first to ensure they are in a position to accept the donation, and if so, they will tell you how they want it delivered in order to support no-contact guidelines.

  • Are gratuities from your carryout orders being collected for team members who have been furloughed?

  • Are you providing meals for your employees?

  • Are your employees able to donate PTO/Sick Days/Vacation Days to a pool that will help co-workers who are unable to work?

Conduct Live Facebook Event. Have your chef show how to make a favorite dish at home. Think of it as Quarantine Cooking Lessons. Or let parents add a pizza-making online-class to their new home-school agenda. I’m sure moms and dads from coast to coast would welcome a virtual field trip. Once you schedule the live event, simply provide a list of items that can be used to create their featured item. One thing to keep in mind ... it would be great if the recipe called for items that most families already have in their pantry.

Plan for Reopening. Many businesses are scrambling to develop new creative and new menus to support the carryout/delivery business model, while also dealing with limited staff. While this is all crucial right now, it’s also time to start planning for the reopening of your restaurant(s).

The restaurant industry is resilient and through the support of the communities they will bounce back stronger than ever. If you know me, you’ll agree that I could write pages about this topic. But I’ll spare you. I did want to wrap up by sharing some great stories from restaurants across the country.

Blue Goose Cantina (Frisco, TX) – Located right off a busy tollway and surrounded by hundreds of restaurants, Blue Goose took to social media to promote their offerings. It’s the parking lot set-up that is impressive. They have two different colored tents – one for non-contact curbside pickup orders, and the other for guests who want to drive up to place a no-contact carryout order. The parking lot is lined with bright orange cones to help guests navigate the quick pickup/carryout lines. And a bonus – you can order a gallon of frozen margaritas to-go. After all, it is Texas.

Bristol Seafood + Steak + Social (Kansas City) – Executive Chef Travis Napier promoted their to-go menu via his personal social media and quickly had friends and neighbors pre-order to-go orders. Chef Travis personally delivered those meals on his way home.

Canlis (Seattle) – Owner Mark Canlis recently was quoted in Bon Appetit by saying, “we realized the game is not over, we just need new rules.” The 70-year old fine dining restaurant recognized that people love their burgers, and their chef makes “a mean veggie melt,” and an expediter said she made a great bagel. They determined they could pack up menu items family-style and deliver them to guests. Where they would normally do 50-60 covers, Canlis said in the interview with Bon Appetit that they expected to serve 1,000 people on a particular day.

Houlihan’s Restaurant + Bar (Garland, TX) – This location is offering the Hou Grocery Cart that varies each day and includes plenty of meat, eggs and sides such as mac ‘n cheese, potatoes and rice, in addition to ½ price wine bottles. Bonus: Two rolls of toilet paper with each Hou Grocery Cart order. In addition, many Houlihan’s restaurants are offering family-style meals to-go, in addition to 15% off all gift cards.

J. Gilbert’s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood (Omaha) – Executive Chef Jimmy Masters’ two young children hand wrote thank you notes that were included in every carryout order. All tips collected for employees are benefitting furloughed employees.

Jose Babushka’s (Grand Rapids, MI) – Order up a family-style dinner complete with ten tacos, cilantro-lime rice, black or pinto beans, chips, fresh salsa and queso. And for mom and dad, add some margarita mix to the order.

Legacy Food Hall (Plano, TX) – Not only do they have Curbside Quarantine Kits, you can also order a Boozy To-Go Kit. Several restaurants within Legacy Hall are remaining open for curbside pickup including Chef Chin’s Comfort in a Box, Shawarma Ready To Heat Kit, Horu’s Sushi Fixe Kit, and Press Waffle Co.

Mr. Tuna, Central Provisions and Little Giant (Portland, ME) – These restaurants joined together to create meals for area children who are going hungry.

Whiskey Cake (Plano, TX) – The restaurant put together Quarantine Meal Kits consisting of favorite meats, veggies, butter, eggs and a Chef’s recipe. As a bonus, each Quarantine Kit comes with two rolls of toilet paper. All tips collected are benefitting furloughed employees.

Feel free to share your story for a future post.

I mentioned that Blue Goose Cantina and others are using pop-up 10x10 tents in their parking lots. If you’re putting up a tent just remember that it needs to be secured so it doesn’t pull a Mary Poppins and float away. One suggestion is to reach out to a local tent company for your needs. Here are a few suggestions:

As Luciano Pavarotti said, “One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.” Please join me in supporting our restaurants and their employees, whether they are a chain or locally owned restaurant. Remember, the employees are all local and a part of your community, regardless if they work at a fast-food or casual dining chain, your local fine dining hot spot or a local mom and pop diner in your neighborhood. It’s time to come together to support each other as one industry. #SupportRestaurants

Fifteen-years ago Amy Freshwater was part of an award-winning team that developed a pandemic plan for a global company. While times have changed, there are key actions that remain critically important to the health of your business today and in the future. And in some cases, it’s just the right thing to do during a crisis. Contact Amy: Email | Website | Instagram | Facebook

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