While Covid-19 has caused profound disruption in every facet of life, world-wide, the restaurant industry is one of the sectors that has been hardest hit. 

Unfortunately, when following the three basic steps that are most essential for minimizing spread and exposure to the COVID-19 (Corona virus), the recommendation to avoid sharing indoor spaces, maintain strict social distancing, and wear a mask are all difficult, if not impossible, to perform in a traditional restaurant setting.

When the crisis began to seriously escalate in the United States, restaurants were among the first to suffer. The American culture that strongly supported ‘eating out’ literally disappeared over night. But human beings are resilient and hopeful, and many owners immediately sought out new and innovative ways of staying connected to customers while observing Covid-19 protocol.

Even though there were many different approaches, the key for all restaurants was to consider how to preserve, and even enhance, the customer experience while creating a new model for enjoying a satisfying dining event. Understanding their patrons and knowing what they valued most, helped many restaurant owners as they were trying to determine what changes had to be made while retaining the components that made the restaurant dining experience so popular.

What doesn’t work?

The immediate basic changes had to address the most critical concerns facing diners.  A McKinsey Pulse Survey was conducted in June 2020 among more than 1,000 US adults who had visited Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) or casual-dining restaurants within the past year. The results reported that most consumers said they were anxious about sit-down dining in restaurants. More than 80 percent of survey respondents described medium to high anxiety levels about the idea of returning to dine-in restaurants—in fact, more than half said they would be highly anxious under those circumstances. Further, the respondents rated close or active interactions with other customers, either directly or indirectly, including standing or sitting near other customers, touching surfaces or items touched by other or using the restroom, as the source of their highest level of anxiety regarding dine-in interactions.

What does work?

Armed with this detailed type of information, restaurants that wanted to keep their doors open and continue with their existing platform had to find ways to create a safe and pleasant outdoor dining option. They did so by incorporating touchless menus or menu boards, gloves and masks for all employees, disinfecting tables after each use, and ensuring plenty of space between tables.  In addition, advance reservations and a two hour time limit helped to eliminate the cluster of customers waiting for tables and enable smoother, faster service and enforce a reasonable occupancy rate.

But most important, as always, is the attitude and atmosphere at the restaurant. A pleasant and efficient seating process, along with cheerful and helpful wait staff, are the building blocks for loyal customers. Going the extra mile, being appreciative of the customers’ concerns, and being open to new ideas and suggestions all help to create a powerful bond with between the restaurant and its patrons. The most important asset any restaurant has is its customers so it makes sense that deepening those relationships is the critical to surviving and thriving.

The time is now for new strategies

In the immediate weeks after the mid-March continued to escalate, it was clear that there would not be a quick fix to COVID-19. As such, many restaurants quickly embraced carryout options along with curbside drop off and an expanded drive-through process to keep their business’s open and economically stable.

But now that more than six months have passed, many are completely reconfiguring their model in order to create more lasting changes in anticipation of an evolving consumer attitude that could have a more permanent impact.  

There have been many different options that restaurants are adapting, including a mix of “to go” products that are cooked or raw, a range of simple and exotic grocery items, or even do-it-yourself prepared meals. These and many more were all designed to add value for customers who want to enjoy a restaurant experience but who are deeply concerned about the potential for danger. The variety of items and the range of consumer in involvement in finalizing the meal is almost limitless – based on the restaurant owner’s vision, imagination and flexibility.

Some interesting pivots!

In a fascinating article authored by Hilary Dixler Canavan entitled, “Some Restaurants are Making Permanent Pivots to Adapt to a New Normal,” several examples of completely unorthodox concepts were shared as follows:

“As many states discuss and even implement “reopening” following weeks of shelter in place, some restaurant owners have decided to permanently change their business model, regardless of what the reopening timeline is. In Chicago, the James Beard Award-winning chef-owners of Fat Rice revealed plans to become a general store selling upscale meal kits. In Portland, Oregon, the 100-seat bar and restaurant Clyde Common will permanently turn into a market and to-go operation, hopefully with a cocktail bar at some point. For Laura Higgins-Baltzely, a 2016 Eater Young Gun, reopening will turn her tasting menu restaurant Buffalo Jump into a casual place focusing entirely on breakfast and lunch to-go.”

As restaurant owners continue to respond to the challenges of Covid-19, more novel ideas will bubble up and replace, or even co-exist, with other more traditional options. These are interesting, challenging, and potentially dynamic times!

Cite sources

“Eating out(side): Restaurant dining in the next normal” August 28, 2020 By Stacey Haas, Anne Kronschnabl, John R. Moran, and Pepijn van Kesteren

Some Restaurants Are Making Permanent Pivots to Adapt to a New Normal Hillary Dixler Canavan@hillarydixler May 8, 2020, 2:32pm EDT