April 29, 2020

Next Steps: Planning for reopening

Restaurants are getting ready to reopen, and things are going to look a bit different. For example, your server may be wearing a face mask when he or she serves you.

It looks like it’s going to happen — slowly, in fits and starts. Governors and mayors around the country are starting to talk about reopening restaurants for dine-in service, when it can be done, and what it would look like.

For sure, life won’t quickly go back to the way it was before mid-March. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, one of the state leaders working in regional consortia to come up with detailed plans and schedules, suggested a likely scenario:

“You may be having dinner with a waiter wearing gloves, maybe a face mask, dinner where the menu is disposable, where half of the tables in that restaurant no longer appear, where your temperature is checked before you walk into the establishment.”

In other words, it will take some doing to make it all work. Whether your restaurant remained open for takeout and delivery during this period of social distancing, or you closed down entirely, here’s how you can start rebuilding your business.

  1. Understand the new rules and limitations. They won’t be the same across the country. Figure out how you can comply. (Your local restaurant association can advise you.) For example:
  • Where will you purchase masks and gloves for staff?
  • What about noncontact thermometers? How will front-of-house staff enforce customer occupancy limits and physical distancing rules?
  • Who will be in charge of training staff to use these new tools, procedures and sanitation regimens?
  1. Follow established guidelines for reopening safely, with protocols for safe food handling, cleaning and sanitizing, employee health and hygiene, and social distancing. Start with the National Restaurant Association COVID-19 Reopening Guidance.
  1. Deep clean and sanitize your restaurant. Hire a specialty service to deep clean every single surface in the front- and back-of-the-house, or have your staff do it. Don’t forget to clean and sanitize the drive-thru station, all POS equipment and staff headsets. Check out CDC guidance and cleaning here. Later, when it’s time to open, you can publicize your efforts — even make a video of it.
  1. Reconfigure and rethink the dining room. Even if a minimum distance between tables isn’t mandated in your area, guests will be shy at first about close contact. Space out tables and chairs, even bar stools. You can put barriers between booths. If there’s enough time and money before the reopening, consider freshening your dining room with a new coat of paint.
  1. Think about maximizing revenue. With half as many chairs and tables in the dining room than you had before, you could experience reduced dine-in sales. What would make sense to optimize dine-in receipts?
  • Could you switch from table service to counter service, at least for part of the day?
  • Could you find an additional seating area? With warm weather on the way, it may be a good time to add sidewalk seating or a patio.
  • Increase table turns by simplifying and streamlining the menu. Also look into faster (touchless) bill-pay technologies.
  1. Take stock. Take care of all the tasks you had carve out time to do for before.
  • Inventory refrigerated, frozen and shelf-stable items.
  • Discard any out-of-date produce, meat or dairy products.
  • Dump condiments, wash and sanitize containers and refill them.
  • Wash down and sanitize refrigeration units before restocking.
  • Clean and organize shelving and storage areas as well as supplies stored behind counters and neaten up the drive-thru station. Make them look new.
  • Clean and sanitize the ice machine and beverage dispensers and have them serviced.
  • When you plug in equipment and turn on the gas, double-check that everything is working properly.
  • Schedule a preventive maintenance service appointment to tune up all your equipment.
  1. Reorder food, drink and supplies and restart services. Every other restaurant in your area will be reopening and restocking simultaneously, so allow plenty of time to get deliveries ramped up.
  • Order shelf-stable supplies in advance to stagger resupply.
  • Restart waste disposal service, linen service and any other regular services at the same time that you’re ordering supplies.
  • Re-evaluate supply contracts and adjust as needed.
  1. Evaluate your hiring needs. With fewer covers and, possibly, a simplified menu, your staffing requirements may be different than they were before. Begin, of course, with the people you’ve kept on the payroll and those who were laid off during the stay-at-home order. But, even in a period of unprecedented high unemployment, some of your old staff may have left town or moved on. You may need to hire new employees — who will also have to be trained before you’re up and running again.
  1. Get the word out. Communicate your plans so customers know you are ready to go.
  • Update your website and announce your return on your social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on.
  • Offer a special deal or a limited-time online coupon.
  • A festive sign in the window and a few balloons could catch the eyes of passers-by.
  • Consider a direct-mail campaign to neighborhood residents. An ad (with a coupon) in the local shopping circular might be worthwhile, too.
  • Send announcements to TV and radio stations, newspapers and any hyper-local media, such as community websites.
  • Consider a joint “We’re back!” campaign in conjunction with other neighborhood restaurants, bars, theaters and/or shops.
  1. Save every receipt. You’ll need them all for loan documentation, rent relief, insurance claims and taxes. Track every single expenditure, from special cleaning services to purchase of COVID-19-related gear.

Periodically re-evaluate; what will be your new normal? This is a time to experiment and adjust for both businesses and customers. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. Your business may or may not go back to being exactly what it once was, and either way, it’s fine.