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COVID-19 has completely changed the restaurant industry. It’s been about a year since many restaurants shut down their normal operations to protect public safety. Many had to lay off most or all of their staff, move to doing only takeout and delivery (and then limited patio and indoor dining with precautions), and try to survive as they pushed through this crisis.
Seattle chef Tom Douglas was one of the first to temporarily close due to COVID-19, and he had to lay off his 800-person staff. Douglas reported that by the time he decided to close, traffic in his restaurants had already gone down by 90%. Independent restaurant owners, like Irene Li of Mei Mei in Boston, also chose to close and not try to resume operations as “normal” well before Massachusetts restaurants were mandated to do so. “I don't think anyone anticipated how rapidly things would evolve,” Li said to us in an interview early in the pandemic. She decided to close because asymptomatic contagion is very hard to control, and contributed to the rapid spread of the virus.
This article was updated in April 2021.
How to Ease Back Into Business After a Year of Pivots
A year later, the resilience and persistence of the restaurant industry have been astounding. New business models, technologies, and ways of operating have emerged, and industry leaders are proving that this industry can bounce back stronger, and more equitable, than ever.
As your restaurant recovers and rebuilds from the COVID-19 pandemic, here are some steps to take as you get started.
Keep Staff Management Top-of-Mind, Always
When You’re Ready to Hire Again, Reach Out To Laid-Off Staff
As things slowly return to normal and the weather heats up, you may realize that it’s time to hire again — but recruiting, staffing and hiring can be difficult as you come back from closure. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you hire staff back.
Hopefully, you’ve been able to keep in touch with some (or all) of the staff that you had to let go at the beginning of the pandemic, helping them through the hurdles of paperwork and providing support. At the beginning of the pandemic, Flour Bakery and Cafe in Boston, MA set up a staff hotline. “Every day, a different person from the executive management team was on this hotline, and it was available for anyone that wanted to talk about anything, but usually unemployment questions,” said Assistant Director of Operations Tanya Li. They wanted to make sure that their staff felt informed, comfortable, and up to date with everything going on for the business.
Andrea Borgen Abdallah of Barcito in Los Angeles made sure to keep paying staff health insurance. Although she had to furlough most of her staff of 16, she made sure that no one was left without insurance during this public health crisis.
When you're ready to build up your team again, reach out to the staff you laid off and see if they’re ready and available to come back and work for you. If they’ve found new jobs or industries, start reaching out to other hiring channels, like social media, industry-specific classified sites, industry Facebook groups, and more.
Creating great job descriptions, focused on the values of your restaurant, are crucial. Of course, the job description should have all of the essential elements of the role itself, including specific role requirements, daily-to-day duties, pay, benefits, and the hiring timeline.
But along with this basic information, you want to make sure that your restaurant’s values and team standards are included in the description. By hiring not only for skill but also for core values, you’re more likely to have a long-term, loyal employee. This goes for the interview as well. You’ll want to make sure that your interview is centered around the candidate’s specific fit for your restaurant.
And once you have a team built, safety and comfort are key. Make sure to check in on staff often, offer the necessary sanitation and distancing measures, and let your staff know that you have their backs.
A great example of this comes from Kevin Healy of The Boathouse Restaurant Group in Virginia. When it comes to unruly guests who refuse to wear a mask or follow procedures, he takes the pressure off the servers and hosts and instead has the managers deal with the issue. “Our staff knows that they can get a manager and the manager will take care of it. I mean, we don't expect our host to be the one telling an irate customer that they have to sit down,” he explained.
Efforts like this show your team that you support them, and will lead to more loyal, happier employees in the long run.
Train Staff on New Procedures
Just as the restaurant industry has changed, guest expectations have as well. Toast’s 2020 Guest Report showed that guest preferences and the definition of hospitality has shifted, and safety is now one of the most important aspects of the dining experience. Train any new or returning staff on all the new safety and cleaning procedures you’ve implemented throughout the year.
This year has also ushered in the use of new technology, including contactless payments and increased online ordering. New technology adoption also means new training and procedures for your staff. Teach your staff to educate customers about these new ways of dining at your restaurant. For example, if you’re using Toast Order and Pay at the Table, encourage servers to explain the reasoning behind the switch, tell customers about QR codes and ordering from their phones, and walk them through the steps.
Get Your Restaurant Finances in Order
Talk to Your Landlord, Your Bank, and Your Partners
During times of hardship, it’s crucial to communicate constantly. Hopefully, you’ve found some support this year from either your bank, landlord, or financial partners. As you look to reopen full force, keep these parties updated as well and start updating your plans together.
Apply for a Disaster Loan or Relief Program
Chances are you’ve already gone through this process, but if you haven’t, look into your options around disaster loans. For more info on applying for disaster loans, click here.
And for a list of relief programs and sources of aid for restaurants, check out this resource list.
Use Government Support
On March 11, 2021, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill (the “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021,” or ARPA) was signed into law. The RESTAURANTS Act was included within this bill, specifically allocating $28.6 billion in a Restaurant Revitalization Fund to help small and medium-sized restaurants financially recover.
Maintain New Revenue Streams
Many restaurants found success in setting up and promoting new revenue streams. And post-pandemic, it’s still a good idea to maintain the ones that worked the best.
Blossom Bar, in Brookline, MA sold cocktail kits that you can buy to make any of their award-winning cocktails at home. This is great while dine-in isn’t possible, but also will likely remain popular post-COVID as well.
Bill Miller Bar-B-Q in Texas offered family packs for the holidays, big sporting events, and other fun occasions. Now, they’ve extended these family packs to include breakfast tacos, Easter hams, game day appetizers, and more.
Tucker Silk Mill in PA completely pivoted their concept, and were incredibly successful in doing so. They changed their sit-down cafe into a full provisions store: offering specialty foods, fresh produce, prepared meals, and bakery items. It has been so successful that it is now a permanent part of their business model, along with opening up a brand new outdoor space.
Plan a High-Profit Menu to Come Back With
After this challenging winter, money may be tight in all areas of the business. For this reason, you’ll want to plan a high-profit, smaller menu to come back with. Your guests will be so excited that they’re able to dine in with you again that they won’t mind if the food is a little different.
Since you have some time to plan now, do a full menu engineering analysis of your menu. Find out which items are high-profit and high-popularity (called Stars), which ones are high-profit and low popularity (Puzzles), which ones are low-profit and high popularity (Plowhorses), and which ones are low-profit and low popularity (Dogs).
Create a new menu for re-opening that’s composed only of your Stars and your Puzzles — basically, the items that are relatively cheap to make and easy to love. Make sure to update your website to share menu changes with prospective and existing customers.
Then, you can start communicating with vendors about how your needs have changed.
Readjust to the Newest New Normal as COVID Winds Down
If you feel like you never have time to change or update anything in your restaurant, now's your opportunity. Keep your staff’s happiness at the top of your priority list, and keep your eyes focused on the future to make your comeback as impactful and profitable as it can be.