26 Ways that 14 Restaurant Operators are Getting Through COVID

Learn how restaurant operators all over the country are taking care of their staff, changing their business models, optimizing their takeout and delivery, and keeping everyone safe.

Throughout the fall, we held four virtual panel discussions with restaurant operators all over the country to see how they were faring during the COVID crisis, and to give the community a chance to learn from their peers. 

Each panel discussion was on a different topic about running a restaurant during COVID:

  • Serving Up Safety 

  • The Future of On-Premise Dining

  • Optimizing Online Ordering

  • Staffing Models of the Future

You can watch all the recordings from these events here, and read on to see the 26 most useful insights we learned from our community of restaurant owners and operators through this series. 

And for even more detailed information, tips, and advice from our community of restaurant operators, check out our COVID-19 playbooks here

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Guide to the Restaurant Guest

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Try New Service Models

1. Create a grocery fridge within your restaurant

At La Latina Miami, Alejandro Diaz and his team created La Latina Lista, a dedicated fridge and freezer full of prepared foods, sauces, and ingredients for guests to grab and go. They include these offerings in their online ordering menu to even further reduce how much time guests spend indoors. 

2. Use QR codes 

At Bar Helix’s pop-up Cabana X, Kendra Anderson and her team used two different QR codes: one code took guests straight to their online ordering menu so they could order from their phones, and one taking them straight to their contact tracing form, which was required before dining on their patio.

At Sea Wolf in Brooklyn, NY, Eric Bieber and his team use Toast Order & Pay QR codes to reduce contact between staff and customers, allowing guests to put in their own orders and pay as soon as they’re ready. 

And in Richmond, VA, Kevin Healy and his team at The Boathouse group have restructured their entire operations to be centered around Toast Order & Pay. Each of the four front-of-house workers are section captains now, instead of servers, and can handle 16 tables apiece. They don’t put in orders anymore, but instead focus on upselling, ensuring guests are having a great time, and answering questions, while food runners bring over their food.

3. Implement a service charge

At The Boathouse, Kevin Healy has made another important update that makes his new service model run smoothly: a 20% service charge, shared across front and back of house staff. Since the staff is much smaller than it was pre-COVID, this service charge has led to all staff members receiving a significant pay bump. Guests also tend to tip on top of the 20% service charge, even though it’s not required. 

“We talk about the restaurant industry and we're all a family and all this stuff, but we've become immune to the fact that it's a very siloed pay structure,” said Kevin. This new model has allowed him to bridge the gap between front and back of house. 

4. Use handhelds to create a drive-through

Early in the pandemic, at Herb & Beet in The Woodlands, TX, E’leece Miner-Lorey and her team used Toast Go handhelds to take orders under a pop-up tent outside their building, creating a makeshift drive through. 

5. Become a bodega 

Andrea Borgen Abdallah, owner of Barcito in Los Angeles, CA, changed her entire concept from bar and restaurant to bodega, selling wine, beer, and housemade snacks and sauces for takeout and delivery. This pared-down concept runs with one staff member in front of house and one in back of house at a time, allowing them to work while staying as safe as possible. “Our restaurant doesn't really exist in real life anymore. It exists on the internet,” said Andrea.

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Keep Everyone Safe

6. Take basic contact info for contact tracing

On top of having their temperatures taken, Kendra Anderson at Bar Helix required all guests to submit their phone number and email address for contact tracing purposes before dining on her patio. “We had folks who didn't mind their temperature being taken, but we did have some folks that had a bit of angst about sharing contact information,” she shared. However, she and her team would simply explain that it was the same information used to make a reservation, and it would only be used for public health purposes — never for marketing or sales. 

7. Purchase masks in bulk and distribute 

When a guest forgets to wear their mask at uncooked chicago, Jeremy Jones and his team are well-prepared: they simply hand the guest a gaiter for free. They purchased a box of 500 gaiters at the beginning of the pandemic and don’t often need to give them away, as guests almost always tend to bring their own. 

8. Take guest temperatures 

At Sea Wolf, Eric Bieber and his staff take the temperatures of every guest who wants to eat there. And if a guest isn’t thrilled with the idea, the team is trained to simply respond “We don’t like doing this either.” This straightforward and honest approach tends to work well, he shared.

9. Log staff temperatures and track potential exposures

Tanya Li, of Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston, MA, has a system in place where at the beginning of every shift, all staff must take their temperatures and fill out a form, accessible via QR code, in either English or Spanish, about any potential COVID exposures or symptoms.

10. When faced with a COVID scare, close until every staff member tests negative

In July at Herb & Beet, an employee was in close contact with someone who later found out they had COVID, so to be totally safe, E’leece Miner-Lorey decided to close the restaurant’s doors until all employees produced a negative test. “We received an overwhelming amount of support from the community for taking those extra steps of precaution and making sure that we're safe,” said E’leece. “And I think that's part of our responsibility of being in the hospitality industry: to be sure that we're keeping our guests, as well as our team members, safe.”

11. Bring on the experts

Especially when you’ve got multiple locations and hundreds of employees, figuring out COVID-prevention staff procedures can be extremely complicated. Brian Morris of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken decided to bring on Zero Hour Health, a third-party company that takes over if an employee exhibits symptoms and connects them to next steps and resources. 

Take Care of Your Staff

12. Set up a hotline

At Flour Bakery + Cafe, they set up a staff hotline at the very beginning of the pandemic. “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,” shared Tanya Li. They also always have a Spanish speaker available if any team member wasn’t as comfortable in English.

13. Empower staff to defer to management with unruly customers

Kevin Healy, of The Boathouse, has instructed his teams to take the public health enforcement role off of his servers and hosts and leave it to the senior team members. “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 shared.

14. Keep paying staff health insurance

“I’ve continued to pay for health insurance for everybody that's furloughed,” said Andrea Borgen Abdallah of Barcito. Her team is pared down, from 16 team members working down to 4, with almost all her front of house staff on furlough, but she refuses to leave any of them without health insurance in a pandemic. 

15. Keep in touch with your team

Andrea is also keen on maintaining the team’s bond. “I check in with those who are furloughed on a pretty regular basis, we basically have a group chat where we share stories and jokes, and kind of keep people on the same page because the culture part is also super important,” she said.

She also implemented Slack as a way for all employees to stay in contact and share important updates about the restaurant. Though she was hesitant at first and didn’t think it would get that much use, she shared “I've been really astounded by the results. It’s so much more effective than scribbling on a whiteboard.”

Optimize Your Menu

16. Consolidate your menu to reduce inventory costs

When supply chain issues and shortages immediately impacted operations at Benton Harbor, MI’s The Livery, Kelly Vega and her team had to cut down the menu and make use of what they had. When thinking about which foods would travel well and would make sense for takeout, items like their charcuterie board were the first to go. 

17. Provide instructions in takeout and delivery orders

Doug Brown of Buckhorn Grill, with locations across California, offers what they call half-baked items: foods that are most of the way cooked and ready to be finished when a customer brings them home and pops them in the oven, often as part of packages or combos. For these and all their other takeout and delivery offerings, they include reheating instructions as a way to extend hospitality and ensure the quality of their food, even if it’s being eaten on a customer’s couch. These packages have become their number-one seller, he shared. 

18. Ensure food arrives delicious with better containers

At the beginning of the pandemic, Josh Bufford of Toast New American Gastropub and got together with his team in the restaurant’s dining room. They cooked the whole menu and tested out different configurations of takeout containers, waiting 30 minutes, jostling the packages, and seeing how their menu items fared in “transit”. 

“We began to customize the packaging, the box or the bag or the cup, for each individual item to ensure its best quality transfer to home or to the office,” he said. Some items, like fries, benefit from vented packages. But their gnocchi, on the other hand, needs to be fully sealed.

19. Push popular items and bundle your offerings

Using menu engineering or even just by taking a look at your POS analytics, find out which of your items are most popular and profitable. Then you can create a Popular Items module in your online ordering system that highlights these items to your customers. 

Doug Brown of Buckhorn Grill says “It's truly just looking at your menu mix and figuring out what’s your best sellers.” 

Eric Cacciatore, host of Restaurant Unstoppable and the moderator of our online ordering event, agreed: “If you have limited resources, limited bandwidth, you really need to put that energy into doing what you do best.”

20. Offer popular menu items by weight

At Candace Barocci Warner’s Convito Cafe + Market in Wilmette, IL, they’ve always sold many of their menu items by the pound, and it’s been extremely helpful during these times when guests are seeking family packs and feasts to heat and eat at home. By selling by weight, they can adjust for the needs of any group of any size. “Our retail clerks are good at helping people understand how much each item might serve, but that's been really good for us to just say, here's this amount, here's a $35 thing,” she explained, instead of going with a “serves 4” model. 

Reach & Educate Your Customers

21. Show your work, and sign your name

Eric Cacciatore suggested that restaurant operators post on social media regularly to show guests what goes into keeping your business afloat. It builds customer empathy and loyalty, and helps people understand why they should order from independent restaurants during this crisis.

Bruno Salazar of Rosatoro NYC and Don Pollo NYC shared that staying on customers’ minds through social media can be extremely helpful. Check out this mouthwatering video shared on Don Pollo’s instagram to announce their beefed-up online ordering offerings. 

Bruno also shared that adding personal, handwritten notes to all takeout orders, signed by whichever staff member is writing it, helps to build that connection that would otherwise only be possible when dining in.

22. Email your guests  

At The Livery, Kelly Vega sends emails to guests to alert them of promotions and new bundled offerings using Toast Marketing. “You can add promo codes that people customers can click through, from their inboxes, which is great to get them to see your menu,” said Vega. Guests can order straight from the link in their email for takeout, and “they can just do a one-stop shop through your store and they've got dinner for the night.”

23. Increase your prices on third-party delivery services — and tell your guests

Doug Brown, of Buckhorn Grill, advertises to his guests that ordering directly from the restaurant will save them 20% — the prices on their third-party providers are raised to offset the cost of the commissions. 

Why is it so important to direct ordering traffic straight to the restaurant? “One, we want to retain their customer information and not share it with third party delivery. Two, we want to pass the savings over to them. Three, I want to make sure I can get them into our loyalty program so that can remarket to them later,” explained Doug.

24. Teach your customers that you control your first-party orders more than third-party

“Some of the servers that we hadn't been able to bring back to work, we invited them to come back and start driving the deliveries for us,” explained Josh Bufford of Toast New American Gastropub. He screens all his staff daily for COVID symptoms, provides sanitizer and tons of PPE, and has trained drivers to follow strict protocols to keep customers safe. “By being able to make that commitment to our guests, that the food is being safely prepared, safely bagged and safely transferred, it builds that additional loyalty and trust,” he said. And crucially, communicating this information to his guests helps get them in the habit of ordering directly from the restaurant and not a third-party service.  

25. Reach new customers with video collaborations with other restaurants

Bruno Salazar told us that Steve Geuting, the chef at Rosatoro, did a collaboration video series with the chef at Mission Ceviche, Jose Luis Chavez, to show each of their takes on New Peruvian cuisine. They were able to reach a new, wider customer base, across each of their Instagram followings and on Youtube. 


26. Create simple videos showing what it’s like to be your customer

Doug Brown, of Buckhorn Grill, shared that he uses Google Analytics to figure out the nuances of the restaurant’s target market, and he found that they get tons of support from millennial families. So he and his family created a video walking the viewer through what it’s like to order curbside pickup from Buckhorn. In a time when guests are having to get used to new ways of ordering, this video is incredibly effective, and it’s a great example of how targeted marketing is by far the most useful kind.

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