When the pandemic has passed, restaurants will return to business, but it might not be “as usual.” Let’s take a look at how your customers might change their behavior – and how to be prepared.
No one knows for certain how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, but its impact on the food industry is already undeniable. Many restaurants worldwide have decreased occupancy, been ordered to suspend dining room service in favor of pickup and delivery options, limited their menu and hours, or have closed down completely in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. And though it’s likely all of these changes have affected your business; they’ve also had a dramatic effect on your customers and their habits.
While we’re all hoping for things to resolve quickly, it’s important to remember that by the time the virus passes, there’s no guarantee that your patrons will go back to behaving exactly the way they did before. In fact, some experts argue that the current situation could fundamentally change how restaurants operate in the future – and you should make sure your business is prepared.
As increasing communities are asked to “stay at home,” and “shelter in place,” more and more of your customers will turn to alternate sources for their meals – including home cooking, pickup, and delivery. And as tough as the transition has been for the restaurant industry as a whole, customers have adjusted far more easily. In fact, delivery apps have seen increased traffic across the board and are expecting more in the coming months.
However, even if these restrictions are dropped or loosened, it’s unlikely your customers will stop being concerned about their health and safety – or stop having misgivings about being in groups or going out to public spaces. Rather than wait for things to return to normal and prepare for a full dining room, restaurants should be aware that they may need to rebuild their customers’ trust – and that means being sensitive to the public’s unease.
When the time comes to reopen, consider keeping some social-distancing practices in place to ease customers back into the idea of a sit-down meal. Keep your occupancy low to start, to avoid over-crowding, or change your layout to maintain six feet of distance between guests. To that end, taking the time to streamline your front-of-house so that waiting parties or pickup orders have enough space can help keep guests from getting overwhelmed. In addition, make sure hand sanitizer is available and easily accessible for staff, delivery drivers and guests alike. Due to the increased global focus on sanitation, diners will be hyperaware of cleanliness measures and less forgiving of mistakes – so you should make sure you have a solid plan to clean things right and keep them that way before opening.
You may also want to update your menu or hold over any changes you’ve already made – for example, customers may be hesitant to share food, so altering family-style or shared dishes to individual plates could help alleviate some concern. Plus, preserving a limited menu could relieve pressure on your bottom line as you make the transition back to service.
Only a few months ago, many restaurants wouldn’t have expected that soon, most of their business would be through takeout and delivery. And as much as we’d like to return to the romantic or family atmosphere of a sit-down meal, this won’t necessarily be the case once the pandemic has passed.
Many diners will have adapted to quarantine procedures and it’s likely they will continue to order out more frequently. With that in mind, it may be wise to maintain your increased pickup and delivery capacities, such as curb-side pickup and contactless delivery, even though your dining room has reopened. Not only does this show sensitivity to changing sensibilities but helps you hold onto your new takeout-centric business. And don’t forget to keep an open line of communication with your customers – not only to encourage loyal guests to support your business as you resume service, but to demonstrate your commitment to their health and comfort and receive helpful feedback on how to move forward.
While the future is always uncertain, being sensitive and kind in the wake of such an unprecedented, worldwide event is the first step toward stability. By taking the public’s concern into account and taking a few proactive steps, you and your business can approach the shifting dynamics of the food industry with intelligence, prudence and compassion.
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