Tips for Restaurants Reopening During COVID-19

Here we are — powering through what seems to be a never-ending tug of war between keeping our business doors open and continued global crisis. But small business owners are resilient, and I know we’ll get through this together.

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Jenna Shaffer, a Programs Marketing Manager here at Constant Contact. My family also owns A.K.A. Kitchen and Rock Coast Brewery in small town Loveland, Colorado. We’re a locally-sourced brunch boutique and elevated evening fare locale that serves traditional dishes with a twist (the “Also Known As” way). 

I recently shared my Marketing Tips for Restaurants Coping with COVID-19 and thought it’d be beneficial to update you all as we’ve made a lot of adjustments now that we’ve (kind of) reopened to the public.

In this article, I’ll share with you the things that seem to be working well for us in hopes that you too can find success in sustaining your restaurant business through this pandemic.

First — consider your unique situation

Before diving into these tips, it’s important that any business considering “reopening” (whatever that might look like) during the coronavirus first consider their own unique situation. That includes your location, your type of business, and your capabilities. 

At the least, you’ll want to make sure you’re thoroughly familiar with your state-specific guidelines and that you’re following the CDC’s guidance for safely reopening your business.

Now without further adieu, here are my six tips for restaurants reopening or expanding their offerings during the coronavirus.

1. Use email to set expectations with your customers before they arrive

We knew that reopening our establishment to dine-in guests meant that a lot of our customers would come flooding through the doors in excitement. We also knew a lot of them might be expecting for things to be relatively normal again, when they very much are not. 

That’s why we felt like it was important to communicate the changes that our patrons could expect when they visited us — before their visit — by sending them an email.

For us, the changes we wanted customers to be aware of include:

  • The need to wear masks when they arrive or to go to the restroom
  • Limits to our menu items to alleviate restricted staff bandwidth
  • The updated arrangement of our tables for social distancing 
  • Some messaging around “practicing patience” as we continue to implement new policies to keep customers and staff safe

We used Constant Contact’s “Business Re-opening” email template and its default text to guide how we introduced these new guidelines. It was incredibly helpful and we had a number of people mention to us how it made them feel more secure in their decision to dine with us. 

Here’s a snippet of the reopening announcement email we sent out to our customers, using Constant Contact’s template. You can find this template by searching “Business Re-opening” when selecting the template for your next email campaign.

Get the tools and guidance you need to find new customers and keep your regulars coming back for more.

2. Help your customers understand your new way of operating with on-site signage and table tents

In addition to our email, we’ve also included signage within our restaurant to remind people to be forgiving. I’ll speak more about “practicing patience” in another point with more detail, but we’ve found that people need to be reminded of the position that small businesses and their employees are in right now. 

Our signage as you enter into our establishment, as well as small (and disposable) table tents, are a friendly reminder of noticeable differences our guests might experience. It’s a small, yet impactful acknowledgment to your customers and their needs. 

COVID-19 reopening restaurant signage
Here is the signage we have to set expectations for guests when they arrive at our restaurant.

We also have found that humorous or thoughtful gestures can help lighten the mood for our guests and reaffirm how much we care about their experience. One restaurant in our area started putting rubber duckies on their tables to indicate the table had been cleaned and was safe to sit at. It’s a cute, simple, and fun way to lighten the experience of dining under all these new conditions. 

One of our neighbors plucked wildflowers from their garden and gave them to us to use as centerpieces for our tables. It really brightened up our building and made people feel welcome. (Yes… we did sanitize the vases with every table turn.)

Consider how you can lighten the atmosphere in your restaurant while staying compliant with new safety protocols.

3. Get creative to maximize the number of customers you can seat safely

Restaurant seating can be fairly tricky depending on your establishment and the building you’re located in. Sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got. 

A.K.A. is lucky enough to have a huge open patio that we were able to convert into outdoor seating. We were able to somewhat make up for the number of tables we had to remove inside, with the ones we could replace outside. Unfortunately, some of the other restaurants in our area are not so lucky. 

They have, however,  gotten creative with extending their outdoor seating options into the allocated parking spots in front of their restaurants. They’ve roped off areas and have included tents for shade. 

Remember — Each community has its own regulations and licensing requirements about what you can and can’t do and sometimes these requirements can be expensive to comply with, so it’s worth doing the research on your local area before making any big decisions.

Finding your new profit formula with restricted seating

To be completely honest, we’re still tinkering with our “success formula.” It has been a challenge to calculate the number of people we need just to break even versus the number of people we’re allowed to have with our new restrictions. 

If you cut labor costs, then you risk not being able to provide a quick and quality service, resulting in fewer diner visits. If you cut food costs, you might have to reduce how many menu items you offer, eliminating options for people with specific dietary needs. If you extend hours to allow for more turned tables, then you’re back up in labor costs. It can make you feel defeated at times. 

But take note, recognize patterns, and adjust as needed: What are your least-sold food items? Temporarily eliminate those items to lower food costs and bring them back later when you can afford to. What are your busy times and slow times? Can your bartender also act as a server so you’re not scheduling two people when you only need one? Are employees willing to be “on-call” in case you get busy? (This is something that we’ve been trying out and it has saved our behinds a couple of times!)

Learn and adjust as you go. Once you find your recipe to success for the operations of your business, it allows you more flexibility to serve more people.

4. Maintain a mix of offerings to maximize the customers you can serve

With all the precautions we’ve taken, we recognize there’s still a good portion of our customer base that does not feel comfortable with our dine-in experience — and that’s okay. We understand that we may not get back to a completely “normal” experience anytime soon and we want to serve our customers in a way that they’re most comfortable with. 

So rather than throwing away all of our new offerings, we’ve decided to keep some for those who are staying at home. We continue to provide online ordering for pick up and have kept our delivery services.

5. Use social media to demystify your “new normal” and help customers get comfortable doing business with you

Social media has always been an integral part of our restaurant’s marketing strategy

However, the tone of our social messaging has shifted quite a bit. For us, it’s no longer about “look how amazing our margarita of the day is! Don’t you want to drink it?” It’s more about “hey, if you feel good about coming out, we’ve got this amazing margarita of the day waiting for you.”

Think about the long game. With a large population of people still not dining in public, there’s a huge opportunity to build a relationship with them. Showcasing pictures of food and beverages is great, but try posting more of your staff with their PPE on, or other customers enjoying meals at your restaurant safely. You can even feature the companies that supply your cleaning services.

COVID-19 restaurant reopening
Use imagery to show customers that you’re taking precautions seriously, but maintaining a friendly and upbeat atmosphere.
COVID-19 restaurant reopening

These types of images are helpful when demystifying the fears and uncertainties one may have about dining out in public. So when someone is ready to take the leap of faith to dine away from home, it’ll be with you, a business they can trust. 

Note: Be careful with the images that you’re posting. Be aware of things happening in the background, for example, your staff wearing their masks properly  (which they should be anyway!) We’ve known some restaurants who have been shut down temporarily because they were caught on social media not adhering to health guidelines. And that sort of issue could lead to customers losing trust in your ability to serve them safely.

6. Patience, patience, and more patience

I mentioned practicing patience in an earlier tip, but I want to dive a little bit more into this topic. 

A previous senior leader at Constant Contact once said to me “Always assume good intent.” I’ve carried that with me as a personal motto for years. It has helped me evaluate the things I have control over (or don’t have control over). It has allowed me to assess situations for what they really are versus what I perceive them to be, and to build relationships with people or coworkers I may have otherwise dismissed. I think it’s perfectly applicable to what we’re seeing in the service industry right now.

And practicing patience is just as important for customers as it is for staff, so don’t be afraid to encourage your customers to be patient.

If you are a customer dining at a restaurant, here are some ways you can practice patience by  “assuming good intent”:

  • Wear your mask! We’re not asking you to wear your mask inside or to the restroom to inconvenience you. You wouldn’t debate whether or not to take your shoes off at someone’s home, right? Please don’t argue in our establishment. We’re asking because we do not want to get shut down and would like to stay in business for the foreseeable future.
  • Service is slower than usual. We know. Our dishwasher didn’t show up and so our kitchen staff is bouncing back and forth between cleaning dishes, prep work and cooking your food. 
    Meanwhile, your server is not only serving tables, but also hostessing, bussing and sanitizing tables, bartending for everyone else’s tables, while also making half the amount of tips due to capacity restrictions. Not to mention they’re risking their health to make sure you get your side of bacon. No joke — your minimum tip out should be no less than 20% right now!
  • A food item is 86’d (out of stock). No. It wasn’t because of poor food planning or a lack of prep work. Many vendors have furloughed truck drivers and are unable to make deliveries when expected. Please don’t scream at me because we have waffle fries instead of our normal side-winder fries  (this actually happened). We also have other options to choose from.

If you are a customer with a valid complaint, it’s still important to share your feedback with the restaurant. Most restaurants take pride in their food and their staff and want to improve when you didn’t have the experience that was intended. Consider sharing this feedback in a private setting vs a public review during this time. 

  • Ask for a manager on the spot — Not after you’ve eaten the entire meal, and not a week after you leave. Ask for a supervisor while you’re there. Usually, they’ll replace the bad food item or void that item from your bill. They might even provide a gift card to make it up to you for your next visit. 
  • Email management rather than leaving an online review. Negative reviews drastically affect a business’s future. It can hurt their visibility through organic searches and can really damage a business’s reputation in a heartbeat. Give the restaurant a chance to have an open and honest dialogue with you, without creating internet drama.
  • DM on social media. This is a great way to provide feedback and encouragement in a private setting. Restaurants are already dealing with so much. The last thing they need is public ridicule. 

And if you’re a restauranteur looking to practice patience: take this feedback with grace. I know you have a lot on your plate already, but your community wants to help you succeed. They want to see you win. Listen to their concerns and take them into consideration. 

Power on

We’re all doing what we can to survive and power on through the uncertainty of reopening our businesses. This is an absolute grind. 

The unknown feels uncomfortable and it can seem difficult to find the light at the end of the tunnel. My hope is that these small yet effective tips feel like we’ve at least given you a flashlight to navigate through that tunnel until you can find that light yourself. 

Keep fighting for your business. Keep believing that you can succeed. Keep working with your loyal customers to get better each day. Keep powering on!

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