COVID-19, Social Distancing, and Your Restaurant

Jessica Elliott

Jessica Elliott

Jessica combines 24 years in public-facing roles with the latest research to deliver insights into technology, operations, and marketing. She helps business owners and private practitioners develop successful systems to reach and retain clients while strengthening their internal communications.

Photo of an empty pub

You, like everyone in the restaurant industry, are reeling from COVID-19 aka the coronavirus. From California to Washington, bars and restaurants are facing varying levels of imposed shutdown. It’s no secret that restaurants operate on a razor-thin profit margin. As restaurants face closures and social distancing measures, many owners are taking action to protect their customers, staff, and business.

From securing funds to laying off staff, each decision is agonizing. No restaurant owner wants to make these hard choices. Yet, here we are. Staying up late into the night, running numbers, and figuring out the next steps.

Many issues are out of your control, but you can focus on what you can do now. Not only for safety and revenue, but also to keep your brand visible and positive during this trying time. If you can survive the closures, then you have a chance to come back stronger than ever before.

Here are some steps you can take right now:

Address safety concerns with your team

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires a safe workplace, including protection from infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Yet, many restaurant workers don’t have insurance. Your company may not offer paid sick leave.

So, it’s hard to encourage people to avoid work if sick. Yet, during a pandemic, it’s absolutely essential. If you stay open during the outbreak, then you must speak to your crew. Not only for their protection, but also for your customers and your reputation.

What is COVID-19?

Don’t assume that your staff understands the meaning of COVID-19. The term coronavirus is a word that describes a family of viruses, including the common cold. We call it a novel coronavirus because it’s a new strain that humans haven’t had before. COVID-19 is the illness or disease caused by a coronavirus.

CO: Corona
VI: Virus
D: Disease
19: The year it was first detected

Your team may also see the term SARS-CoV-2. This is the technical term.

Who should stay at home?

Anyone experiencing symptoms should stay home. If someone on your team has been in contact with a sick person, then they should stay home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists three signs of illness:

  1. Fever
  2. Cough
  3. Shortness of breath

Furthermore, the CDC says, “Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of signs of a fever…and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g., cough suppressants).”

But, remind your team that many people, especially young folks, are asymptomatic. That means they may carry the virus without showing any outward signs. Plus, consider speaking privately to vulnerable staff members. This includes people with underlying health conditions or age groups with higher risks.

How to send a sick employee home

OSHA requires employers to assess hazards and protect employees. Any crew members with apparent symptoms should go home. It’s important to show compassion but to also act swiftly. If you notice anyone showing signs of respiratory illness, then ask them to go home immediately. Review OSHA’s list of health and safety standards so you’re ready to take quick action.

What steps is your restaurant taking?

Communicate with your team about the steps you’re taking to ensure their safety and prevent the spread of illness. Examples of COVID-19 best practices include:

  • Disinfect all devices before an employee uses it. This includes telephones and point of sale touchscreens.
  • Provide gloves for staff use. Encourage your crew to use gloves when handling money or customer credit cards. Then, toss the gloves after each use.
  • Complete disinfection of all customer and employee surfaces at least three times per day.
  • Set an alert to remind staff to take a break and wash their hands every hour.
  • Consider bringing an infrared thermometer to work for those who wish to see if their temperature is normal.
  • Encourage social distancing by placing tape on your floors to keep people from crowding your host station.

Shift to delivery and carry out model

There is no set time frame for when restaurant restrictions will end. Offering curbside and delivery options may be your only way to stay in business.

If you didn’t offer delivery before, then this sudden change is a logistical issue. You need drivers, delivery supplies, and menu changes. It may require you to update your website. You may also need to offer extra payment options.

Adjust your menu

Altering your menu may help you reduce the amount of stock needed. It may improve customer experience by selling food items designed for carryout. There are many ways to adjust your menu to fit the situation, including:

  • Creating curbside delivery menus with reduced menu options
  • Promoting family packs or meals for groups of people
  • Selling grab and go boxes including a sealed drink

Provide safe carryout and delivery

Communicate your safety measures and other actions you’re taking for carryout and delivery service. Depending on your restaurant and capabilities, you may want to consider one or all of the following methods to ensure guest and staff safety.

Give delivery crews a COVID-19 kit. Include gloves, garbage sacks, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes. Go through the steps to prevent infection with your team, such as using gloves to handle money then removing the gloves before touching any surfaces.

Consider going cash-less. Encourage guests to pay online or over the phone. This limits contact with people and the virus.

Offer a touch-free delivery service. Your staff rings your guest’s doorbell, then places the food on the ground. Next, your crew member walks back at least six feet and waits until the customer picks up their order.

Other ideas to boost revenue during COVID-19

Why do people come to your restaurant? For many, it’s more than your tasty food. It’s a sense of community and a staff that knows their name. There are many creative ways to boost revenue and brand visibility.

  • Add a website page and tab for your curbside delivery menu and information.
  • Invent boxed meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  • Develop make-at-home meal kits or family grill packs.
  • Sell alcohol with curbside or delivery orders if your location allows it.
  • Consider offering add-on items like bottled water or loaves of bread.
  • Host live stream events such as happy hours and encourage folks to join.
  • Get involved with your community. Share photos and videos online.

Examples of restaurants doing it right

There is a lot of press coverage about how local businesses are coping with COVID-19 challenges. Each message you put out into the world has the potential to go viral. During this time, you want your guests to trust your business. So, focus on safe and positive messages.

Tesse Restaurant. In response to empty store shelves and restaurant closures, Tesse Restaurant created a market. They stock fresh produce, house-baked bread, and even paper goods.

Weber Grill Restaurant. Along with their regular delivery and curbside menu, Weber Grill Restaurant now offers “Family Grill Packs.”

Prairie Grass Café. Co-owner and chef, Sarah Stegner, created a hotline for guests to call and get cooking questions answered.

Orleans Seafood Kitchen. This restaurant took three immediate steps to lower risk. They began passing out sealed disposable silverware to diners, eliminated the use of menus, and staff used gloves to clear tables.

Talk to your restaurant crew

Along with talks about safety, you’ll likely have some difficult conversations ahead of you. Many of your team members may be fearful of job loss and paying their bills. Address their concerns by keeping lines of communication open.

  • Hold weekly online staff meetings and invite everyone to join. Create a basic agenda. Leave time to answer questions.
  • Distribute a resource list. Compile any resources that may help your crews, including local food pantries, unemployment information, community activities such as free meals for school-age children.
  • Keep teams informed about recent updates to COVID-19 funding such as potential tax credits or other types of support that your team may not be aware of.

Communicate with your customers

This isn’t the time to stop your social media messaging and marketing efforts. Instead, open the conversation up and invite your customers to join your community.

  • Live stream weekly events and invite people to comment or ask questions.
  • Share positive stories from throughout your community, like acts of kindness.
  • Look for ways to get positive PR by donating or helping organizations.
  • Increase your Facebook marketing and focus on relationship building.

Plan for recovery after COVID-19

You may find yourself with some extra time over the next few weeks. Consider reviewing your handbooks, business plan, and continuity guidelines. Plus, review marketing strategies and campaigns so you’re ready to ramp up efforts.

Business continuity planning. While we’re all hoping this never happens again, many types of disasters may strike. If you don’t have a plan set up, then get it ready now.

A communications plan. Did you struggle to contact your team during the COVID-19 crisis? Update your contact list and create a phone tree to pass along important messages.

Marketing and campaigns. Put together plans for your future campaigns. Brainstorm ideas now so you can jump when you’re able to open your doors again.

How will guests remember your restaurant after COVID-19 ends?

Tough situations bring out the best and worst in people and communities. With social media, very little you do or say as a restaurant owner goes unnoticed. Stepping into a leadership role isn’t easy. But, you must guide your staff through difficult times. As a community member, your voice of reason impacts guests and their trust in your restaurant.

COVID-19 resources for restaurant owners

Do you have questions about social distancing? Perhaps you need further information to share with your crew. Find extra information using the COVID-19 resources below.

Hospitality Industry Alliance | COVID-19. This Facebook group is a great resource to brainstorm ideas, get tips, and connect with others facing similar challenges.

Tips for Restaurants. Read and print this PDF file in English and Spanish to promote awareness for your crew.

Business Continuity Planning Basics. The National Restaurant Association provides this PDF to assist owners in preparing for a pandemic.

EPA-approved Disinfectants. Get the latest information from the Environmental Protection Agency on the best disinfectants for COVID-19.

James Beard Resources. This resource list includes webinars, best practices, and ways to support the restaurant industry.

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