by Marylise Fabro
We have all been dealing with the core problems COVID-19 has brought to us: increased cleaning and sanitizing processes, loss of customers, negotiations with landlords, and many more. On top of those known problems, restaurant managers have also faced unforeseen and sometimes puzzling challenges. We’ve taken a deep dive into some of these issues in an effort to help support restaurants, and to provide solutions when possible. Let’s take a look.
Finding employees who are motivated, loyal, and talented can be an uphill climb in our industry — even on a good day. With so many restaurant workers out of a job for long stretches of time, the workers that are returning may be coming back with new stresses and burdens. They may be facing expulsion from their home, or struggling to put food on the table. Working in restaurants, our first goal is to create an environment of relaxation and pleasure for our guests, but we can’t expect our staff to leave all their worries behind the second they come through the doors. Be understanding and calm while protecting your business. While a breakdown in the back room is manageable, it’s much harder when it happens in front of the customers. Assess the employee’s situation and mental state and act accordingly. By actively listening to your staff, you can spot an issue before it arises, and a supported team member will be a loyal and hardworking one for long after we have moved through this. Also be aware that their situation may lead them to make risky decisions, such as to come to work while feeling sick. Be kind, but remain on your guard. Work with your team to create plans for support, make it clear that all new procedures need to be upheld, and then stick to them.
Here’s a true story: a customer asked her waitress if she could inspect the kitchen and go over their sanitizing process. Once the waitress had gone over all the requested information, the customer asked that boiling hot water be brought to the table to sanitize her silverware… Customers are returning to restaurants, but with all sorts of new perspectives on dining out. Some are ready to have the ability to patronize your restaurant, even though they may be nervous about the still-present dangers. Others may be resentful that anywhere was shut down at all, and might have high expectations for staff to earn their tip. Making guests comfortable and creating a memorable experience is now a bit more complicated. Be ready with well thought-through answers about how your standards now address COVID-19 regulations, but also try to keep the guest’s experience of your restaurant at the forefront. You also simply can’t bend over backwards to accommodate all customer demands — you just don’t have time. Be ready, but also be firm about what you will and will not tolerate. It’s like the Wild West in many places when it comes to what the customers expect and what the restaurant should be able to provide. Empower your staff to hold their ground when it comes to your policies, and have a plan for when a guest is overstepping boundaries. This will be most effective when you have taken the time to train and reinforce your new practices and policies. Having trained, informed staff will boost their confidence, as well as the confidence of the guests.
As if restaurant owners were not under enough stress, some customers may post disparaging reviews while the restaurant team is trying to re-invent many processes to fit the new business rules. While this has always been an issue, it has taken on a whole new layer of difficulty now that many of your patrons are hyper-aware of how businesses are adhering to and working through new guidelines. Don’t get discouraged; respond with care and concern. Be open and transparent about the steps you are taking, as well as the hurdles you are having to jump in order to create the best dining experience you can. If there is an issue that is being addressed, let them know you appreciate the feedback, and mention how you plan on moving forward. Make penance when you deem appropriate, but make sure you don’t fall into a trap or create a practice of appeasing guests just because you are afraid of a bad review. If you know you are in the right, the customers you want will respect you for standing your ground, and those that are looking for an opportunity to take advantage of someone will know to steer clear.
Every day will bring its share of challenges, along with decisions to make that you had never thought about in the past. For example, when a party of one shows and you only have a 4-top left based on either the 6-foot or capacity rules, do you seat them at that table and risk having to reseat them later — which could upset them — for the sake of more efficient table turns? With all the new capacity rules and the dramatically reduced revenues, those decisions become increasingly difficult to make, and yet, they are essential for your business to survive. So think everything through as much as possible. When another unexpected situation arises, deal with it on the spot, but also take the time to reflect later and use that experience to devise a better plan for the future.
That would be our final advice. We are in this ride for the long run. Don’t get too comfortable, because tomorrow will be different than today. Being adaptable is a skill that will carry us through successfully into the future. Adhere to the new regulations and recommendations, and create a space that requires your customers to follow your rules as well. Moving forward, we are looking into the great unknown in many ways. Not every choice will be perfect, and not every mandate will prove effective. However, by endeavoring to satisfy community efforts and rules, you will be honoring your place as a respectful member of your community, and you won’t be accused of negligence or of not caring about everyone's health and safety.
So buckle up, and let’s try to make it through this crazy ride.