Dining Out in the Age of Pandemic

COVID 19 has wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry as advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding social distancing combine with outright closure orders leveled from the state and municipality levels to create a perfect storm. As of March 17th, data from the dinner reservation app OpenTable was showing restaurant dining down 42% across the U.S. On a global basis, daily restaurant dine-in traffic is down 83% compared to this time last year.

In hard-hit areas like New York, Seattle, and San Francisco, dine-in seatings were already in a strong down-trend even before closure orders were issued. People everywhere are taking precautions, and voluntary closures were common in cities like Las Vegas, Atlanta, Nashville, and Minneapolis. Now, more than 15 states have ordered bars and restaurants to close their doors for all but take-out and delivery business while nearly a third of Americans are under stay-at-home orders anyway.

This is arguably one of the toughest times to ever hit an industry where profit margins for owners are already slim and wages for workers famously low. In general, the American non-fast food restaurant business model was not at all prepared for something like COVID 19. In many large cities, fine dining establishments have tried the take-out and delivery models only to immediately discover that it was impossible to make a profit. Many closed their doors, possibly forever.

This is an unmitigated disaster, but even the worst catastrophe at least offers lessons for the future. Here are some ideas that might help those in the restaurant business build some resilience into their operations. In cities and towns where the situation is not at its worst, these tips could even offer a path to survival.

Embrace Diversity in the Way You Do Business

Many fast-food outlets with their ubiquitous drive-throughs are actually thriving during the wholesale dine-in closures in some cities. The situation is similar for operations like Domino’s Pizza that rely primarily on delivery business. Dine-in restaurants that got on board with online ordering/delivery models such as Uber Eats, Door Dash, and Postmates in addition to having traditional carry-out options at least had a buffer in place even if their gross sales are taking a big hit without dine-in customers.

Enterprises that had nothing in place to serve a to-go only market are not having much success quickly adapting. Learn from these mistakes, then when and if your business comes out the other side of this, put on as many take out and delivery options as possible. There is a chance of industry-wide change after this fiasco. Take-out is likely to become more popular with customers, and municipalities may alter regulations to allow restaurants and bars more flexibility when it comes to serving their markets. Embrace social media marketing and online ordering technologies. If you can put in a drive-through window, do so. Certainly, curbside pickup is a viable option for many restaurants. Know your neighborhood and your market, and get creative.

Travelers will be aware that many other countries have far more active food delivery sectors than America. In China, it is routine to order delivery on a can of Coke and a bag of chips. In Korea, boys on scooters run bowls of hot noodles covered with food wrap to offices at lunch time and the dishes are left outside doors to be picked up later. In India, a coded set of rings on a missed call can order hot tea without using cel phone minutes, and the dabbawala hot lunchbox delivery and return system is a 125-year-old legend in Mumbai. American restaurants would do well to move in similar directions.

Offer Customers Special Opportunities and Conveniences

People still need to eat, and they enjoy treats that make being in lock-down a bit more fun. Remember that supermarkets are experiencing shortages and some folks, like senior citizens, are having difficulty doing their food shopping. This can spell opportunity for restaurant owners.

Use social media to reach out to your customer base and offer specials on delivery or take out. Consider creating a diner’s club card that is paid for in advance and allows customers to purchase a set number of delivered meals at a discount. Create a weekly menu of family-style meals that lets customers reserve their dinners at the beginning of the week, then pick them up on the way home from work or have them delivered. Do the same for lunches to be delivered to nearby office buildings. Don’t forget to check if local regulations will allow delivery and takeout on beer, wine, and cocktails.

If it is allowable in your area, consider an email newsletter describing new menu items and offering grocery services that allow your customers access to bulk purchases of specialty items at a discount to supermarket prices. Seasonal fruits, seafood delicacies, special pastries, and prime cuts of meat are a few things that come to mind. This is a great way to build loyalty while letting your patrons see the quality behind your prepared menu offerings.

Be Spotlessly Clean

A clean facility has always been critical to doing well in the restaurant business, and after this pandemic, customers are going to be hyper-sensitive. Most readers might remember that hand sanitizer was not a common item until the swine flu outbreak of 2009. This is a good example of the way an epidemic can permanently alter human behavior. When you reopen your doors, people are going to want to feel comfortable, and that means everything needs to be spotless and constantly sanitized.

If you have the misfortune of being closed for the duration, take the opportunity to give your establishment a deep-cleaning and possibly a face lift with new paint, seating, and so forth. There may be government funds available that can help with this. Get things clean and keep them that way. Make it obvious to visitors by taking steps such as having sanitizing wipes available in restrooms and elsewhere, placing small bottles of hand sanitizer on tables, posting placards that explain the ongoing, thorough cleanliness and sanitary measures being undertaken by employees, and so forth. Never allow people to work sick because coughing, sniffling, and sneezing are going to be completely out of style after this nightmare is over.

The Coronavirus: This Too Shall Pass

Plague and pandemic have been features of human existence for at least the last 10,000 years since the beginning of the agricultural age. Even when the Great Plague swept London in 1665, carrying off an estimated 100,000 people and reducing the city’s population by a quarter, life went on. Pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants were in operation and patrons came through the doors.

With confidence and creativity, you can bring your establishment through the age of COVID and come out with strategies in place that will boost your business in general and insulate you against the next crisis. If you would like some help refining your operation’s online presence and developing a social media following that can translate into a loyal customer base that will see you through hard times, contact us here at Wodu Media by chat, email, or phone (800-909-WODU).