Advice to restaurateurs on how to navigate COVID-19 restrictions
Be creative and pivot your business to what customers want today.
According to Winifred McGee, a business consultant with The University of Scranton Small Business Development Center (SBDC), that’s restaurant owners’ main take away from the COVID-19 pandemic, because the more creative ways the restaurants can find to meet customers’ current needs, the better their chances of remaining open. According to the most recent Longwoods International tracking study of American travelers, only 40 percent of Americans are comfortable dining in local restaurants – making take-out and delivery an important strategy to consider.
“They really need to reinvent rather than reopen,” she said. “Evaluating the menu is part of it, including how much each restaurant is going to do in relation to offering take-outs in comparison to in-house offerings is a key part of that reinvention. The restaurant industry as a whole is going to have to figure out a way to make things work and add new strategies to their operations.”
According to the National Restaurant Association, more than any other industry in the nation, the restaurant industry has suffered the most significant sales and job losses since the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year. More than eight million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed since the beginning of the outbreak, and the overall projected industry loss for 2020 is approximately $240 billion.
With such staggering statistics, McGee stresses that restaurant owners need to find ways to change their business model in order to remain open, without sacrificing their quality and branding.
“On the other side of this, restaurants are likely to be very different,” she said. “People are going to continue doing more takeout because they figured out how they like to eat, as well as what they like to eat. In-house restaurant dining may become reserved for special occasions—customers might regularly get carry out from them, but less often go inside to celebrate a birthday or anniversary or another event. Some restaurants may fall by the wayside because of negative experiences that people might have had during the pandemic, because they haven’t properly followed guidelines to keep employees and customers safe. How that restaurant is perceived now will influence whether customers stay or go somewhere else.”
In order to help as many restaurants as possible keep their positive perceptions, McGee has offered the following tips:
- Edit your menu. “The desire to offer everything you’ve always offered is a problem,” she said. “You can’t keep your eight-page menu during a time like this. In reality, there are probably only about 20 things on that big menu that really look good when they arrive at the customer’s home.” McGee cited the dish presentation, food safety windows, and appropriate packaging as considerations that restaurants need to take when deciding which items could and should be take-out options.
- Think about the other side. “Look at the items you offer for carry out and figure out which ones will look good and taste great when they are on the customer’s table,” she said. For example, Chick-Fil-A began offering a take-out chicken parmesan dinner that consumers purchase via the chain’s drive through and finish preparing at home, ensuring that the Chick-Fil-A taste is maintained while being paired with kit ingredients: cook-it-yourself pasta, marinara sauce and cheese.
- Consider your costs. “Once you’ve whittled your menu down to what you’d like to offer for take-out, further whittle it down by figuring out whether or not you’re still making money on the items you’ve chosen,” she said. “If a changing supply channel makes an ingredient go up in price and or become hard to get, you’re likely not covering the cost of making that particular dish.”
- Reimagine everything. “There are a lot of psychological tricks restaurant owners can use to entice customers,” she said. For example, people’s eyes naturally go to the top and bottom of the page, so when printing paper menus, restaurants can put items they especially feature at those spots to attract more sales. Restaurants can also change how they market a meal—including switching up offerings from individual portions to “family style” combinations to make take out more of an event where everyone can have fun sampling different dishes.
- Try, try, and try again. “No one is going to have the perfect strategy at first try,” she said. Restaurants are all learning new approaches as they reopen and there is no one cookie-cutter method that will work for everyone. While paying as much attention as possible to costs, restaurants can vary what they do to see what works—and what doesn’t—for their particular customer base.
One other tactic restaurants can try as they reopen is simple—talk to other restaurant owners. The SBDC is offering “Table Talk” discussions that restaurant owners can virtually join to share their experiences, helping each other navigate through such an unprecedented time in our nation’s history.
“It’s like sitting around a virtual table,” McGee said. “There’s time for people to reflect and share what they they’ve experienced so that they’re learning not only from the SBDC, but also from each other. This helps them go beyond the competitiveness of ‘who’s going to get the sale?’ and moves toward how they can all keep their industry—and the economy — moving.”
For additional tips and tricks on how restaurants can reinvent as they reopen, McGee suggests this link from RunningRestaurants.com.
For more information on The University of Scranton Small Business Development Center, visit www.scrantonsbdc.com.