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By Katie McCann
In March of 2020, the world virtually changed overnight when COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic. People have been encouraged to isolate in their homes, practice social distancing, and wash hands regularly to slow the spread.
And just as fast as people took to these recommendations and started isolating, the restaurant industry felt the hit to their bottom line.
With people opting for more time at-home to help slow the spread, dining out was the first luxury people axed from their schedules – whether by their own choice or through government mandated shut downs of dining rooms.
Restaurants owners have had to find ways to help slow the spread while taking care of their teams and their businesses. But what does social distancing in restaurants look like across North America?
Let’s look at where the industry sits as restaurateurs have to shift daily to cope with something they have never seen before, and what business owners are doing to best handle it.
It seems like overnight, COVID-19 turned restaurants into ghost towns. Seats are stacked in windows, curbside pickup has become the norm, and traffic to businesses – in every industry – is declining every day.
And numbers are already coming out that show how steep this drop has been. OpenTable shared a report, comparing year-over-year seated diners at restaurants across all channels – online reservations, phone reservations, and walk-ins. They compared the same day of the same week in the previous year.
Fair warning, it’s a lot of red. The global year-over-year stats sit at a decline of over 80% – some states have seen a 100% drop in this type of traffic. It’s important to note that, while there are a lot of these drops, many are caused by the complete close in dining rooms – they aren’t even available to guests.
On the flipside, there are a ton of predictions out there that takeout and delivery is on the rise since people simply cannot dine in. In January, China saw 20% growth in spending on food delivery services – a trend that is likely to follow here. Companies like Uber Eats, Grubhub, and Google are slashing service charges, delivery fees, and subscription costs to help restaurant owners continue to meet delivery demands.
What’s hard is that things can change on a dime – and they are. Government officials are meeting on a daily basis and announcing new rules and regulations constantly. Quite literally, it’s impossible to predict where the industry will sit tomorrow.
So, how are owners dealing today?
It’s easy to get caught up in the bad with so much news out there. But there are glimmers of hope out there – restaurateurs have found ways to continue to serve their guests, despite the craziness going on around them.
Here are some of the top ways that restaurant owners are dealing with social distancing and COVID-19 right now – though some of these methods are susceptible to change as the rules evolve.
With that in mind, please remember to check your local, state, or federal laws before diving into any plans you have to tackle COVID-19 at your restaurant. Things are changing on the daily, so arming yourself with knowledge before any big decisions is critical – and important in ensuring you’re in line with any legal regulations or laws.
As mentioned above, the first – and arguably most important – thing restaurateurs are doing to cope with these uncertain times is staying informed.
All the information out there can be a lot to take in, but knowing what’s happening is key to making the right decisions. It’s also important to stay informed to ensure you’re abiding by the changing laws and following government recommendations.
If you’re trying to stay informed without overwhelming yourself with a constant stream of news, here are some places to start that are specific to the restaurant or small business industry:
It’s a scary time for everybody, but there’s an extra level of responsibility that’s been thrust on business owners. Staff are – naturally – looking to managers and owners for answers and guidance in such uncertainty.
And restaurants are stepping up in big ways to take care of their teams and ensure they feel secure.
One way restaurant owners are doing this is by doing what they can to financially compensate teams for lost hours due to slow business or temporarily closed doors. Chicago-based Brown Bag Seafood Co. has committed to paying their 75-member team up to 70% of their lost hours – both due to fewer hours and time off spent caring for themselves or sick relatives.
And while there is no expectation for business owners to pay out their staff on such a large scale (for many owners, they can’t financially afford to do so), it’s more about what you can do to care for your team. Some business owners are giving their front of house team the chance to work as delivery staff to ensure they still have hours. Others are choosing to give their staff leftover food because finances are tight and grocery stores have been emptied out in some areas.
It’s all about showing support in a way that works for you – even the small things will go a long way in showing your staff that you’re on their side.
In efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 and encourage social distancing, restaurants across the country have been restricting their capacity to 50%, whether mandated by the government or personal choice.
This essentially means that restaurants would only be seating 50% of their full capacity – or less – at any given time, to ensure there is more space between diners and hopefully slow the spread of coronavirus.
This idea of half capacity is in line with recommendations to avoid crowds.Other businesses have been mirroring this idea in different ways – some gyms are offering classes at reduced capacity, and grocery and drug stores are setting aside hours for slower service to help people who are considered at-risk.
As we mentioned previously, takeout and delivery offerings have taken over during COVID-19, with huge growth in China and similar trends here in North America.
Chains like Tim Hortons and Starbucks are completely shutting down sitting areas, making takeout or drive-thru the only option, while smaller businesses rely heavily on their delivery services to make up for lost business. Some owners are even setting up sections for diners to leave instructions for their orders, like leaving the package curbside and making contactless delivery a part of the pick-up process.
On a positive note, delivery services are also stepping up to support businesses as more of their operations may shift to takeout and delivery. Grubhub is waiving all commission fees up to $100 million while coronavirus is a major issue. Uber Eats has waived all delivery fees for orders placed to independently owned restaurants – around 100,00 businesses – to help support them keeping their business afloat. Google’s new delivery service, theordering.app, is offering their program for free until July 2020 as a way to enable restaurant owners.
Restaurants across the country are getting creative to keep cash flow alive, whether it’s gift cards or “bonds” people can purchase to use at a later date. Generating these pre-sales has helped restaurants struggling with social distancing as a means to keeping their cash flow going.
Gift cards or dining bonds will help your regulars show you support by helping with immediate cash flow and guaranteeing you business for when your doors open again or you resume full service. Once social distancing in restaurants slows down and restrictions are lessened, people will want to go out to eat – why not secure that future business with gift cards and bonds to secure cash flow today?
There are also great aggregators popping up to help facilitate these sales to keep restaurants afloat. For example, Give Local was launched as a side project to help ensure local restaurants could get through social distancing and quarantine. Despite being a relatively new initiative, they are supporting upwards of 150 restaurants in some major cities, helping get their gift cards into future diner’s hands. Businesses stay open and people get a future meal – everybody wins!
Similarly, SupportRestaurants is a dining bonds initiative started by hospitality executives that aims to get funds into the hands of temporarily closed restaurants. These bonds are essentially gift cards sold at 25% less than face value but redeemable at the full cost. The website serves as an aggregator between restaurants and future diners, helping diners find restaurants in their area to purchase a bond from.
You can contact both of these programs right from their homepage to get your restaurant added to their listings.
Both U.S. and Canadian governments are passing bills that offer funding to support small businesses throughout this time.
The U.S. government actually just passed a coronavirus bill, which offers relief for people in service industry jobs – it includes paid sick leave and emergency leave for some workers, as well as enhanced unemployment benefits for people out of work due to COVID-19.
The U.S. government also asked Congress for $1 trillion in economic relief, with $300 billion proposed specifically for small business loans. Steven Mnuchin, secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department has spoken out about this grant saying, “We’ve told people ‘don’t go to restaurants.’ We want to make sure those businesses have money to pay their employees.”
They have been very vocal in wanting to get checks in the hands of Americans immediately, and restaurants were cited as likely beneficiaries. There will also be a deferment of any payments owed to the IRS, up to $1 million per individual and $10 million per corporation.
The Canadian government has taken similar actions, recently revealing an $82 billion plan to help families and businesses during the uncertainty around coronavirus. This is all part of the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan.
However, the government grants and support are changing daily as coronavirus evolves. For the most up-to-date information on government funding available, you can check the official pages from the United States and Canadian governments at any time.
While all of the news can be overwhelming, there are also good stories coming out everyday – including how the restaurant industry has rallied around each other during this time.
Numerous charitable efforts have popped up to offer support in different ways. Here are just some of the non-profits working tirelessly to get the restaurant industry past this period:
Even with so many measures in place to avoid reaching this point, some restaurants are either choosing or being forced to temporarily shut their doors.
As mentioned above, certain areas have had government-issued mandates to make this decision for them, banning dine-in service as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19 and help encourage the practice of social distancing.
For restaurants that run takeout and delivery as part of their normal operations, this means a shift in operational focus. But for restaurants fully dependent on dine-in seating, their hands are tied.
If you end up having to temporarily shut your doors, here are some areas you’ll want to check in with as soon as possible to minimize the financial hit:
Beyond finding ways to save, you’ll also want to regularly check on government funding available to help keep your business afloat during these uncertain times. We touched on this briefly above, but new grants are coming out everyday to help businesses that have had to close their doors.
Whatever restaurants have decided to do, most are making sure to communicate clearly with their guests and their teams – whether they switch to half capacity, offering delivery, or completely closing their operations for now.
And clear communication is especially important during these times. Whether that’s over email, website updates, or posting on social media, let people know what’s going on. People don’t want to leave their homes to find out you’re completely closed down. Communicating your offerings during this time helps everybody involved.
No matter what direction you’re taking with your restaurant, come up with a communication plan for staying in touch with your guests throughout this time.
If you need inspiration, you can see how Nerai, a New York-based restaurant, shared an operation update with their network. They covered changes in offerings as well as resources to keep people informed on what will happen in the immediate future.
Another great example of this type of communication was sent out by ICONINK – Ink Entertainment, a Canadian lifestyle and entertainment company, that sent out this notice to let their guests know that they were closing operations.
But it can be overwhelming to find the right words to capture what’s going on right now. If you’re not sure what you write, here are the two areas you want to make sure you hit:
Unfortunately, there’s no clear timeline for when COVID-19 and social distancing will come to an end.
While it is everybody’s responsibility to come together (ironically by staying apart) and slow the spread of this virus, restaurants have a huge part to play. You’re facing circumstances that have never happened before and are forced to adapt – every day.
In the meantime, stay informed, stay safe, and let us know how we can help. What resources and information do you want to see right now? Get in touch by emailing [email protected].
After all, we’re all in this together.
Katie is a former Content Marketing Specialist at TouchBistro where she writes about food and restaurant experiences. She doesn’t shy away from the finer things in life, but no matter how much success she continues to acquire, she stays true to her roots and still considers imitation crab as gourmet. If she isn’t writing, you can find her on a patio with friends and a pitcher of white wine sangria.
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