Finding out what works for each business is difficult, but there are core strategies that can help operators with the reopening process.

By Korsha Wilson
July 24, 2020
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The restaurant business has never been more challenging. For our F&W Pro Guide to Reopening Restaurants, we've been collecting wisdom and best practices from leaders in the hospitality industry to help you navigate this unprecedented time.

In early March, chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph was gearing up for the annual South by Southwest conference and music festival, a busy time for his restaurant group in Austin, Texas. “We were just starting to get our feet under us at Hestia,” he says referring to his latest venue that opened in November. By April, Bristol-Joseph and managers in the company were taking shifts answering phones and making local deliveries using their personal cars, to diners around the city. Driving to diners' homes and bringing them orders is not how he pictured Hestia operating less than a year after opening, but he and his team have had to adapt to this new reality. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” he says on a recent weekday afternoon between meetings.

This is the new reality of operating a food business amidst a global pandemic. As states start to reopen, restaurants across the country are having to reconfigure and reconsider systems and service in front and back of the house to keep staff and customers safe. It’s a balancing act that requires staying up to date on the latest information coming out of the CDC as well as state guidelines, educating staff and guests and implementing new measures to keep everyone safe all while bringing in enough money to stay open.

Matthew Jennings and Jason Rose, founders of Full Heart Hospitality, a consulting firm that works with food businesses, have worked with several clients on reopening plans and found that each requires a customized plan that can be adapted as new information comes in. Rose and Jennings have found that each food business needs to create their own post-COVID operational plan, tailored to their specific needs for their space, business and customers. “We look at this as a client by client, state-by-state plan where we approach everybody independently and individually and come up with the best solution for them,” they explained

Finding out what works for each business is difficult, but there are core strategies that they say can help operators with the reopening process.

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Stay up to date on government warnings and new information from the CDC

In Texas, bars and restaurants closed in March, reopened in April, closed again in May, reopened in June, and may have to close again as cases of COVID-19 have spiked in recent weeks. Alba Huerta, owner and operator of Julep Houston, a cocktail bar in Houston, is keeping an eye on the latest information from the state and federal government to decide what’s the next best move for her business. Bars are still shut down as per Texas’ governor’s health protocols that say only restaurants where liquor accounts for less than 51% of total sales can be open with occupancy restrictions. Huerta is converting Julep’s menu of cocktail classics into a takeout menu to keep her staff engaged and busy. “Every day is a balancing act,” she says. Staying up to date on Texas guidelines and the CDC’s reopening guidance for businesses is crucial to keeping yourself and your staff safe.

Keep your staff informed and in the loop

When businesses could reopen for the second time in May, Huerta posed the question to her staff to see how they felt. “I left it up to them because I’m OK being closed if they’re not comfortable,” she says. Her staff wanted to open for a host of reasons: unemployment running out, needing employment to continue the process for citizenship, and people who just didn’t want to be at home anymore. Knowing that the group came together to make the decision made it feel like a team effort instead of a solitary choice. “It’s tough but you’ve got to listen to everyone’s needs,” she says.

Rethink your service model and product set

Rose and Jennings advise operators to be adaptive and flexible in terms of service and products when reopening. In mid-March, as COVID-19 closed restaurants nationwide, Bristol-Joseph had to wrap his head around shifting Hestia’s serving model from open-hearth dining to takeout and delivery, in addition to figuring out take out for Emmer & Rye, Kalimoxto and TLV, the other restaurants in his company. The solution was to combine the fast casual options (Kalimoxto and TLV) with the full service restaurants (Hestia and Emmer & Rye) to save space and resources. TLV is open for lunch and dinner take out in the Emmer & Rye space and Emmer & Rye is open for dinner. It’s a solution that streamlines efforts of both restaurants.

Rose says this is a great time to rethink your menu as well with an eye towards what sells and what doesn’t. He recommends thinking about a “takeout optimized” menu of dishes that are easy to pick up on the line and can sit in takeout containers and not lose quality. “We've really tried to steer businesses to focus their energies on things that they can actually have control over,” he says. “You want to streamline your products to be optimized for what people want.”

Reevaluate steps of service

When reopening Julep in April, Huerta and her staff took several days to rethink the bar’s typical flow of service, space tables and chairs, place dividers on the walls and practice sanitizing and disinfecting between guests. “We went to a model where we were only open four days a week and we walked into the space like we were customers, thinking about what’s the first thing they’ll see and what would make them feel safe,” she says. Even the impulse to pick up a broken glass during a shift had to be rethought since it could mean being in someone’s personal space. She advises walking through the steps of service with your front of the house and back of the house teams to show them new processes and get them comfortable with the new steps. It will also give you an opportunity to see what your team needs. “We color-coded our bus tubs to create that clear line of what gets washed, what gets sanitized and what goes to the trash,” Huerta says.

Double down on what you can control

Rose says owners need to focus on the things that they can do, instead of what they can’t. “You can control your product set, your communication, your messaging both to your staff and to your customer base so double down on that,” he says. What happens in your four walls is up to you, he adds.

Jennings wants restaurants to redefine "success" in the future. “New success is defined by an equal distribution of attention to multiple areas: financial health, the wellbeing of our teams and creating new experiences for the consumer and I feel like those have to have equal attention,” he says. “Nothing is more important than the other.”