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  • Surviving the Pandemic: Thoughts for Restaurants

    This is uncharted waters for everyone. I’m 51 years old and have never experienced anything like this in my life. Grocery stores are emptying as people are hoarding food and paper goods to get them through the unforeseeable future. Restaurants and bars are closed except for delivery or carryout. Many of us have been in the restaurant business for decades, and the playbooks have just flown out the windows. Our entire business models have been turned upside down. How do we survive?
    I spent the week reading articles by the National Restaurant Association, other online-resources, as well as talking with my business partners and other restaurant owners—trying to come up with something to say. The truth is we need answers, and we need them now. Below, I’ve assembled some of the information I’ve gleaned from the many sources, as well as a few of my own ideas. I hope they help.
    Spread of the Virus
    The CDC notes that viruses are generally spread through person to person contact from coughing or sneezing. There is no evidence that food is a viable medium for transmitting coronavirus. This being said, our staff and customers will come into contact with others. As business owners, it is our responsibility to limit the opportunities for spreading the virus. This can be done by strictly adhering to industry standards and public health guidelines. Below is a link to the Tippecanoe County Health Department to learn more. There is also a link to the EPA list of products which can be used against coronavirus.
    In addition, during this time, it is important to reduce interactions between customers and staff. This can be done by implementing curb-side pick-up. This will reduce the temptation for customers to sit in your lobby areas while waiting for their food. And it also reduces the interaction times between restaurant workers and customers. Finally, if workers are sick, or have been exposed to others who are sick, they should not report for work. The last thing any business owners needs is to have the entire staff get sick during this time. If a worker starts to show signs of illness, be proactive and send them home right away.
    What Can We do?
    Fortunately for us, there is, for now, no sign of shutting restaurants down completely. It is apparent that the government wishes to keep access to food open. This means restaurants are allowed to produce and sell their products to customers. I’ve developed some helpful information to help restaurants to respond and survive during this time.
    Reduce Barriers to Ordering
    First of all, look at your processes and reduce the barriers to ordering. Ordering must be fast, efficient, and seamless. A single phone line can cause problems. The single line may have been more than enough when you had seated customers, but it will not get the job done if you wish to meet the needs of an entirely carryout customer-base. If you can’t afford to add a line, today, you may want to include mobile numbers of managers as well as your own. Whatever it takes to answer those calls.
    Another way to reduce barriers to ordering is utilizing online ordering. Whether you are using an app like ChowNow or your website, your customers need to be able to connect to you and order their food using digital media. Online ordering is fast and easy. You can take as many orders as can come in, using online ordering. Additionally, the customer pays at the time of order, reducing the time staff need to interact with them and lowering the risk of spreading the virus.
    Curbside Service
    Next, you will want to set up a takeout area, preferably curbside. Set up a system for customers to pull up near your restaurant and wait for their food to be quickly brought to their windows. This keeps them from entering the building, as mentioned above, reducing the spread of contagions. It also, provides a sense of seamless experience for them. They simply order, pay, and pick it up. Fast and easy.
    Be aware, with the increased load of carryout orders comes increased opportunities for mistakes to go out the door. How many times have you purchased something just to find out it was wrong when you got home? Don’t make your customers angry. No one wants to get back out and fight traffic to fix a mistake. In the restaurant, mix-ups can be fixed while the customer waits—not so with carryout orders. Take the time to check every order, carefully, twice. Also, make sure your packaging is sturdy enough to handle the ride home. Most importantly, maintain proper food temperatures for orders that are waiting for customers. We own several warming ovens to ensure that food never drops below recommended temps.
    Deliver Your Food
    According to the National Restaurant Association, 74% of millennials would order delivery from a tableservice restaurant if available. So, good news for restaurants owners. However, there are some things to consider before you deliver.
    First of all, consider insurance needs regarding delivery service. Drivers need to be licensed and insured, and restaurants may need to carry insurance for their drivers as well. It is a good idea to talk with your insurance agent before hiring delivery drivers.
    Next, clearly delineate your delivery area. Yes, it would be great to cover all of the community, but that is simply not realistic. In many cases, depending on the population, a radius of 3 to 5 miles may be more than enough. Jimmy Johns for instance, limits their radius to ten minutes from their stores. This ensures that the drivers can drop off and return fast enough to keep customers happy. A delivery driver should be able to complete at least four deliveries an hour. It’s a good idea to place a map of your delivery area up on the wall in your kitchen so drivers can plot a course to knock out multiple deliveries in one trip.
    Consider alternate forms of delivery. There are a number of delivery services out there. Start a conversation with a few and see what rates they will charge. Be advised, delivery isn’t free for you or the customer when using these services. Many charge large percentages to the restaurant per order, and charge even more when the order is place on their website for your store. Make sure you can afford the delivery charges before using one of them. Another alternative form of delivery is bicycle delivery. Bicycles can get places cars cannot, and they can park anywhere. If your delivery area isn’t too big, like the downtown, then bicycles would be a great way to do it.
    Final Thoughts
    Your employees are worried. Uncertainty is on all of our minds. It is time to be the calm, clear, voice of reason in an otherwise chaotic world. To help employees know you are thinking of them consider rotating shifts and furloughs. This will reduce your payroll expenses while letting your workers know that you value them and want to keep them. Additionally, offer some free meals to them when they aren’t working. Anything we can do to reduce the negative impact on them while we work through these next few weeks will be rewarded with loyalty.
    Finally, restaurants need to keep cash flowing during this time. Gift certificates are a great way to accomplish this goal. Find creative ways to market your gift certificates and offer deals for multiple purchases. You may want to consider offering hot deals to other Greater Lafayette Commerce members during this time. This keeps cash flowing and ensures future business.
    This is an unprecedented time we are experiencing. Use this time to think out of the box to create new ways of marketing your business and driving cash flow. Consider collaborating with other business owners in novel ways. Everyone is suffering and will benefit from cross-promotions and working together. This is a time to innovate. Find ways to adjust your business model to reach your customers with the food they love.

    Resource Links
    Tippecanoe Health Department
    EPA List of Products

    Funding for Restaurants
    About the Author
    Mark Lowe is a serial entrepreneur, owning and operating multiple businesses.  He's earned an MBA in Experimental Social Psychology and an MS in Human Resources and Organizational Development from Indiana State University.  He is passionate about helping business owners navigate the many challenges they face daily.

    How to Contact Mark
    Email:  mlowe@greaterlafayettecommerce.com

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