Tips for Reopening: How to Reset Your Restaurant

Restaurant stakeholders have already been challenged considerably by COVID-19. Although they want and need to open for business again, many are worried about how they will be able to do so. Quick and often rash closing decisions mostly forced upon restaurant operators removed the majority of, if not all, options. Some who could remain open have only takeout business within municipal guidelines — though now, as many states begin to remove some restrictions, operators are left wondering what to do next. The goal is to provide key considerations for expanding or reopening in the current environment, while emphasizing both customer and employee safety.

Currently, operations in some Asian countries have begun to reopen and have seen some early success, which is a hopeful sign for US operations. These operations are following reduced capacity and social distancing, along with strict protocols for cleanliness.

In order to prepare, US operators should begin by spending a little time on some strategic planning now, prior to opening, including:

  • Assessing your dining room for possible spacing options (and obstacles)
  • Reviewing your business hours and your menu for options (ease of production)
  • Establishing safety and sanitation plans to protect guests and employees

Rethink Your Space
Reduced capacity is likely to be at 25-50% original (fire code) capacity, so the 200-seat dining room would now max out at 50 guests. (Again, it needs to be noted, operations cannot sustain this limited sales volume for long.)

Things to consider in the short term:

Open with precautions for employees and guests alike.

Consider removing some tables and chairs especially if an area or room can be blocked off or not opened. Stagger seating in the dining room, maybe every other table, and limit the number of guests permitted to dine together (two or four per table).

“Protect your guests and your employees. This is possibly your number one priority.”

Of course, this removes large parties, but social distancing is likely to continue for some time; guests are going to have to deal with this and other changes. To date, some range of 5-8 feet between all tables in both dining rooms and even patios has been recommended and thus should be the basis of your planning.

Maximize Your Time (and That of Your Guests)
Emphasis on quality business hours (and handling wait lists). If you were open for lunch and dinner with little business in the middle of the day, try to spread the business out throughout the day (or consider closing for a few hours midday). Your famous happy-hour specials — typically served between 4-6pm — may need to be late lunch specials now, from 2-4pm.

Limit the seat time for all guests to 1-1.5 hours, depending on the meal and service level of your operation. Perhaps simple, pre-planned breakfast or lunch combos can be sold during the transitions from breakfast to lunch and lunch to dinner.

If preparing to have a wait list each day, plan how to best to execute this for your establishment. If not already done for takeout, use tape to mark separate spaces for guests waiting for tables in your lobby and near outside entrances if possible. To reduce crowds of people, consider adopting a wait-list app or add text messaging to alert guests, who may be waiting outside or in their cars, that their tables are ready.

Streamline Your Menu
Focus on your menu, keep it simple, and keep or increase takeout options. You will need to remember your food cost and menu engineering. Focus on your key items — the ones guests normally order the most.

“Take the time now to plan in order to be best prepared for opening.”

Look for ways to reduce the preparation load and execution of your menu items during service for your probably limited staff. Keep up a menu mix of proteins, pastas, and vegetarian options but consider limiting the offerings or creating a category rotation, with different items on a two-week rotation. You may not cover all your guests all of the time, but you probably cannot if you wanted to.

If you have not been focusing on your takeout menu options over the past weeks, it’s time to start. Again, you can simplify your menu or try to cover it all; either way market takeout and delivery options to your community.

If you have been surviving on takeout orders, do not stop these offerings; after all, it is likely you will not be able to accommodate everyone in your limited dining room.

Build Trust, Emphasize Safety
Protect your guests and your employees. This is possibly your number one priority amongst the others, but is a combination of early strategic planning and implementation.

Building trust will be key as you begin to consider opening, and execution of the planning will be critical. You know you and your staff cleaned your dining room, but now it is critical you highlight your cleanliness more than ever before.

  • Have employees use both a bucket of hot soapy water to clean tables and then a well-marked spray bottle of sanitizer and a clean towel for each table and seat between all guests.
  • All front-of-house staff should wear gloves and masks, protecting themselves and comforting the guests.
  • Assign a staff member to sanitize all common areas in a regular cycle every 30-60 minutes, including the entrance way doors and any high traffic zones (counters; restrooms). Make sure to include the small stuff, like the pens used to sign receipts.
  • Provide hand sanitizer at the front door. If the health department allows it, add sanitizer to the restrooms as an additional option.
  • The National Restaurant Association has already released some guidelines that recommend removal of all buffets and not pre-setting tables. In addition, remove condiments from the tables; serve ketchup on the side from the kitchen or bring cream and/or sugar to the guest if they desire it with coffee, but only bring what they will use (you can always bring them more).
  • Consider hands-free technology (like the customer’s own phone) as a way your guests can view the menu and even pay for their meals.
  • If multiple doors are easily accessible (beyond a required fire door which is often alarmed), set up one way for guests to enter (perhaps even with a check-in kiosk), and another where guests can exit.

Days will be brighter, and business will return. And though this situation may continue for some time, there are ways to reopen and reset your business for the road ahead. Take the time now to plan in order to be best prepared for opening — you want to be able to ensure your guests, your employees, and your community that they will remain safe as you resume doing what you love and are passionate about!

Donald Schoffstall, Ph.D., is an associate professor at JWU Charlotte. His focus is on food and beverage and hospitality (primarily restaurant) operations. Prior to joining JWU in 2012, he worked in restaurant management for more than 10 years; he has also written 18 academic research publications since 2013.

Hotel, Travel, Tourism Industries Persevere Through COVID-19
National Restaurant Association COVID Guidelines