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Restaurant owners want and need more guidance on how to reopen from government officials

May 13, 2020, 3:15 PM UTC

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When it comes to reopening the economy, the first question to be addressed for many restaurant managers and owners is when. The second question, how, is proving even trickier to answer.

So far, there is no clear way on how to do this, either within the U.S. or other countries phasing out strict lockdown measures. South Korea recently had to re-shut down nightclubs, while bars in Hong Kong have been shut down, reopened, re-shut down, and are now reopen again—for the time being. 

“I think it’s important to recognize that there will not be an overnight ‘back to normal’ for the industry, and when restaurants do reopen, their business models will look different,” says Resy CEO Ben Leventhal. “We are looking at a many months-long next phase in which restaurants are tasked with figuring out how to extend their brand, offerings, and hospitality beyond the dining room.”

With the summer months on the horizon, outdoor seating is being batted around as the secret ingredient to reopening as it has the potential to offer better social distancing between tables and less risk of spreading COVID-19 outdoors. But this strategy depends on so many variables, and it’s not a foolproof solution by any means. Not to mention, it won’t be a sustainable measure if a second wave of the novel coronavirus hits amid cooler temperatures during the fall and winter months of 2020.

Gitano Garden of Love, a 24,000-square foot, tropical-theme outdoor bar area in New York City, is leaning on its spacious, open air floor plan to safely draw customers if and when it can reopen this summer. But that hasn’t stopped James Gardner, founder and owner of Grupo Gitano—which oversees six restaurants and bars in New York, Miami, and Tulum, Mexico—from considering takeout and delivery services, among other branded products, to generate revenue in the meantime.

“Given our size and and being outdoors, we are grateful that we do not do not face the significant challenges of smaller indoor restaurants,” Gardner says. Currently, there are no plans to change the overall design and form of the restaurant, as Gardner says the establishment can implement social distancing easily by removing and spreading out tables, as well as activating unused areas. 

“We do think this pandemic will take a lot of the intimacy out of the dining experience for some time most likely, not only the intimacy that is built between the guest and server but between our guests overall,” he says. “We have always thought about our spaces as a place for people to see, be seen, and to connect.”

An aerial view of Gitano Garden of Love NYC in Manhattan.
Courtesy of Grupo Gitano

Despite recommendations against reopening too soon from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), time is already running out to figure out the answers for some regions. Since May 1, restaurant dine-in restrictions have been lifted for nearly 192,000 restaurant units—about 29% of all units—based on an analysis using The NPD Group’s ReCount restaurant census

“Many restaurant operators have weighed the value of limited operations versus the cost of opening, health risks, or other factors, and chose to remain closed or continue with a takeout-only model,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. “The most recent week’s performance suggests we’ve achieved about 30% of the potential volume in states where restrictions were lifted. Looking ahead to next week, another 46,000 restaurants could come back online.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prepared a checklist for retail food establishments that might have temporarily closed over the last two months. It should be stressed that these are guidelines, as the FDA openly acknowledges that it is “not a comprehensive list,” and most of the best practices are presented in the form of a question.

Highway Restaurant & Bar in East Hampton, N.Y. pivoted to a takeout model as soon as dining rooms were shutdown in mid-March with what general manager Kevin Lind describes as a comprehensive process that should transition through reopening.

“We added several options right away that we thought would accommodate changing needs, like extending hours of operation, taking advanced orders, adding some delivery areas, and offering large-format meals that can last at home and even make-at-home kits,” Lind explains. “We think these have staying power and give people safe options even after reopening. All of this was done with a focus on safety first.”

Highway Restaurant & Bar in the Hamptons, where many affluent New Yorkers fled to their second homes over the last several weeks, has already begun scenario planning with reduced capacity and social distancing considerations.
Courtesy of Highway Restaurant and Bar

The new code of conduct

Even when there is broader acceptance for restaurants to reopen for dine-in services, there will be capacity restrictions, and rules will need to be established and made clear for patrons and employees alike.

“It’s very hard to know how things will continue to change,” Lind acknowledges. That said, the East Hampton eatery plans on being open for dine-in service this summer. Within the restaurant, the team has started to work on a floor plan that will provide the proper spacing between tables, while also, hopefully, maintaining the restaurant’s lively ambiance. “It’s an uphill battle to preserve the essence and energy of a restaurant which once served as a neighborhood space full of laughter and community.”

Cava’s Frederick, Md. location offers Pickup by Car service, a popular contactless pickup option; the Frederick location is one of the chain’s top performing restaurants over the past few weeks.
Courtesy of Cava

Cava, a fast casual Mediterranean cuisine chain based in Washington D.C. with dozens of locations around the country, is holding back on opening dining rooms in states already reopening.

“The restaurant experience will most certainly evolve to accommodate a shift in consumer behavior and mindset,” says Cava’s CEO Brett Schulman.

Cava will be encouraging customers to wear facial coverings to protect themselves and its team members. To urge social distancing, there will be “hard-to-miss” floor markers for line queuing, and certain tables will be clearly marked as not open for use. The company also discontinued the use of cash for payment and, while Schulman stresses that Cava very much cares about its impact on the environment, all multi-use utensils, bowls and trays have been removed from dining rooms. Pre-packaged cutlery will be used until further notice.

The company already has off-premises kitchens for every restaurant, separate from its in-store serving lines. With off-premises becoming a larger part of the sales mix, Schulman says more interior production space will be dedicated to digital order pickup, curbside, and delivery.

“Ultimately, for us to execute this successfully and consistently, training will play a key role, and we’ve really dialed up in this area of operations,” Schulman says, adding Cava is deploying a “COVID compliance scorecard” for each restaurant and area leader, which will hold teams and leaders accountable to adhering to all safety and operational protocols in reopening its dining rooms.

A mockup of what the “Open Date Alert” feature on Resy At Home.
Courtesy of Resy

Resy’s leadership says government and public health officials needs to set the guidelines for how best to reopen and patronize restaurants. The CDC recommends restaurants should space tables at least six feet (1.8 meters) apart and try to use phone app technology to alert a patron when their table is ready. Resy’s new Mobile Waitlist feature, Leventhal notes, was designed to fit this recommendation. 

“In talking with our restaurant partners it has become clear that revenue diversification is top of mind, since operating at a limited dine-in capacity will not yield them enough revenue,” Leventhal explains. “They are thinking about supplemental revenue streams, like meal kits, groceries, premium experiences, and more.”

While it’s a challenging proposition for restaurants all-around, Leventhal stresses it is important to equip operators with new services imagined for a pandemic environment. Resy At Home, launching at the end of May, will serve as the company’s new meal ordering and contactless pickup functionality. It will be embedded onto a given restaurant’s reservation page, so guests will see dine-in reservations slots (if those are being offered) on one tab, and pickup slots on another tab. And contrary to the fees charged by app-based delivery services like Grubhub and DoorDash, Resy says it will not charge any commissions on takeout orders booked through the Resy At Home.

Workplace safety

Just as critical to ensuring customers are safe upon reentry, the same precautions must be taken in consideration to dining room and kitchen staff. Many restaurants shut down entirely during shelter-in-place mandates without pivoting to takeout for this very reason: to protect employees from the spread.

“We expect that there will be capacity restrictions for the foreseeable future, and we are prepared for this,” says the owner of the Grupo Gitano hospitality business.
Courtesy of Grupo Gitano

Without immediate testing available, temperature checks for customers and employees alike have been cited frequently by restaurant managers as critical to health management, along with face masks. Gitano’s Gardner says the objective will be to make these requirements as painless and non-intrusive to the guest experience as possible whilst also reassuring that everyone’s safety is being protected.

“Most importantly, we are thinking about how we can deliver the necessary changes both safely and in a fun, engaging, branded way that neutralizes the fear factor,” Gardner explains. “We are going to ‘own the look,’ redesigning uniforms where the front of house will include branded masks, sun visors, and other surprises.”

Cava says it will be providing employees experiencing flu-like symptoms with access to fast and free COVID-19 testing as well as emergency 14-day pay for any team member who tests positive for COVID-19. Employees will also be required to take temperature checks at the start of every shift (including testing a facial recognition thermal imaging device), and partitions will be constructed at strategic spots where guests and employees previously came into contact.

A customer steps out of a Starbucks coffee shop beside a sign notifying customers the store is open for grab and go in downtown Los Angeles, Calif. on March 16, 2020.
Frederic J. Brown—AFP via Getty Images

Starbucks says it will be offering comprehensive care to its employees impacted by COVID-19, including catastrophe pay, mental health and sick pay benefits, childcare support, and more. Additionally, the company introduced Starbucks Service Pay, providing a premium of $3 per hour to retail partners for shifts worked as scheduled through the month of May.

“As we reopen stores, we are appropriately prioritizing health and safety concerns, working hard to exceed public health requirements and adjust to new customer expectations,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in an interview with Fortune earlier this month. This includes directing customers where to stand and limiting the number of customers in a café; providing partners with protective equipment, including masks and gloves; maintaining elevated cleaning and sanitation procedures for the foreseeable future; and promoting low-contact channels for customers, including the drive-thru, entryway and curbside pickup, and delivery.

At the end of April, 50% of Starbucks locations were closed and available only for drive-thru and delivery. Drive-thrus remained open to serve customers, with additional delivery locations available via Uber Eats. Starting this month, more Starbucks cafés are slowly reopening across the U.S. and other countries. Customers will be able to order and pay ahead of time using the Starbucks app, and pick up their orders at the door or at the drive-thru window. At select locations where social distancing can be implemented, stores will offer “grab and go,” so customers can place orders in the café and then take them to-go. 

“Our customers are looking for experiences that are safe, familiar, and convenient,” Johnson said. “They want to know that whatever they’re going to do is not going to contribute to the further spread of the virus or put them at risk of getting sick. Starbucks has become part of the daily routine of millions of people around the world, which we think they’ll be excited to get back to. The health, safety, and wellbeing of our partners and customers will continue to be our top priority.”

The final frontier

The region hardest hit nationwide by COVID-19, New York City’s restaurants and bars will likely be among the last businesses to open their doors back to the public. Restaurants like The Wooly, a popular New American restaurant and bar located in the Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan, have had to quickly implement protocols for employees working while looking ahead to the future when customers reenter the establishment.

The main dining room at The Wooly Public, a New American restaurant and cocktail bar in the landmark Woolworth Building. New York, N.Y.
Courtesy of The Wooly Public

Co-owner Eric Adolfsen reiterates what many restauranteurs have said: They’re looking to the government to provide guidelines for protection and safety that will be the basis for its policies. Additionally, Adolfsen says he and his co-owner, David Tobias, will continue to explore ways to go above and beyond these policies and create a comfortable environment for employees and patrons alike.

“At the end of the day, a restaurant is supposed to provide people with an enjoyable experience and a break from the stressors of everyday life,” Tobias says. “In order to do this, our solutions should be novel and possibly even whimsical at times, not just means to an end. This is what people need at times like these.

Gardner concludes that what the “new normal” will look like is the biggest question on everyone’s minds, answering it will not be back to business as usual for quite some time. “We hope that this pandemic will also lead to a lot more kindness on all sides, that our guests will see how hard this business is in the pandemic, and not only come out to have fun and support us, but also tip the team well.”