While a lot of industries have been affected by COVID-19, few have taken the hit like restaurants. The whole food service industry has been rocked to its core by this pandemic. While the loss of customers is the most obvious hurdle, it isn’t the only one. Supply chains, employees, and even new business models have all caused sleepless nights for many a restauranteur. Having said that, about half of the restaurants in the United States have already re-opened, while the other half is still worried about the safety of staff and clients, or waiting for state or local permission.
When considering re-opening, restaurant owners and managers have a wide range of concerns. Not only do they have to meet state and local requirements, but they have to keep their staff safe and healthy, project an image of safety for eaters in a light and enjoyable environment, all while making a profit. Profit is still the major force behind owning and operating a restaurant. No amount of government subsidy is going to help in the long run if a restaurant can’t keep staff and attract clients.
To keep that profit coming in, it is vital that restaurants make some changes during this challenging time. This article explores safety, for both staff and clients, decontamination, and business modality.
The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control both have a wide range of guidelines designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 through restaurants. The lowest risk ways to connect with your clients is through drive-thru or curbside pickup. Delivery and take out are also lower risk, however, since they often require clients to have person-to-person contact, they do increase your chances of spreading the disease.
Opening your restaurant to diners is the most important aspect of keeping most restaurants afloat. There are a variety of safe ways to serve clients. Outdoor dining is one way to reduce the spread, since air flow keeps the virus from concentrating in one area. Reduced indoor dining is also an option in some areas. However, with both indoor and outdoor dining, you must ensure that every diner is at least six feet apart from diners at other tables. This can drastically reduce the number of clients you can serve at any one time. Some restaurants have overcome this limitation by expanding dining into the parking lot and promoting “garden” dining.
Depending on your local rules, face masks may or may not be required. Regardless of the rules, clients will need to remove their masks in order to eat their meals. This is why it is so important to space diners widely apart. But you can also encourage behavior that helps reduce the spread. Tabletop messages that remind diners to cough into their elbow, wash their hands and the importance of a face covering. You can also provide hand sanitizer at the table in a container that matches the décor to further encourage good hygiene. You should also have free-standing hand sanitizing stations at the entrance of the restaurant, and near the restrooms to further illustrate the importance of good hand cleaning.
Your tables should also be attractive, but safe for your clients. Tablecloths can attract and hold droplets that might contain a viral load. Removing these items form the table between clients is vital to prevent the spread. Soft chairs can also trap and hold infectious material, so consider changing to harder, but easier to clean surfaces.
Finally, you should include signage that encourages everyone, including clients to stay home and away from others if they begin to feel ill, or show any symptoms of COVID-19 or any other illness. In addition, managers need to create a comprehensive plan for dealing with clients that refuse to cooperate with safety measures. This might include those who refuse to wear a mask, or who seem to have symptoms. Much of these plans will need to include state and local laws which may or may not protect your right to refuse service to someone who flouts local law. Whatever you decide, be sure that your employees not only understand their roles but feel supported by management for enforcing them.
Keeping your staff safe and healthy is a vital part of your business model. No one will return to a restaurant that they feel allows ill servers to bring food, or where they can hear coughing from the kitchen.
Starting with the most obvious, staff members that test positive for COVID-19 need to stay home. In addition, staff that have symptoms or live with someone who is positive for COVID will need to stay home until they have tested negative. In some cases, the staff member will have to stay home for ten days to two weeks to see if symptoms develop. This means that many restaurants will have to create a policy to deal with paying staff that may be quarantined.
Minimizing risk of infection to your staff is an important part of keeping them safe. Depending on your state and local rules, masks may be required. Whether they are or not, keeping your staff masks can reduce the risk of infection, especially for wait staff who must work closely with clients to deliver food. Clear plexiglass can be used in areas such as the hostess station or ordering and check out areas to help protect staff in those areas. Because clients and staff will work face to face for several minutes, the clear barrier adds another way to stop droplets from coming into close contact.
Handwashing is another key to keeping staff healthy. Make sure that they have access to handwashing stations, hand sanitizer and gloves for appropriate activities. The CDC recommends wearing gloves when handling trash or used utensils. After completing the task, the employees should remove and discard the gloves then wash the hands for 20 seconds or longer. All staff should wash hands for 20 seconds or longer after touching their own face or hair or using the restroom. They should be taught to cough or sneeze into a tissue which should then be discarded. The staff member who coughed or sneezed should then wash for, you guessed it, at least 20 seconds. Servers should sanitize hands between serving at one table and picking up food for another as well as after handling money or credit cards.
It is also important to proper distancing for your staff as well. This may require changing stations in the kitchen and at the back of the bar. The hostess station should also be kept as clear of staff as possible. You will need to have a plan in place should a staff member become ill, or exhibit symptoms during their shift. You should have an area away from the rest of the staff that is well-ventilated. Remove anyone that appears ill to this area if they are unable to leave immediately. But those aren’t the only places to consider social distancing. When not serving clients, you staff needs a safe place to rest during change of shift or breaks. This means, making sure that a safe area is set aside far from the kitchen. Some restaurants who work in pleasant climates have moved the break area outside. Placing tables and chairs under cover from rain and sun, but outdoors to minimize risks to staff as they take a well-earned rest.
A major new expense many restaurateurs face is keeping staff supplied with all of these necessary items. While tissues, soap and even gloves may have been a part of last year’s budget, those needs have gone through the roof. Hand sanitizer, masks, and plexiglass barriers are all new expenses at a time when most restaurants need to tighten their belt.
In order to clean surfaces, the CDC recommends cleaning, then disinfecting every surface used between customers. This includes counters, tables, and even chairs. Using an EPA and CDC recommended cleaner and disinfectant, spray high contact areas such as table and counter tops and even chairs. The CDC makes a distinction between cleaning and disinfecting. Staff cleans the table when removing food particles or other visible refuse from the area. Disinfection involves killing the bacteria and viruses that might remain after visible cleaning. This is a two-step process that every staff member must learn. The first step is to remove large items from the table such as trash, dishes and utensils. Then spray the area down with cleaner to loosen and fat or food particles stuck to the surface. Allow the cleaner to sit on the surface for the time listed on the cleaner and wipe down with a clean towel or rag. Immediately place the cloth in a dirty laundry receptacle. Using a clean cloth each time can also cut down on the risk of cross contamination. Follow this procedure with a disinfectant, again, following the instructions for the amount of time needed to kill all unwanted bacteria and viruses. Designate an employee to disinfect high contact areas on a regular basis. This might include such items as menus, credit card trays or PIN pads, door handles, both inside and out, railings, bar edges, or other areas in your establishment that you notice people put their hands.
As previously stated, tablecloths are difficult to keep clean and sanitary between customers. A cloth topper that can be removed and replaced between diners can help, but even the cloth on the sides of the table can harbor the virus. The best option is to remove the entire tablecloth between customers. Simply fold the sides up and on to the top, disturbing the fabric as little as possible and place the soiled cloth in a dirty laundry bag. After removing the tablecloth, disinfect the tabletop with an EPA and CDC approved cleaner and allow it to sit on the table for the recommended amount of time before placing a clean tablecloth on the table and setting the dishes for the next diners. To minimize the risk of contamination by other diners, refrain from setting the table until just before the client sits down. You might even allow gloved servers to set the table after the client is seated to show that you are taking all precautions.
If using a laundry service, make sure that they are following CDC guidelines to clean and sanitize tablecloths and napkins as well as any towels or cleaning cloths used. If you are washing them yourself, hot water and a hot dryer are usually sufficient to COVID-19 viruses.
Cleaning and disinfecting needs to extend to the kitchen as well. Make sure that you clean and disinfect food prep and handling stations throughout the kitchen. But don’t neglect those areas where kitchen staff and wait staff cross to hand off plates of food. These areas are fraught with risk for contamination and should be disinfected often. In addition, don’t neglect those items such as trays, and tray stands on a regular basis to minimize infection.
Surprisingly, according to UPSERVE magazine, 64% of all restaurants feel somewhat to very optimistic about the future. Why? Because they have had to change to make their businesses more efficient. Many restaurants have added a wide range of services to help meet their bottom line during this tough time. As the country opens back up, many, if not all of these restaurants will continue to offer these services to add to their profit margin. Here are just a few of the side hustles that many restaurants are experimenting with.
Pared Down Menus
By cutting down on how many dishes you offer, you cut down on the variety of foods you must order, and the amount of waste you must discard. Many restaurants have found that a shorter menu with customer favorites have really added to their bottom line without affecting their customer base.
While most people expect to get a pizza or Chinese food at the door, many restaurants have discovered that even upscale establishments can make a profit from door-to-door service. In fact, many managers have decided that its cheaper and more efficient to use their own staff to deliver food rather than a delivery service. After all, if your sending a $200 meal with prime rib and lobster thermidor, you want the person who will set it up to have a certain gravitas and not be some teenager in a grubby baseball cap.
Many restaurants have discovered that people who stay home all day may still not want to cook. Many managers have started preparing meals ahead with instructions for safe food handling at home. They can then sell the meal to customers who can pick up enough for a single meal, or for several days in a row.
Another way that restaurants are adding to their bottom line are with meal kits. They prepare the ingredients for a dish and place them in containers along with preparation instructions. The customers then take the ingredients home and put them together to create the meal. While some restaurants have worried that they might give away secrets to signature dishes, others have found ways around it. For example, many establishments have packaged spices, sauces or other key factors as a whole item. So, unless the client has a lab that knows how to distinguish what kind and how much of each aspect that goes into the spice or sauce, your secret is safe.