The restaurant industry was turned upside down in 2020, practically overnight. But the resiliency of this sector is not to be underestimated: Navigating all new business pressures, management took on every challenge thrown at them to keep their heads above water and prepare for the next wave of normalcy. 

The goal is to emerge from this crisis stronger than ever. But to get there, management will have to navigate through months of uncertainty and disruption, shoulder a massive drop in revenue, and redesign operating procedures based on somewhat-unpredictable regulations. All this while still maintaining the warm, friendly atmosphere that operators in the hospitality industry are known for.

By prioritizing employee safety during a time of crisis, leaders set a strong example for their management teams and clearly demonstrate how the organization values its people. 

Overwhelming? Yes, absolutely. There is a new normal in the restaurant space, and we are all trying to figure out exactly what that means. Will servers come back to the same role they left? Will new jobs emerge that hadn’t been thought of before—like a sanitization specialist, or someone responsible for managing a line into the restaurant? How will restaurants shift their labor models to follow state safety regulations, ensure social distancing, minimize contact, and support the changing tide of guest preferences? Will these changes be temporary, or – more likely – will some stick around?

The return to normalcy will be faced with new dynamics and tensions, and it’s going to be a struggle. But people need to work. Many even want to. The most important thing restaurants can do to emerge stronger from this pandemic is to give guests – and, just as importantly, the workforce – confidence that they are not putting themselves or their families at risk. 

By prioritizing employee safety during a time of crisis, leaders set a strong example for their management teams and clearly demonstrate how the organization values its people. After all, people are an organization’s greatest asset – and the key to speeding recovery and emerging stronger from these uncertain times. Protect them and empower them; don’t let them fall to a lower priority while addressing financial, logistical, or other operational challenges. 

How to Emerge Stronger

Technology provides a way forward by making manual procedures more streamlined, and by enabling restaurants to operate with a keen level of agility, flexibility, and transparency – the combination of which is desperately needed to maintain business continuity and resiliency within an industry that was knocked almost flat on its back by the rippling effects of COVID-19.

Agility Planning

When navigating regulatory requirements – which are often proving to be inconsistent and reactionary – and balancing guests’ anxieties about returning to old habits like dining out, restaurant owners and managers need to respond with agility. They must be quick to make a decision and quick to take action. 

This transition is going to be difficult for smaller restaurants or chains located in only one state. And to say that larger food service organizations with locations that cross state borders will have their work cut out for them is an understatement. But once leadership understands the local or regional requirements pertaining to each location, the next step is to decide how their organization will respond. Agile leaders will often prepare a few likely scenarios and strategies around how to manage their business under those circumstances, ensuring that operations could be adjusted quickly – whether restrictions are easing, or new restrictions are handed down. 

A key component to agility planning is the ability to quickly roll back decisions and revert to an older plan. If a second wave happens, restaurants will need to be agile enough to revert back to delivery or curbside only. The best way to do this is by clearly documenting the decision-making process.

Ultimately, agility planning requires management to thoroughly think through how to ensure the health and well-being of their workforce and guests, and instituting policies and procedures to enforce safety measures (while also delivering a warm and friendly atmosphere—that remains critical) aligned with varying regulations. It’s a balancing act, to say the least.

Transparency

Much of the unease around COVID-19 comes from the unknown. If employees and guests don’t feel like an establishment is going to put their safety first and protect them from unknown risks, they’re not coming in. Therefore, it’s extremely important that management be very transparent when informing the public and employees of various new policies and precautions that are required for their establishment to re-open and operate safety. 

Clearly laying out expectations of both employees and guests from the start will go a long way in reassuring everyone that peoples’ safety is being prioritized above all else. This will build confidence that management is doing all they can to keep people safe, regardless of what is required of the restaurant by the city or state (and perhaps going above and beyond). 

A finely executed set of safety precautions is now the gold standard in guest experience, and it requires that staff are trained to not just uphold various safety measures but to be able to clearly communicate those measures to guests, putting them at ease. Be sure that staff have the tools they need to most effectively execute new safety procedures consistently and accurately, and ensure management is onboard and visible. Management should be willing and able to step in and support their staff in any scenario where a customer pushes back on safety requirements.

Flexibility

The situation we find ourselves in is changing by the day, which likely impact employees’ ability and desire to work at a moment’s notice. Between the uncertainties around whether cases will surge in the fall or whether states will have to back-track their phased reopening plans, many employees are questioning when and how to return to work. 

Patience, understanding, and flexibility are key, both on the side of the employee and employer. Employees want to understand what their employer is doing to keep them safe, and what flexible options will be given to make their return to work a positive experience. At the same time, employers also face many unknowns—from forecasting demand to navigating financial disruptions. 

Managers and corporate leaders must stay nimble and flexible when navigating these unknowns, while also developing a workforce flexible enough to support the journey. Cross training to increase the versatility of the workforce is a good starting point for employers looking to balance the flexibility needed by employees with the flexibility required by their establishment.

Seize the Opportunities

Recognizing and capitalizing on new opportunities emerging from this crisis is necessary for a successful recovery. Already, restaurants have shown they can meet the new realities of this situation head on and find a way forward. Formerly dine-in-only establishments that were quick to shift their labor model to provide contactless delivery and curbside pickup will have expansive opportunities in the future: They can always revert back to their roots, but the resiliency of their operations and of their workforce will enable them to endure the present and thrive in the future. 

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