A cautious approach towards opening is the most prudent rule as we begin to see signs of a virus that might be controlled in the future. There are few certainties at this time except an understanding that this is not over. As some states begin to entertain loosening restrictions and easing out of “stay at home” directives – restaurants will consider their options. Do we open in such uncertain times and potentially endanger our employees and guests? How can we not open with so much financial pressure and the looming threat of permanent closure? Whichever side of the question you find yourself on – there is no denying that the constraints will be significant, customers will be very leery about entering a restaurant, and initial sales will never be enough to keep a restaurant solvent.
Rather than let things unfold without adequate thinking, I offer some ideas on a phased in strategy based on objectives designed as building blocks towards eventual success and that sense of normalcy that we are all hopeful for.
 PHASE ONE:
(Cautious opening, social distancing, intense sanitation, masks, screening)
We realize that opening in the next few months will require social distancing of at least 6-feet, use of masks, significant improvements in on-going sanitation, and maybe temperature screening of employees and customers. I would suggest that during this opening phase restaurants should focus on the following:
Comfort: This is a time to help people put aside their fear and rely on familiarity with food that is well prepared, flavorful, nutritious, and fresh. This is not a time to experiment with changing food perceptions and pushing the envelope with cuisine. Keep it simple, keep it familiar, and do it very well.
Convenience: Many of you have implemented take out and delivery options during the height of this pandemic – customers have responded well to the convenience of this option and will likely remain most comfortable with this option rather than dining in. Make the process better, work on making sure that the food is hot when it should be, work on how food looks and whether it matches the image that you want for your restaurant – make convenience a positive experience.
Trust: Customers, rightfully so, are very cautious and concerned about your ability to keep them safe. Whatever you do during this early transitional opening phase – make sure you invest the effort in building trust. Have a plan and promote your plan from focused signage, greeters that put people at ease (maybe even check temperatures), well defined distancing in the dining room, all employees wearing masks, required customer masking, and visible sanitation efforts. Any employee that shows sign of sickness will be required to stay home until they can show that they are symptom free. This is absolutely essential if you want your customers to return.
Value: During this phase – value will be based almost entirely on price and whether the guest feels that they are able to justify the expenditure. This can happen through menu design, working with minimal labor, and staying away from any frills of dining.
Efficiency: It’s simple – restaurants are in financial trouble, many may not be able to reopen after months without sales. The only way that they may be able to stay in operation is to become very efficient in how they buy, prepare, and serve food and beverage. Smaller menus, fewer employees, less steps in production, reasonable portions, and little emphasis on those parts of a restaurant experience that are not tangible. Think about the no-frills environment of Chipotle – a program built on efficiency.
Cash Flow: Restaurants should not view profit as a goal during Phase One. Making sure that sales are coming in faster than payments are going out should be the realistic objective. Working on creating an acceptable level of volume, minimizing labor, keeping menus small, and investing considerable time in managing the restaurants bank account are all critical initiatives at this point in time.
 PHASE TWO:
(Access to treatment, vigilant business model, intense sanitation, social distancing)
Even though Phase Two may be many months away, this is the time to plan for an effective transition. Caution will still rule the day, but with effective treatments for the virus available – restrictions will begin to evaporate. Restaurants must be ready.
Service: Providing treatment(s) are available to those who contract the virus, familiar table service will likely return. This means that service staff will be able to interact with guests, social distancing will be a thing of the past, and masks will no longer be required even though people will still be cautious. Any employee that shows even the slightest sign of a cold will be cautioned to stay home so that environmental fear does not take control of an operation.
Convenience: Convenience will remain an option that is enticing to customers. There will be indications that take out, counter service, and delivery may become a permanent part of the restaurant experience.
Concept: It will now be time to look at your concept and how you want to be perceived moving forward. Whether it is built from an ethnic focus, farmer relationships, and style of cooking or level of service – what you do now will set the stage for your restaurants future. Make sure that your concept ideas are well researched and try to involve input from your ambassador customers who have supported you throughout.
Expanded Menus: Those simple menus may be able to expand at this point as you bring additional employees on board and enjoy greater numbers of guests. Still keep efficiency in mind.
Trust: Stay true to everything that you have done thus far to earn customer trust. You want to reach a point where those who patronize your operation don’t need to think about your commitment to their safety.
Value: The value formula will change in Phase Two. Aside from price sensitivity – guests will also consider the level of service, flexibility, speed of service, presentation of food, breadth of menu, and how the operation appeals to all of the human senses. We will have to work much harder at winning the value prize.
Breakeven: Once restaurants are able to openly accept as many customers as they want – it will be important to stay focused and efficient. Profit will still be elusive, but solid management of expenses can result in breakeven. Stop the bleeding will be an essential part of financial management. Restaurateurs are on the right path as long as they manage to keep their heads above water.
 PHASE THREE:
(A vaccine is available to all, intense sanitation, loosening of social distancing, virus is contained)
This is likely a year to 18-months away, yet your business strategy must include thinking long-term – even beyond this point.
Experience: As a vaccine becomes universally available and communities are able to breathe with confidence – restaurant customers will be looking for more than food and baseline service. We entered this pandemic as part of the experience economy where restaurants were considered entertainment as well as a source of food. This will be the time that chefs live for, servers are able to perform for exceptional gratuities, and owners are able to see their operations be all that they can be. Operations will need to have a strategy for that experience and what it will take to be competitive again in that environment.
Concept: There will, once again, be room for restaurant concepts that push the envelope, that excite and inspire, and for creative people to test the waters with ideas that have been waiting for a market.
Mass Customization: This will also be a time for restaurants to totally re-think what they do and how they do it. As other industries have moved towards the flexibility of mass customization (have it your way), so too will restaurants need to think in those terms.
Convenience: Time will tell, but once you offer convenience to guests and they develop a level of familiarity with that convenience it will be difficult to take it away. Think about the “experience” of take out and delivery and see how you can own that market.
Membership: The ultimate goal of every business is to create guest ambassadors who would never think about patronizing anyone else. This sense of membership comes from service, communication, and experiences that cannot be found elsewhere. This will be a focus in Phase Three.
Efficiency: Be prepared – restaurants have been very inefficient for decades. We are labor intensive creating a cost burden that makes profit difficult to imagine. As we move towards Phase Three – restaurants will need to constantly look for ways to maintain quality while reducing process and cost. This will be the new essential skill for chefs seeking to captain the ship.
Value: Value will be based on the experience, whether your concept is a counter service – quick operation, or a sit down multi-course operation – there must be some level of experience involved for value to exist. “Is it worth it” will be the essential question.
Profitability: Finally, when dining rooms are full, kitchens are operating efficiently, and value experiences are being offered – restaurants can return to profitability. You must dot all the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” for this to occur.
Build a Nest Egg: Know that at some point in the future there will be another crisis that impacts our lives and businesses. Phase Three should provide a wake-up call that helps restaurateurs to start building a next egg that will allow them to weather the next storm.
Food for thought.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC