You can sense it in the air, you can feel it in your bones, and you can hear it in the silence – the energy that had surrounded the career of professional cook is down a few quarts. For nearly four decades the job of cook dominated the media and served as a major point of conversation and entertainment for guests of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. Suddenly, the conversations have drifted away, the excitement is tempered, the media has more important things to cover, and the energy – well the energy is hard to find. Is this a barometer for change? Is the relationship of food and dining much less important to all stakeholders?
As Americans found themselves in lockdown for the last few months they changed their priorities, they became more focused on what they needed vs. what they wanted. After a period of time – that restaurant meal was pushed to the back burner. Dining out was unavailable and we got by, we re-introduced ourselves to cooking at home and dusted off those skills that had been dormant, or added some new ones that had here-to-for not existed. Cooks and chefs drifted out of the limelight and now even those career cooks were likely questioning their choice of jobs. Is this where we are at?
Time will quickly tell as restaurants begin to open and operators try to coax back those cooks, chefs, and servers to an industry that still has a few warts that need to be addressed. In the meantime, what can be done to build back that enthusiasm, the mystery, the excitement and joy of cooking and dining?
What took decades to build up has taken only a few months to deflate. You remember – just a few months ago – dining out was a source of entertainment, chefs were careerists worth admiring, a restaurant meal was a reward, and a chance to clink glasses with friends was something to truly look forward to. You remember as a cook – the job that you did was never boring, filled with adrenaline, creative, and at its core – a dynamic team sport. We need to put loads of energy into bringing that back. This is what restaurants are all about and an industry without the energy that existed a short time ago will be shallow and certainly not the same.
Part of the reason is the isolation reality, part is the negative impact of “pause”, part is a lack of availability, a good part is fear, and an even more significant part is our fault for not keeping those lines of communication open with all stakeholders in the restaurant experience.
Let’s start with a clean slate and lean back on some old marketing tools:
 BUILD ANTICIPATION
It has been a while since employees and guests have walked through your restaurant doors. What was it about that previous experience that brought excitement into their lives? What was it like to be part of your restaurant experience before and what will it be like now. Try not to show signs of trepidation or fear, but rather well thought out optimism. This is where you need to make everyone feel comfortable about walking through those doors – this is where you need to show that you will have your act together. Now – start to build on anticipation.
 COMMUNICATE FREQUENTLY
Build this anticipation using the tools that are within your grasp. Flood social media with “COMING SOON” type announcements, take loads of quality food and people photos and post them on Instagram, use your network of email addresses to talk about specifics, update your tired website to reflect a “NEW and IMPROVED” restaurant, and connect with your loyal ambassadors for something special – maybe a pre-opening, socially distant event for them to try out the new menu. Do it all and do it often. Be present every day on these platforms.
 LIFT UP THE BRAND
Your regular customers were your ambassadors and your raving fans. They remember you, your people, your name, and your image – talk it up. Make sure that your name and what you stand for is prominent in every communication you send out. Order new uniforms with the brand name front and center, print a bunch of T-shirts to give away or sell during those initial re-opening days: “RESTAURANT SO AND SO IS BACK”, “WE SURVIVED FOR YOU”, “THANKS FOR WAITING”, “BE PART OF OUR EXPERIENCE”, etc.
 FOCUS ON THE REWARD
People have been out of action for a long time, they crave an opportunity to be served, to eat someone else’s food, to see other people (even if they are socially distant and wearing masks). The restaurant experience has always been more than just filling stomachs – it has always been about tangible and intangible rewards. Remind everyone about this. “You deserve a break today” was always a perfect marketing pitch that focused on reward – don’t underestimate its importance.
 PRODUCT, PRODUCT, PRODUCT
Refresh your tired menus with something new. It doesn’t need to be groundbreaking, but it should make people feel good. This might be the perfect time to resurrect those classics that make people comfortable – put your own twist on them. A few years back there was a trend to bring back the grilled cheese sandwich as something with limitless possibilities – look at what you might re-invent and add your signature to.
 RE-IMAGINE THE EXPERIENCE
Right now we are scratching our heads trying to rationalize how the Coronavirus restaurant experience might be even remotely enjoyable. Limited seating, at least 6-feet apart, everyone in masks, the smell of bleach as everything is sanitized frequently, limited menus, no group tables, and nerves on edge everywhere you look. Stop thinking about how difficult it will be and start contemplating how you might make lemonade out of lemons. How can you have fun with the limitations? Is there a way to create some level of interaction without violating those protocols that are so important? What rewards can you offer your guests?
 VALUE IS AT THE CORE
This is a time to rebuild confidence, to minimize fear, to become part of everyone’s routine again. This is not the time to make too many decisions that are based solely on profit. Yes, every restaurant is faced with the financial challenges brought about by the shutdown, but there has never been a more important time to focus on value. Remember people have figured out that they can get by without restaurants – so why skimp on experience or focus too much on making up for lost financial ground? Build menus and experiences that demonstrate that the experience is important and the price is right.
 RE-INVEST IN EMPLOYEES
In some cases – your hourly employees have been able to make more money on enhanced unemployment than they made working for you. Although this is short-lived it is hard to compete with that reality. This is not the time for despair; this is the time to show your employees that they are important and that you intend to invest in them. Financial incentives are important, but so are the non-tangible investments like enhanced training and a new attitude that shows how much you care about them and their life challenges.
 CELEBRATE THE CRAFT
Cooking and service are two of the oldest professions know to mankind. The inclination might be to figure out ways to make things easier, use more convenience items to save on labor, cut back on the details of service, or plan menus that are not challenging for cooks who had, in the past, taken their craft seriously. This might backfire. Many in the restaurant business have chosen their career because of the craft, because of the skills, and because of the creativity. Don’t lose sight of this.
 LISTEN AND ACT
There has never been a more important time to listen to your employees, listen to your regular guests, and listen to your competition. There is much to be gained from listening, really listening, digesting what is offered and building a positive action into that formula.
 START TO FIX THE PROBLEMS
Part of listening is to acknowledge the problems that are systemic in the restaurant business as well as those that are unique to your operation. If you want to regain the ground lost and set a course to thrive as time goes on, then your strategy must include a sincere attempt to correct many of the problems that plague the operation and impact employees and guests.
Let’s bring back the enthusiasm and the energy – this is the lifeblood of a vibrant restaurant business.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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