Yes, I get it.  It has all been about survival for restaurants over the past 16 months and survival has not been easy.  Now, providing we don’t ignore the still looming dangers of Covid and the challenges of convincing 40% of the population to accept the vaccine, we might stand a chance of long-term recovery.  Hope springs eternal. 

Staffing is a bear – I know it.  I hear it from every single restaurant operator I know and even many more that I don’t – there is an acute shortage of staff. There isn’t a simple answer to this challenge, but we know that it will require a shift in how restaurants operate.  In the meantime – here we are.  Restaurants are open, and customers who have been prisoners of the pandemic are anxiously coming out of their shells and flooding to restaurants that are ill equipped to deal with the surge.  Back to survival mode – let’s just get through it.  Is this the answer?

What we can’t afford to do is allow missteps simply because we don’t have an answer to the staffing challenge.  There have been numerous articles from restaurateurs asking customers to “give us a break, be patient, we’re trying our best, it’s not our fault that the food isn’t quite right, that the service is painfully slow, that servers are not well trained, or we just seem to be disorganized.”  There is an underlying problem with this approach that tries to proclaim innocence – we cannot afford to disappoint.

One interesting thing occurred during the pandemic shutdown – people found ways to adjust.  They were forced to slow down and stay away from the typical hustle and bustle of American life.  They were at home, and they re-learned how to cook.  They opened those cookbooks on the shelf, dusted them off, and started to try new recipes, to be more creative with food, to bake and break bread around a dinner table again.  Companies like King Arthur Flour couldn’t keep up with the demand for flour and even their baking equipment.  Cookbook sales on Amazon spiked and grocery stores were challenged to keep food on their shelves.  Wholesale distributors began to ship or deliver directly to homes to compensate for minimal restaurant sales and liquor stores were deemed “essential” as people began to make their own cocktails to help forget about their isolation.  The average person may have missed going out to restaurants, but they began to realize that they didn’t really need to spend their money in cafés and bistros when they could cook well at home.

So, we are open, and customers are flocking to the restaurants that they missed only to find, in some cases, that the experience wasn’t what they anticipated.  The food didn’t seem as exciting or well-prepared, the server was less familiar with the menu than they had expected, their orders took forever, the ambience of the dining room seemed a bit off, staff seemed stressed and disconnected, prices were way too high, and many people were still nervous about being in a public place without a mask.  Suddenly, there are comparisons to eating at home.  “We can cook better than this, we are happy to be in each other’s company, we feel safe at home, that second glass of wine didn’t cost $12 (the price of a bottle in the store), and we are not looking at a bill for $100 plus tip that could have been enough for a few days groceries at home.  Hmmm..we have a problem Houston.

As challenged as restaurants are right now, there must be an all-out effort to demonstrate value and to provide a positive experience.  This is a potential breaking point for the restaurant industry.  The effort that is made right now to right the ship will define how this very important industry moves forward and how it steps back into its status as “essential” to the American experience.

This is not the time to push aside the importance of training because you are too busy.  This is not the time to turn away from quality standards from your kitchen and ignore inconsistencies in food.  This is not the time cut corners on cleaning and polishing, on uniforms and professional appearances and concentrating on the details. 

This is the time to take that deep breath and figure things out.  Start with the desired experience and value statement and work backward.  Given the current staffing environment – how do we meet those expectations?  In a previous article I talked about the importance of solid menu management right now – this is one possible solution, but it is not the only means to an end.

 Restaurants must invest the time in training.  Training will demonstrate to employees that they are important and that you are willing to invest in them.  Training will help to build their competence and confidence.  Training will help to make them able to problem solve and make the right decisions pertaining to the customer experience. 

Don’t forget the small stuff – the small stuff is what separates the dining out experience from a meal at home.  The small stuff is what adds value to the guest experience.  The small stuff includes everything from polishing tables and making sure they are level to fresh cut flowers on the table, sparkling clean glassware and silverware, pressed uniforms and professional signage, the right background music, consistent plate presentations that are vibrant and appetizing, swept parking lots and friendly greetings when the guest arrives, It’s menus that are clean and sharp and it’s knowledgeable recommendations from a service staff who are well trained and versed on what the cooks are doing in the kitchen.  It’s the small stuff, the details that make the experience worth the money spent.  This is what will bring guests enthusiastically back to your dining room.

You may need to limit the days that you are open, the hours of service, or even remove some of the tables in your dining room to help alleviate the stress of limited staff.  You may need to cut down on the size of the menu for now until everything levels off (and hopefully It will at some point), and you will need to find a way to work with fewer employees who are paid much better than they were before.  It will be a buffet of answers that will allow restaurants to re-establish their importance and regain a level of profitability.  But failure to move forward without the experience and value formula in mind will only drive people away and reinforce an understanding that dining out is no longer necessary.  We don’t want to go down that road.


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