There is so much to think about, so many decisions to make, and so much angst about what the future holds. Building a well thought out strategy for starting up the restaurant engine after we move forward is paramount and will, in the process of thinking it through, give every chef and restaurateur a spark of excitement to lean on. What will our restaurants physically look like with social distancing, how will we be able to interact with guests at service, how will our kitchen teams function as a unit, what changes will be necessary for our menus to be effective, and what role will take out and delivery play in every restaurant concept? The planning process seems overwhelming because there are so many unknowns.
Chefs know that things will be different and as a result they may be lost as to how to approach this planning process. Are there any guidelines on how to approach the process and is there a way to set the stage for a level of profitability that will allow the restaurant to not only survive but also thrive in the future? Here are a dozen thoughts on how to approach planning:
 DON’T FORGET THE IMPORTANCE OF “WOW”
It matters not whether you are selling a Wagyu beef tenderloin or a fried chicken sandwich – what is essential is that your product is so good, so well prepared, so special that customers look at it, smell it, and take that first bite followed by a pause of surprise and a response that begins with “WOW”! White tablecloth restaurants and food trucks will benefit from the exact same end result – you need to make people stand up and pay attention – you want them to stand on a soap box and shout for everyone else to hear: “THIS IS INCREDIBLE”! If customers are not posting Instagram pictures of your food, rushing to Twitter to tell their network of friends, writing exceptional reviews on Trip Advisor or Yelp, and most importantly returning time and again for that special flavor, presentation, unique service, or special sauce – then you are missing the most important opportunity to create raving fans. MAKE SURE THAT YOUR PLANNING INCLUDES AND EVEN FOCUSES ON BUILDING WOW INTO THE MIX.
 USER FRIENDLY IS THE PRICE OF ENTRY
Convenience is the name of the game. If your concept remains “sit down” and you are not connected with an on-line reservation system, then you will miss out on a customer base that is accustomed to 24/7 relationships with providers. If your customers have become accustomed to your take-out or delivery service during the virus, then you must give serious thought to keeping these options and making them exceptional.
 BUILD IN EDUCATION AS A VALUE BENEFIT
Some operators have maintained connections with their customer base through on-line cooking classes during the pandemic – keep it going. Promoting your connections with regional farmers and even bringing them into the operation for value added lectures and product tastings is a way to show your commitment to the region and educate your guest. Offering tastings of new wines or beers you intend to add to your list and demonstrate to guests how to identify differences and how to properly pair them with food is a way to create strong connections. Having your chef walk through the dining room and connect with guests is a way to make customers feel special and provides an opportunity for them to ask serious questions about the menu. Everything helps. Think about how your concept – whether quick service, causal or high end dining, can incorporate a level of education in a restaurant concept.
 DON’T FORGET WHAT PEOPLE LIKE
This may not be the time to try and show how uniquely creative you can be with your menu. This might very well be more appropriate to rely on the types of food combinations, flavors, and even service that help people feel comfortable and welcome. Pushing too much creativity during the initial stages of re-introduction of the restaurant experience might be better reserved for a time when people are far more relaxed about socializing.
 KNOW HOW YOU WANT TO BE PERCEIVED
During this time of planning it will be important to build a better understanding of how your customers perceived you before the pandemic and how you want to be perceived moving forward. Think about those key factors of welcoming, consistency, food quality, speed, flexibility, and price and build a new scenario that more closely matches the needs and desires of a somewhat apprehensive audience dipping their toe in the water of dining out again.
 FLEXIBILITY IS CRITICAL
Regardless of what we thought prior to the coronavirus lockdown – when we return we will not be in charge – the customer truly is. Flexibility when it comes to menu offerings, methods of preparation, hours of service, pricing packages, and so on are the cost of admission. Other companies have long ago adopted a flexibility formula – it may be time for restaurants to do the same.
 WHAT IS YOUR SERVICE FORMULA
Is your service formula simply a process of taking orders and delivering product, or is it one where the server is considered a product and content expert with the ability to help guests with decisions of choice? Is your service formula one where whenever you enter a restaurant a server will be assigned to your table or do you build a model where specific servers develop a client base similar to other professions where the customer depends on the relationship with a particular provider? Is your model one that relies on counter pick-up service or will you build off of the curbside delivery formula that is beginning to work for some restaurants during this crisis? Think it through and determine what will work best for you.
“The handshake of the host determines the flavor of the roast.”
 TRUST AND SAFETY
As I have previously mentioned – restaurant guests will likely return to our businesses once they feel that they can entrust their safety to your staff. Whatever you plan now, it is imperative that it includes the standards and training that will feed into rebuilding trust between you and your guests. Their safety is paramount – let them know how you are approaching it.
 THE OVERALL EXPERIENCE WINS THE DAY
People have become accustomed to cooking at home again. Out of necessity they have regained some foundational skills and will, as a result, look to dining out as a luxury far more than they did just a few months ago. Some, with busy work schedules, may return to restaurants out of necessity, while others will need to find new reasons to do so. It will be the overall experience that brings customers back at a level similar to what we knew pre-Covid-19. The experience includes all of the human senses and how they marry well together in a particular operation. What will be your experience? Will it be participative dining, self-serve, cash and carry, fun dining, fine dining, educational dining, etc.? This is the time to make that determination and build it into your planning, marketing and experience.
 KEEP IT SIMPLE – DO IT EXTRAORDINARILY WELL
Some chefs believe in complexity and this may have worked for them in the past. Complex ingredients from around the world, complex preparation that requires countless numbers of trained staff in the kitchen, and complex methods that require sophisticated and expensive tools to execute- all well and good, exciting, and challenging, but will it work post Covid-19? In the future this may find a home and attract those innovative customers looking for something new, but for now the rule of thumb might be best to buy high quality, fresh, simpler ingredients and apply those cooking methods and flavor palates that people respond to and do this every day at the highest level of excellence.
 SET THE STAGE FOR LOYALTY
What we (restaurants) have always been so proud of is the number of loyal customers who made reservations every week or multiple times during a week, and who brought friends along for the shared experience. This is where we need to be again. Some may return with great enthusiasm as they did in the past, while others will be apprehensive for a variety of reasons. As you plan for the future – touch base with those loyal customers, engage them, and let them know just how treasured their support has been and will be moving forward. We all need loyalty to thrive.
 COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE
Finally, as you plan a strategy for renewal – make sure that you build a package of communication that keeps everyone: return customers, new customers, and staff members, fully in the loop. Make sure that your communication loop includes: website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email blasts, signage, and word-of-mouth initiatives that keep your concept alive and well. It has never been more important to communicate than right now.
These are just a few guidelines that can help you with that planning process. I have been chatting with numerous restaurant operators and chefs over the past few weeks and have found a lack of serious planning to be a common issue. Don’t kid yourself – recovery will be very difficult, survival is not a given, everything will be different, and guests are not likely to return in sufficient numbers to help you to survive UNLESS you have a well thought out, comprehensive plan moving forward. DON’T WASTE THIS TIME – STRATEGIZE YOUR WOW EXPERIENCE.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
“We are in this together.”