Restaurants have been among the businesses hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shutdown orders. But as they slowly reopen on-site dining options, are they entering recovery mode?
That was the question addressed during a recent webinar held by REjournals and Minnesota Real Estate Journal. During the event, Current Issues and Trends Affecting the Restaurant Community, restaurateur Brian Ingram and Tanya Spaulding, principal with Minneapolis-based Shea Design, said that restaurants have struggled during the pandemic and do face significant challenges yet.
But they both said, too, that restaurateurs who have been creative and aggressive in developing new business opportunities have found ways to not only survive but to thrive during these challenging times.
The pair were a good choice for this webinar. Ingram is a chef and restaurant owner who has opened such Minneapolis-area restaurant concepts as New Bohemia, Truck Park USA and Hope Breakfast Bar. As principal of design, architecture and branding firm Shea, Spaulding has worked closely with restaurants as they develop their dining spaces and build their brands.
The pair were joined by co-moderators Matt Duffy and Patricia Weller, both shareholders with Minneapolis law firm Monroe Moxness Berg. Duffy and Weller guided Spaulding and Ingram through the challenges, and successes, that restaurant owners are experiencing today.
The first question, of course, focused on customer reactions. During the earliest days of the pandemic and business shutdowns, restaurants across the country were required to shut down their on-site dining options. They could only provide pick-up and delivery services.
Today, restaurants in some states can offer outdoor dining. In others, they can offer both indoor and outdoor options, though at reduced capacity. This leads to the big question: Have consumers returned, or are they still too worried about COVID-19 to eat in interior spaces?
Ingram said that people have returned to his restaurants as they offer indoor dining, though in smaller numbers than before the pandemic. And not everyone has the same level of comfort with interior dining, he said.
“Folks are coming out. They want to get out of their houses,” Ingram said. “But there is a divide between the people who believe in masks and want them and the people who don’t believe in them and don’t even want to see staffers wearing masks. These are waters that are very difficult for us to swim in right now.”
Ingram said that many customers who have returned to his restaurants want to see customers and service staff practicing social distancing as much as possible. They want to see everyone wearing a mask, whether they are sitting at tables waiting for their food or walking to the bathroom.
Then there are customers who, Ingram said, think that “enough is enough” and want people to stop wearing masks completely.
“That’s the state of the union right now,” Ingram said.
It’s been important, too, for restaurant owners to promote online and through social media the steps they have taken at their eateries to make sure staffers and diners are safe. This might include the addition of partitions between tables, redesigning restaurants, reconfiguring air flow and boosting takeout and delivery business.
“We have to convey the message that we have made changes,” Ingram said. “We want to make sure everyone feels safe in whatever camp they happen to be in regarding masks and social distancing. They all have lots of questions on what we have done to be ready for them.”
Spaulding said that customer reactions to the reopening of businesses and restaurants has been mixed. That’s not surprising: There is still plenty unknown about the coronavirus.
“There is a spectrum of fear across the country,” Spaulding said. “Some people are very conservative and are barely leaving home. Then there are those who want to get out and be completely back to normal.”
How can restaurant owners deal with this? Shea advises its clients to meet the goals on the “checklist.” This means informing consumers that they are taking all the known steps to keeping them safe, everything from offering additional hand sanitizer stations to including touchless technology in bathrooms to sticking dots on the floor telling customers where they need to stand when picking up food or paying their bills.
But restaurant owners also need to take steps to show customers that their eateries are clean and bright. That’s because perception matters here. Customers don’t want to walk into dark, crowded spaces today.
Instead they want open, bright and clean interiors.
“You need to bring people into a bright, lit space,” Spaulding said. “You want it to look like you’ve spent time cleaning and maintaining your restaurant. You want it to look like you’ve paid attention to every detail in your space.”
And outdoor spaces are more important than ever, Spaulding said. Restaurant owners need to get creative with their outdoor areas. This might mean working with city officials to get permission to install tents that can help protect diners from the elements. It might mean taking over what used to be valet parking stalls and converting them to outdoor dining spaces.
“You need to work with the city to get as much outdoor space as you can,” Spaulding said.
Duffy and Weller also asked about which restaurants are surviving today and which are struggling. Not surprisingly, the difference between eateries that are eking out a profit and those that are struggling to stay open comes down to creativity.
Spaulding said that some restaurants immediately boosted their curbside and delivery options once shutdown orders went into effect. They offered new items or rolled out meal packages designed to appeal to families tired of cooking. They offered touchless service, in which diners rolled up to their eateries in their cars and never had to enter the restaurant to pick up their food.
These restaurants created a revenue stream that will help sustain them as they slowly reopen their outside and inside dining options, Spaulding said.
“The ones that are at a disadvantage are those that didn’t have the ability or opportunity to do that,” Spaulding said. “Today, as they try to bring back their labor and their customers, they are almost starting from a ground-up perspective. It is almost like opening a restaurant for the first time.”
Ingram agreed that those restaurants that didn’t focus on boosting their pickup and delivery services will struggle today. Getting customers back isn’t as simple as opening the doors, he said.
“If your guests get into a new habit of dining somewhere else, trying to get them to come back to you is challenging,” he said. “The folks who have stayed connected to guests, who have been very vocal about how they are working to reopen and keep people safe, are the ones who will have the most success.”
Ingram said that guests want to see that restaurants are doing whatever they can to keep them safe. Maybe adding plexiglass dividers doesn’t completely stop the transmission of an airborne virus. But if customers see that owners have invested in these dividers, it helps reinforce the notion that owners have taken steps to reduce transmission.
“Perception is everything,” Ingram said. “If guests look around and see that you are taking every step, that you are cleaning tables between each use, that you are cleaning your menus, that you have sanitizer available, that goes a long way. Your guests are seeing what you are doing. That can help make them feel more comfortable.”
Spaulding and Ingram also addressed the changes that the restaurant industry might see as a result of the pandemic.
Ingram pointed to restaurant design. For years, the trend was to create wide-open spaces. Now, restaurant owners are looking to incorporate more individual spaces in their eateries. This might mean the addition of more high-backed booths or even the creation of individual dining pods in restaurants.
“Nationally, we are seeing a new focus on more intimate dining spaces instead of wide-open spaces,” Ingram said. “That is a fundamental shift.”
Diners also want to see bathroom doors that open touch-free and soap dispensers that work without customers having to physically pump them. Handless paper towel dispensers are another bathroom feature that might see more demand.
Ingram said some diners won’t want to interact with servers at all. To meet this need, restaurants will allow diners to order their food through apps on their phones or handheld devices. This will reduce the amount of contact restaurant personnel have with their guess but might also make customers feel safer when dining.
“It will be an interesting world,” Ingram said. “How much will restaurants be hands-on and how much will they be hands-free? How do you navigate restaurants not when you are sitting at a table but when you are walking to and from the bathroom? How do you control lines at the bathroom? How do you bring take-out in and out of your world?”
Spaulding said that restaurants will offer more grab-and-go items, giving consumers the option to quickly duck into an eatery to pick up prepared meals. She sees a growing interest in restaurants that offer takeout market or grocery concepts, offering either prepared meals that diners can quickly grab or food that they can easily prepare in their own homes.
“It’s about making money with your space,” Spaulding said.
Spaulding said that she expects to see long-term improvements in sanitation methods, too. An example? Instead of bartenders and servers simply wiping down tables between guests, they’ll clean those spaces with disinfectant. Spaulding also predicts that restaurants will use more disposable materials, such as menus and silverware that they can recycle after diners use them. The key will be to make these disposable items high-quality so that they don’t lessen the dining experience for customers.
Cities and municipalities must play a role, too, in ensuring the survival of restaurants, Spaulding said. Municipal officials need to work closely with restaurant owners to improve and expand outdoor dining options.
The key is to find ways for restaurant owners across the country to offer outdoor dining not just for three months but for six months or more. This might mean installing tents with heaters or wind protection features. It might mean relying on a garage-door type of concept, where restaurants can open large bay doors so that they can offer both indoor and outdoor dining at the same time, using portable heaters to keep diners eating outside comfortable.
“I hope that one of the things that comes out of this is that cities and municipalities do make it easier to work with outdoor spaces,” Spaulding said.
Ingram agreed that in locations such as Minneapolis, restaurant owners will struggle once the cold weather hits if indoor dining capacities aren’t increased.
“This winter will be interesting,” Ingram said. “If we all lose our patios and we are only running at 50 percent occupancy indoors, a lot of restaurants won’t make it. You can’t make it on 50 percent of your restaurant unless you are doing something better than everyone else. Maybe a grocery store wants to buy your products and offer them in a retail setting. That would help. But what can you do to offset that lost revenue?”