COVID-19 Is an Opportunity to Differentiate Your Restaurant Brand

Focusing on customer experience may seem like a luxury for restaurateurs struggling to keep their doors open, but it may prove to be the difference between those that survive and those that get added to the list of tragic COVID-19 business casualties.

I have seen firsthand how this is playing out. As COVID-19 cases were waning and businesses began to reopen, I took a short beach vacation with my family. One evening, we went to an oceanfront restaurant for dinner. The wait was 45 minutes. Next door, however, a similar restaurant with the same view had no line at all.

While waiting for our table (which was on an outside patio setting fully following social distance rules), I noticed there was a distinct difference in how the two establishments were managing COVID-19. The one with the long wait was clearly taking the health of its patrons seriously through abundant signage and a clear process that respected social distancing measures. The other did not seem to be advertising a plan at all.

Doing the Minimum Is Not Enough

No matter how hard COVID-19 is hitting the restaurant industry, some establishments will emerge winners – and this will not happen by accident. A retrospective study of COVID-19 restaurant failures will find, I suspect, that those who leaned in with thoughtfulness and proactiveness fared better than those that did not. 

Restaurant owners and managers should be asking themselves: How do we use this challenge to enhance the customer experience? 

Let’s be clear: the restaurant industry was disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Many used take-out to remain solvent while others had to simply close their doors and wait. Now, too many restaurants, as they reopen, are focused on simply abiding by public health rules. Their strategy is to pass the inspection. What they should do, however, is look beyond these requirements and consider the total customer experience. Requiring staff to wear PPE is not a strategy, it is table stakes. 

The notion that a restaurant’s survival may depend on how customers perceive its COVID-19 strategy is supported by research. According to Zagat’s Future of Dining survey, which polled more than 6,500 diners, nearly 50 percent said they would feel very or somewhat uncomfortable dining out when restaurants reopen. Nearly three in four said health and safety was by far the biggest factor that might influence their decision to dine out in the coming months. 

That means it is incumbent on restaurants to make people feel safe. How restaurants implement public health guidelines will either put customers at ease or signal the establishment is disorganized. Those that communicate and deliver a safe dine-in experience are better poised to lure customers back who are still uncomfortable dining out – as well as those who are comfortable eating out but still place a high priority on health and safety. The brand implications are significant.   

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

As in sports, being proactive is often the best way to defend yourself against an unforgiving opponent like COVID-19. Restaurant owners and managers should be asking themselves: How do we use this challenge to enhance the customer experience? 

This may seem ambitious, but it’s crucial. There are many feasible strategies – some require upfront investment; others are little more than process updates – that restaurateurs can implement to put customers at ease and enhance their own brand equity. 

  • Dine-in mobile ordering. Waving down a server for another drink or side order may be part of the old dine-in experience, but it is hardly a tradition that diners want to continue. Since reducing human interactions is likely to be a long-term side effect of COVID-19, with or without an effective vaccine, restaurants should consider investing in technology that allows patrons to place orders from their phone or an anchored tablet and have them delivered to their table – with minimal server interaction required. Added bonus: No more finishing your meal before the second beer arrives. 
  • Brand-enhancing signage. Signs printed in the owner’s office and taped to the wall won’t enhance your brand. While that may have been acceptable in the early days of COVID when the news cycle was moving at warp speed, now is the time to consider how this reflects on your restaurant’s reputation. Before a person opens your door, professional, brand consistent signage should communicate your public health strategy. Are you allowing people to dine in? Where should people wait for a to-go order versus a table? Are you making it easy to social distance with professionally designed floor markers that will stand up to wear and tear? (It’s time to ditch the tape on the floor.) Should people call ahead for a reservation or “wait list” to avoid overcrowding? These are the new factors that define a customer’s experience.  
  • Consistent execution. It is vital that restaurant staff abide by the processes you have communicated to customers. If you say servers and chefs will be wearing masks, it is important that patrons see that policy followed as they look around your restaurant. Seeing half of the masks worn by staff dangling from one ear doesn’t leave a good impression. Many a restaurant has been criticized online by curious customers craning their necks to see what is happening in the kitchen – and now Yelp reviews will undoubtedly include COVID-19 commentary for the foreseeable future. Consistent execution – and the proper training that makes it possible – is an indispensable component of protecting a restaurant’s brand image. The impression left with customers will linger long after COVID-19 has faded. 
  • Mind your digital doorway. According to the Zagat survey, 25 percent of diners are not very likely to dine out within one week of restaurants reopening. Another 14 percent are not sure. For those who are on the fence, researching a restaurant’s COVID-19 health procedures by visiting its website may be their first step when deciding whether or where to dine out. Restaurants with a digital plan for communicating their process and assuaging diners’ concerns are more likely to draw customers – especially those who may have otherwise waited a few more weeks but feel comfortable with the safety measures a particular establishment is taking. Posting information on a website homepage or sending an email or text blast to customers are two approaches to consider.

COVID-19 and the resulting fear among diners is a systemic threat to restaurants. A visible response strategy signals to patrons how well the restaurant is managed. Those that view this challenge as an opportunity to differentiate and build trust will win new customers and position themselves for long-term success.