Restaurants play an important role in our lives and in our communities; often where we celebrate birthdays, graduations, first dates, and major life moments. They provide much more than food, they provide nourishment and create communities. Throughout the country, they have played an important role in the rebirth of many urban neighborhoods. Restaurants bring groups of people and that traffic often brings safety. The fragile nature of restaurants has been exposed by the pandemic. While many find hope for the industry as the country re-opens, the road to recovery is a very long and uncertain one.
Restaurants must build trust, communicate safety and clearly establish value.
A recent study from travel market research firm Destination Analysts indicated that nearly 41 percent of people surveyed said that the activity they missed most while staying in place was dining out with friends; but at the same time around 60 percent have hesitations about venturing back into dining rooms and expect to wait two-to-three months before they do. Local and state guidelines will also have an impact on how restaurants must operate in order to keep their staff and patrons as safe as possible.
While the operational and financial impact of social distancing must be top of mind, nearly as important as what you do will be how you communicate these changes to your guests. Restaurants must build trust, communicate safety and clearly establish value. A standard email outlining how your restaurant is dealing with coronavirus isn’t going to cut it. How you communicate this in your marketing will depend completely on your restaurant brand. Your restaurant brand is the promise you make to your guests. It’s who you are and what they can expect from you. It’s never been more important to authentically deliver on your brand’s promise.
Safety and Trust
Our goal isn’t to tell you how to create a safe environment, (we’ll leave that to the operations experts,) but rather our focus is on how to communicate in this new world. To be clear: it’s not about a memo or an email blast, it’s about how you will make people feel at every point of interaction.
First, think about your guests and what they will expect from you. (Ok, first understand your local and CDC regulations and suggestions, then think about your guests.) Gen Z and millennials are likely to return to in-restaurant dining before older guests; and each group will have different concerns. Responses in different markets will differ as well, with certain communities and areas of the country harder hit than others. If you have an active email list and can sort by recency and frequency, consider sending your very best regular diners a brief survey, asking them what matters most to them. (Then respond later with what you are doing to address their concerns.)
Once you know the regulatory guidelines, look at other ways you can enhance a feeling of safety, especially in a way that doesn't come across as impersonal or off concept. Disposable plates and utensils probably don’t fit in a fine dining restaurant, but silverware delivered only with the food, or wrapped in sanitized napkins and sealed with a small paper band could be appropriate. How thoughtful you are in delivering a safe environment helps make sure that guests feel the care you are putting forth. It’s about building and maintaining trust in this new set of circumstances. It is important to communicate what you are doing for safety, but don’t forget to highlight the amazing dining experience you have to offer.
Let guests know what to expect when they come into your restaurant. Consider adding a page on your website that highlights any new safety elements you have introduced so those concerned can see. Call out any new policy changes as necessary on your site, have you stopped taking group reservations for parties over six? Do people need to make reservations in advance? Add a simple banner to your site that explains this. Ex.: In order to ensure a safe dining environment we are requiring advance reservations.
Include any specific information in your online reservation confirmations – if guests may have to wait outside before being seated, let them know; and train staff how to respond to advance phone calls, questions or complaints.
Post what changes you have made on your social media channels and include these in your “about us” or add a linkin.bio to your instagram profile so you can direct traffic to relevant pages of your website. Feel free to communicate some of these changes as they are happening: photos removing tables, a newly installed plexiglass barrier before an open kitchen, etc. Show guests what you are doing and let your actions speak. Tell the story in your brand voice and encourage your guests to tell their friends about their experience. Word of mouth is an important way to build community trust.
Setting the Scene
It is likely your restaurant will have to look very different when you open your doors. Is it still comfortable? If tables seem too far apart, consider adding plants, screens or artwork to make it feel intimate and warm. Are you leaving tables empty to ensure distancing? Consider decorating them and include cues to show the reason why, or perhaps remove them all together.
If your servers are wearing masks, consider masks that match aprons or a custom design and don’t be afraid to have fun with it. Train your staff to communicate effectively and to smile with their eyes. (It’s a skill!)
If tables are sanitized between guests, how do you communicate this? Perhaps there’s a tasteful disposable card on the table, if regulations will allow it. Give the servers talking points so they can explain anything should they need to.
Consider all the typical touch points: silverware, table top, menu, chair or banquets, check presenter, check, pen. Which ones need to be single use? Which can you eliminate? Which ones can you easily sanitize? We highly suggest offering contactless payment to eliminate handling credit cards or pens. And if you offer delivery or carryout, why not curbside pick-up?
With all of this precaution in place, it’s a valid question to ask why would anyone want to bother to dine out under these circumstances? That’s where value comes in. We’re not talking about discounts or deals. Rather, we are referring to the value equation where the reward (the enjoyment of the experience you are offering) far outweighs the combination of risk (disease) and cost (spend + hassle). In other words, the complete experience has never been more important. It’s not only about the food on the plate or the cocktail in hand, it’s about those things plus the privilege to be in the restaurant; the joy of dining in community with other people, even if we are six feet apart.
People come to restaurants to celebrate, and now more than ever, people need to be able to come together and to celebrate once again. But it needs to be done in a way where people can feel comfortable and safe. People return to places based on how they make them feel: comfortable, secure, happy, delighted, and cared for.
Make them feel safe, while also making their moment with you feel special. Conveying the experience you will bring to them, both in terms of the meal and the emotional fulfillment, will be key to drawing diners back into your restaurant. Most importantly, make sure you keep your brand voice and the spirit of what makes your restaurant great.