Leading Restaurant CEOs’ Three Tips for Success During COVID-19

How to improve customer experience, capitalize on new opportunities, and implement innovative technologies.

Even in this challenging time for the industry, restaurants are finding innovative ways to better serve the needs of their customers. They are evolving at breakneck speed to keep up with constantly changing rules and regulations, but still managing to innovate as they go. Here are the tips three leading industry leaders have for improving customer experience, capitalizing on new opportunities, and incorporating innovative technology:

1. Focus on Customer Experience and Personalization

There are positive ways restaurateurs are managing the processes tied to the current situation and creating better guest experiences. They enhance the customer experience by ensuring that guests are comfortable, or even pleasantly surprised across their interactions with the establishment and with the curbside/delivery process. 

Denny Post, former CEO of Red Robin, says quick service restaurants with existing drive throughs and pizza operators who already had their own delivery systems have done well in the pandemic. They adjusted to contactless delivery and other processes to assure guests that their takeout food and pizza was as risk-free as possible. They are thriving. Those who struggle the most are the polished casual and fine dining restaurants who thrived on the in-person guest experience they delivered. 

Post recently had a fabulous experience with the Darden brand restaurant, Seasons 52. They made it simple to call ahead and have the order delivered to the car. They created a connection with him in their first conversation over the phone. When he got the bags home, there was a personal note inside, and they had included a bottle of wine. That was terrific. He hadn't ordered it, but they took it upon themselves to provide that special extra touch.

2. Identify New Opportunities

The restaurant industry is accustomed to change around food, types of cuisine, offerings, and value propositions. But today more than ever, success lives and dies on customer trust. Adapting to these new expectations is critical to surviving and thriving, now and in the future. 

Chris Tomasso, CEO and President of First Watch, says everyone at First Watch is now focused on off-premise ordering. When dining rooms closed early on during COVID, they moved to an off-premise, to-go, take-out only model. Prior to this, they had very low percent take-out and to-go – First Watch is a dine in, gathering brunch place. They saw their off-premise orders grow by 300 percent and that allowed them to build a muscle they didn’t have before. Now, they expect that part of the business to represent 20 percent of their overall revenue. They fortified the new systems, put training materials together, and rearranged their dining rooms to accommodate the new approach.

First Watch has community tables in all their restaurants and that’s no longer viable as people don’t want to sit next to strangers anymore. They've now repurposed those community tables to third-party delivery pickup tables.

3. Implement Innovative Technology

Enabling transactions like pay-at-the-table with NFC chips and mobile ordering can serve to create better user experiences. Much of the technology used today in hospitality is not new or ground-breaking. But it’s become easier to use, it’s creating better user experiences and it’s more affordable. This is the time to look at technology as a true enabler for all aspects of the restaurant business. 

Rom Krupp, CEO of OneDine, a hospitality technology company, says companies that had online ordering systems in place beforehand have fared better because their customers were already familiar with it. They already had a channel and fulfillment. Some establishments were slow to adapt and have had to catch up ever since. 

For instance, it’s possible to streamline some labor-intensive tasks and generate efficiencies with the right technology. Technology can also have a positive impact on unit economics. Sometimes businesses are overemployed and with a unit economics business model that doesn't work. If they can't pass the price back to customers, then they risk running a margin that's extremely dangerous. And if they try to pass it all onto customers, there’s a point where patrons are priced out of the restaurant.

Technology can help businesses maintain their margins by building unit economics that are feasible and labor models that are slightly lower. These tools and models help restaurants better manage through a crisis.


To survive in the industry today, restaurants must find innovative ways to better serve the needs of their customers. Serving your customers means evolving at breakneck speeds to keep up with constantly changing rules and regulations. It also means pleasantly surprising guests with innovative technology that creates frictionless transactions. And you must adapt to the new customer expectations and find ways to develop customer trust by making them comfortable in your restaurant.

*Comments from Denny Post, (Former CEO of Red Robin), Chris Tomasso (CEO of First Watch), and Rom Krupp (Founder and CEO of OneDine) have been edited for length and clarity.