The coronavirus pandemic will lead to a stronger, more resilient restaurant industry if we want it

Restaurants must diversify and put safety first if they want to survive

We’re beginning to see what dining will look like in a post-COVID era. Some restaurants are re-opening with limited capacity, plexiglass barriers, tape on the floor to note social distancing, and masked servers. Lots of ideas are being proposed. Some chefs are looking to Asian countries to see how they operate with masked workers. Some are decrying the death of dining out as we know it. Others are trying their best to make it work safely for the sake of everything they’ve built while dealing with unmasked guests, a Twitter mob telling them they’re killing grandma, and a drastically reduced revenue. It’s not getting any easier for restaurants and restaurant owners any time soon.

The same way restaurants have had to balance the impossible task of paying rent, payroll, vendors, taxes, and utilities on the thinnest of margins, we must balance this impossible task before us. The same way we push through a busy service where a crucial piece of equipment has broken, the order came in wrong, and the dishwasher called out, we have to push through this too. Thousands of chefs and servers are not going to simply hang up their aprons and call it quits, though some have and will.

But some are demonstrating what it looks like to operate under restrictions. They’re adjusting staffing, protocols, and service structure. They’re changing their menus or plate ups to make them more to-go friendly. And they’re leading the way to whatever our industry looks like in the wake of this crisis. The federal government gave out some help, but it was not even close to what the industry needed. Our little food truck got lucky. We didn’t have to lay anyone off and the PPP loan carried us through the turbulent spring and now we’re looking at what a summer looks like half-way in lockdown without the financial cushion of events season. We’re going to make it out of this thing not only alive, but stronger. And that’s the lesson we should all be taking.

It’s easy to wallow in the sadness of our crippled industry, the joblessness, the death toll; the same way it’s easy to let a bad shift or a rude table turn the tide of an evening. It’s much harder to see a way out and turn something negative into something positive.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a lot of flaws in the hospitality industry and any cashflow business in general. Our margins are too thin to float us in a crisis. Our job security is dependent upon people coming in the door today, not all the work we’ve done in the past. And most of all, we are not at all diversified in our business. The restaurants that survive this pandemic will be the ones that prioritize safety, adjust their business models accordingly, and extend their reach of hospitality to their guests online before they even come in the doors.

Bringing people back to restaurants is going to have to start by re-opening restaurants. There’s no other way around it. The pitchfork-wielding mob may call for restaurant owners heads on a plate, but it won’t be as loud as the dinner fork-wielding mob calling for food on their plate. Rather than shaming those opening and the guests dining out now, we should be watching them cautiously, seeing what works and what doesn’t. That’s the entire idea behind 25% or 50% capacity. Nobody thinks that they can pay their rent on 50% capacity, but they realize that the only way to get to 100 is to go through 50.

Additionally, the safer we make our guests feel before they even get in the car to go to our places of business, the more likely they are to visit us. One thing all of us operators have learned is that if people don’t feel safe, they won’t come out. If we are an open book about the protocols and safety measures we are taking; if we demonstrate to our guests online in text and video that their safety and our staff’s safety is top of mind, they will feel safer coming to dine with us. Safety has always been a measure of hospitality. Of course no restaurant wants to make people sick with their food, I can’t think of something less hospitable than giving someone food-borne illness. But now diners’ safety is taking up a much bigger percentage of the hospitality pie in guests’ minds. The safer we make them feel before they come and once they come, the more likely they are to come back and tell their friends about it. Hospitality extends way beyond our four walls now.

Of course there are difficult guests and folks who won’t follow the rules put in place for everyone’s safety, but there have always been difficult guests. Instead of asking for light ice in her Diet Coke, Karen will now try to come in, order, and dine with no mask and no concern for anyone dining around her. While it may feel good to watch these people get kicked out of Costco in videos online, we can’t very well berate people who are willing to come in and spend money at our businesses. We must stay vigilant because many guests who will be coming to see us in the first wave of opening will not be. Taking our time to serve the worst people and gently enforce our safety policies will not only make the difficult ones come back, but it will show other guests that we are not willing to budge on safety.

That kind of leadership is what is going to guide our industry to a better tomorrow. Nobody is coming in right away with guidelines. There will not be a sweeping governmental regulation coming from the top down to tell restaurants how to operate. And even if they did, it would be inapplicable and too burdensome for many operators. Additionally, nobody is coming with a big check to bail us out. Those lucky enough to retain all of their employees AND receive the government loans have a leg up but nothing is going to save restaurants other than the only thing that has kept them going since the beginning. Dedicated, driven owners and regular guests. Operators who are willing to put their entire business on their backs and walk through the fire of this disaster are going to be the ones who build the future of dining out. Guests, as well, who continue to patronize their favorite places will keep them in business and keep this industry on its feet.

It has been a stormy couple of months and all of us whether we are in the service industry or not have experienced the entire spectrum of emotion from questioning to rage to acceptance, but now it’s time to ask ourselves: are we going to hang up the apron? Are we going to give up on our industry, on serving people? Are we going to lament the way things used to be or are we going to build a new industry and community of hospitality workers that’s stronger, more resilient, and more supportive than before.

Written by

Chef/Pitmaster from Austin, Texas

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