Pandemic Lessons for Restaurant Owners

outdoor dining pandemic
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The pandemic has been an extremely tumultuous time for just about everyone. Both individuals and businesses were hit hard. With most states having reopened to some extent, vaccination rates rising, and unemployment numbers far better than they were in the summer of 2020, things are looking up. That said, many restaurants are still struggling to get back on their feet.

If you owned a restaurant during the pandemic, whether newly opened or a long-time local fixture, you had to deal with all kinds of issues. Line cooks were found to be the professional group most likely to die from Covid. In January 2021, bar and restaurant unemployment was 14.4 percent, compared to the total U.S. unemployment rate of 6.3 percent. 

With many states not allowing indoor dining for most of the pandemic or only allowing it at a reduced capacity, restaurateurs had to build often costly outdoor dining setups. 

Restaurants that had never done delivery had to start doing delivery. One report found that more than 110,000 bars and restaurants shuttered in 2020. If you made it through or closed a restaurant but are opening a new one, congratulations. Here are some lessons to take away from the pandemic.

Restaurant Disaster Preparation

It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see another world-shuttering pandemic within the next year or two. That said, the world has been seeing all kinds of disastrous climate events.  In the southern states, major hurricanes are becoming more common. Think Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Harvey, which wreaked havoc on the Houston area in 2017. 

In California, wildfires and drought are rampant. Not only is there a risk of your business facing physical damage, but your labor force and supply chain are also at risk.

Be sure to keep a contingency plan for any business-disrupting disaster. Assess the risks that your area realistically faces. If floods are possible, ensure that your goods and equipment are situated well off the floor. If your restaurant is carpeted, consider replacing the flooring with a more flood-resistant material. Are the farms you get your produce from near wildfire-prone areas? Ensure you have a backup supplier.

The kind of disasters that could affect your restaurant will be different depending on where you’re located. It’s a good idea to talk to other similar business owners in your area to discuss risks and plan to address them together. 

In times of crisis, community is extremely important. It’s also wise to plan a “disaster menu,” something pared-down, so that in situations where you can’t get some products, your staffing capability is suddenly cut in half, or something else unforeseen happens, you’ll still be able to offer some dishes to your customers.

Know Your Brand

 Restaurants that had always been delivery-first, like pizzerias or other neighborhood takeout mainstays, suffered less in the pandemic than sit-down-first restaurants. That said, some fancier restaurants with no previous delivery program in place found success pivoting to a takeout program that worked for them.

Restaurants that successfully navigated a pivot to delivery did so by understanding their audience and their brand. Customers were hungry for restaurant food and a bite to eat for a taste of the before times. Restaurants that had a strong grasp of why their customers liked them in the first place — their brand — were better able to satisfy their customers with delivery. 

For example: if you have a steakhouse, what do customers like? They like the ambiance, the steak, the sides, the rich red wine, and the tableside service. 

So, for delivery, you send your food in fancier custom packaging that represents your brand and your ambiance well, and you offer elegant wines by the bottle. 

Maybe they love your steakhouse caesar salad; send it deconstructed and separately packaged with instructions to put it together printed on nice, branded stationery. This will remind them of the joy of tableside service.

Agility is Key

For business owners, and especially bar and restaurant owners, a state of constant change defined the pandemic. Customer needs and wants could change day-to-day, local laws regarding your business could change any day, and your staffing and supply capabilities could change at any moment.

Staffing and supply change was one of the biggest constants of the pandemic. Last March, thousands of businesses shut down temporarily and had to lay off all or most of their employees. When restaurants reopened, their employees might have been unemployed, they might have been sick, or they might have moved on to a new industry entirely. To deal with a staffing shortage, restaurant owners had to offer higher wages, new perks, lessen their business hours, or step in and do the work themselves. 

 When businesses reopened in the summer, and the weather turned warm and welcoming, customers wanted to dine outdoors. Innovative restaurateurs quickly set up make-do patios, and customers came. Then the weather got cold, and smart restaurateurs set up warm, sheltered, pandemic-ready, winterized patios.

When local laws began to allow alcohol sales to go, agile restaurateurs quickly figured out how to bottle and market their cocktails, beers, and wines. This provided a sorely-needed sales boost and gave customers at home a link to before-times comforts. Businesses that survived were characterized by all of these testaments to agility. You have to be willing to change rapidly to succeed in this business, especially during the pandemic.

Advertising Your Restaurant

The last lesson to learn from the pandemic is…advertise your restaurant! With people stuck at home, foot traffic dropped massively as a source for new customers. People were instead searching Yelp, Google, and the various delivery platforms for their next meal. Smart restaurateurs made sure to advertise on all these platforms as well as physically in their local area.

People still had to shop for groceries during the pandemic. Using receipt tape advertising and Cartvertising, restaurant owners could advertise discounts and deals at their local grocery store to get people to order food. Receipt tape and Shopping cart advertising rates are relatively affordable, so you can maintain or increase profits by bringing in new customers with the right combination of advertising volume and deal level.

 People stuck at home were also glued to social media, so making sure your restaurant had a strong Instagram or other platform presence also became more important than ever. The restaurant business has always been very competitive, and now there are more factors than ever that go into long-term success.

The best restaurateurs already knew all the above lessons. The restaurant business has always been unstable and volatile. If you take all the above advice to heart, you should be much more prepared for any business-disrupting disaster that might affect your restaurant.

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