reopening restaurant after coronavirus

As mandatory shutdowns and restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic continue, many restaurants are pivoting to online ordering, gift card sales, and other means of generating revenue. While it may feel like you’re scrambling now, it’s also important to start making a plan for when this is all over and you are able to reopen as normal. When will restaurants reopen to the public? Several states like Georgia, Tennesee, and South Carolina are letting restaurants serve customers dining-in by the end of April. Other states, like New York, have planned to continue the stay-at-home mandates until as long as June (and beyond). As the curve begins to flatten, each state will get new plans to phase-out of quarantine and allow customers to visit their beloved small businesses again.

We spoke to Donald Burns, The Restaurant Coach, to find out his top six tips on how to stay in business now and prepare for a full reopening once the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end. So if you’re asking yourself, “How will restaurants reopen after the pandemic?”, you’ll want to check out these tips.

1. Make the Most Out of Takeout and Delivery

No-contact takeout and delivery have become the new norm. One trend Burns noted is a pivot to family meals, which provide benefits to both the restaurant and their guests. By providing a meal with multiple portions in lieu of individual entrees – a whole pan of lasagna with a large salad, for example – you save on packaging, avoid delivery and/or third-party fees, and generate revenue for multiple meals rather than one or two. Meanwhile, a family or couple gets a few days’ worth of meals with limited outside contact.

Family meals from Graffiti’s Italian Restaurant in Little Rock.

Additionally, guests are going to start adapting to this new lifestyle, and after this is all over some habits will still remain. Don’t ditch the new takeout and/or delivery system you’ve put in place the second you’re allowed to fully reopen – people may still be looking for it. “The pandemic is going to shift the whole dynamics of the restaurant industry, and that won’t go away,” Burns says. “It takes 30 days to create a habit. In the post-Coronavirus economy,
takeout could be a lot bigger than it was.”

2. Reach Out to Vendors

Many restaurants are doing fire sales on wine, liquor, and beer, but Burns says it’s worth reaching out to your vendors to ask if they’ll take back any non-perishable products. Chances are they will be able to resell it to another merchant and you’ll get an extra bit of cash to work with. “I had a client today whose beer purveyor actually came to their restaurant and said, ‘Hey, do you have any untapped kegs or any unopened cases of beer? We’d be more than happy to take them back for you.’” 

3. Keep Promoting Gift Cards

The revenue from gift cards is going to help keep you afloat with cash now without having to provide something in return until things start to get better. To sell more gift cards, look to a past promotion you’ve run (maybe Black Friday?) and offer the same or a similar deal via email or social. As Burns points out, gift card redemption is about 80% on average anyway, so the rest of those sales are pure profit. 

For more financial resources, news, and updates on how the coronavirus is affecting restaurants, visit our COVID-19 resources page.

4. Maintain Communication With Your Guests

Even if your restaurant is currently in the worst-case scenario and is shut down due to the coronavirus, keeping your restaurant top-of-mind for guests is crucial to winning back their business when it’s time to reopen. “If you’re not communicating with me and telling me what’s going on, I think you shut down for good,” Burns says. He recommends keeping content light and entertaining to get guests excited about coming back. Share videos on your social media teaching knife skills, basic recipes, or showing a new recipe you are developing. Promote this content to your email subscribers as well to get more eyes on your message.

Social media is also a great communication tool for restaurants who have pivoted to takeout and/or delivery only models. Things are changing fast, so remind and update your customers daily on your menu, ordering options, social distancing procedures, and more.

5. Take Baby Steps When it’s Time to Reopen

After this is over, things won’t immediately go back to the way they were. Guests will still be wary of getting too close to strangers and as a business owner, it’s important to make sure everyone feels comfortable coming into your restaurant. This includes maintaining a strict cleaning regime, but also keeping some social distancing protocol in place. 

“If you’ve taken tables out for social distancing, maintain that for a little while. Be conscientious that people are going to be hesitant and a little afraid, so roll things back out into the world a little slowly,” Burns says. If your restaurant also runs events, like live music, trivia, or other features that bring in crowds, keep those small for a while and limit the number of people, giving everyone a comfortable amount of space.

For fast casual and quick service restaurants especially, Burns also recommends investing in mobile or order-ahead options with limited or no-contact pick up for guests who will still be wary of close contact. 

reopening restaurant after coronavirus

6. Look for Opportunities

“If you look at the word crisis in Chinese, it’s actually made of two characters, danger and opportunity,” Burns says. “Yes, there is a danger out there. The opportunity is what can we do that we should’ve done before? One of the biggest things is controlling costs.

Update your menu and evaluate your P&L statement

Burns recommends taking the opportunity now, while business is slow and you have less inventory coming in, to learn how to better manage food costs, revamp your menu, and widen your margins. You can use your own POS data to research your historic menu trends, best selling items, and dishes that are more cost and effort than they’re worth. “Trim your menu down and take off those things that aren’t selling. I know for a lot of chefs, menu items are like children. We don’t want to get rid of one, but if the kid’s not contributing, they have to get out of the house.” 

He also wants restaurant owners to start looking deeper into their P&L statements to better understand where their money is going to make better decisions now and in the future. “The good thing about a crisis, we get rid of those things that are the fluff and we strip down to the basics, so we’re running a little leaner and meaner. This crisis is going to change the way we operate, and smart businesses are going to operate smarter. They’re going to look at their key performance indicators on a daily basis, and they’re going to look at their P&Ls a little more often,” he says.

Ramp up your digital marketing game

Burns recommends taking photos and writing posts to stay in communication with guests now, but also to have some content banked for the future when you are ready to reopen. Start playing with free design programs like Canva, Adobe Spark, or Vimeo Create to create event announcements or videos, update or redesign your website with a user-friendly tool like Squarespace, or take some online classes or workshops on the basics of digital marketing.

Also, now is a great time to test paid advertising on digital platforms like Google, Yelp, and Facebook. Now is a great time to practice making ads, or, have someone promote your online ordering for free.

Update your hiring and training methods

A lot of people are unemployed right now, and when restaurants are able to reopen there are going to be a lot of people looking for work. “Before, we had a market where everyone complained it’s hard to find people, couldn’t find talent. Nobody wanted to work. That’s going to shift very quickly,” Burns says. Hire the right people now and set them up for success, and you’ll lower your turnover rates, saving you money in the long run.

Now is also the time to update your onboarding process and training procedures so you are prepared to hire the strongest and most qualified staff when the time comes. Burns recommends updating your training manuals and current materials but also suggests getting creative with video content. “Now’s the time to grab your iPhone and do some training videos,” he says. Make a video with step-by-step instructions on certain tasks – how to make a caesar salad or how to fold the napkins, for example. “You start making a little library of training videos for your team that you could upload to a private YouTube channel and then, when you start up again and you’re rehiring and retraining, now you’ve got a library that you can send them. People love that kind of stuff.”

Not sure where to start? Read more about Danny Meyer’s formula for creating a company culture that makes staff want to stay

Finally, Burns wants restaurateurs to understand that while this will pass and business will pick up, things will not necessarily “go back to normal.” 

“Like a lot of things, this crisis hit hard and heavy, but it also will end pretty fast and there is something at the end of this. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. So have faith,” he says. But also have a solid plan. “I’ve heard people say this to me, ‘I just can’t wait for things to get back to normal.’ Well, it’s not going to be normal. Everything changed, so we have to be willing to change our mindset and accept that there’s going to be a new normal. And whatever that normal is, if you have a plan and you’re flexible and adaptable, you’ll survive and you’ll also thrive.”

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Stephanie is a Providence, RI native and eight-year food industry veteran. As Upserve's Content Marketing Coordinator she creates materials that help restaurateurs, managers, and service professionals succeed. When she's not writing, Stephanie is most likely traveling, cooking, or trying new restaurants.