Four Steps to Sustain Your Restaurant During COVID-19

April 8, 2020 - 8 minutes read
John Schmitt

John Schmitt, Senior Business Consultant

by John Schmitt, Michigan SBDC Senior Business Consultant

The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and is home to more than 15 million skilled workers across the country. 

Right now, there are relief programs being launched daily to help small businesses like yours recover from the pandemic disaster. Explore the options, but do not make any reactive decisions. Take some time to assess your situation and try to find the best course of action. 

Those in the restaurant industry have always had to work hard – now is the time to flex your Creative Muscle Power! In the meantime,

Here are FOUR THINGS you can do to stay open during the recovery period.

#1 – SWITCH TO TAKE-OUT AND DELIVERIES – INCLUDING ALCOHOL!

Never done take-out? That’s OK. Even if your restaurant has never had a booming take-out and/or delivery business, new regulations including social distancing have changed that. You do not need a special license; your current license is still in effect.

How to get take-out food to your customer:

  • You can have up to 5 people in your restaurant at a time to pick up orders. Use disposable gloves to hand the food over; sanitize or change gloves between every order.
  • Set up curbside pickup. Either bring the food directly to the customer’s car or put a table outside (weather permitting) from which they can pick up their food. Add a bottle of hand sanitizer and paper towels with a sign encouraging your customers to use it!
  • Some downtown areas are creating centralized pick up zones for take-out food.

Right now, your customers are getting really comfortable with having everything delivered, including food. While continuing to take orders through GrubHub, UberEats and DinnerDash, consider offering free delivery through your restaurant. This would allow you to utilize staff that would otherwise be laid off. Additionally, some customers don’t trust that strange GrubHub delivery guy. (Does he have safe handling processes?) Some suggestions for deliveries:

  • Talk to your insurance company to make sure your employees and vehicles are covered.
  • Use hot boxes to ensure the food is delivered at the right temperature.
  • Limit the distance in which you can deliver.

Did you know if you already have a Special Designated Merchant (SDM) addition to your liquor license, you can sell beer and wine to go, and even deliver it? It must be sold or delivered by a properly trained employee of the restaurant, and the customer’s ID must be checked. Breweries can sell both packed beer and draft beer in growlers. Check the MLCC FAQ sheet for further questions regarding alcohol sales.

#2 CHANGE UP YOUR MENU

Your restaurant may be known for its gourmet food and fine-dining experience, but if you want to stay open during this COVID-19 pandemic, you may need to change things up a little. Here are some tips:

  • Streamline your offerings – this is not the time for a 10-page menu. You will likely have limited kitchen staff, so pick a few things you do well, are profitable, and your customers love.
  • Use up inventory. Create dishes that use what you already have on hand. While we have not seen any issues currently in the supply chain, it might be a good time to switch to canned and other shelf-stable ingredients. You can always switch back when things are back to normal.
  • Create or modify products that stand up to travel. Think of food items that are easy to pack up and transport. This has traditionally included pizza and sandwiches, but salads also do well. With people grocery shopping less, they might appreciate some fresh salads and veggies on the menu. 
  • Design family-style meals. Make it more economical and convenient to place a large order!
  • Put your menu online and promote it on social media.

#3 TAKE THAT ORDER!

Make it ridiculously easy to place and pay for an order with your restaurant. This means in person, on the phone and online. If you do not have your POS system set up to take online orders, now is the time. Older generations are discovering what millennials have known for years – it is very easy and convenient to order your dinner online, pick it up and consume from the comfort of your own home. This is going to be your new normal. Even after the crisis is over, your clients are going to want the convenience of take-out and delivery. Making the change now will not only help you survive in the short-term, it will help you thrive in the long-term.

#4 COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, your customers are going to be even more scared, stressed and isolated. 

Don’t just rely on social media to communicate with your best customers. Reach out to them with personal letters, emails, calls, and texts. Let them know you’re open, that you have safe practices, and that their business means more to you now than ever. Be positive, helpful and informative. Here are some suggestions:

  • Record a short video outlining the safety practices in your restaurant and put on social media. Assure your customers that the food they get from you is safe as well as delicious.
  • Don’t assume everyone knows you are open! Post daily updates with hours and specials.
  • Send email blasts to your customers – everyone is stuck inside right now so your emails are more likely to be read. Make them as welcoming, reassuring and appetizing as possible.
  • Be positive in your messaging – we are all in this together!

This is a difficult time for you, your business and your customers. However, as a restaurant owner you know that your restaurant can be a source of positive influence in your community. You do more than serve food; you support employees, you provide comfort and friendly smiles and, of course, you feed your patrons. Use this slowdown as a time to sharpen your skills, refine your processes and put out the very best product you can. Your customers want you to succeed, and so do we.

You can access more COVID-19 resources for small businesses at SBDCMichigan.org/small-business-covid19. If you’d like to talk to a Michigan SBDC business consultant, you can request no-cost business consulting here.