2 ways restaurants should prepare for the ‘next reopen’

Data suggests Omicron may be starting to subside, which should encourage more customers to come back to restaurants. Below are two ways restaurants should prepare.

To start the year, restaurants are again managing various operational issues, including if and how they should stay open. All of a sudden, after 2021, during which many consumers started eating indoors again, employee and customer safety is back in the headlines.

The good news is that even if it all feels a little like March 2020, it is not. This industry has been resilient in the face of challenges brought on by the pandemic, adopting new technologies and ways of doing business. For many brands, Omicron may mean doubling down on the marketing practice of nudging customers to use delivery and takeout orders while limiting tables available in the dining room. It may also mean adapting to drastic shifts in the labor market and navigating shortages to continue serving both employees and customers.

Yet, things may be looking up. Data suggests Omicron may be starting to subside, which should encourage more customers to come back to restaurants, especially as we look forward to spring. As restaurants gear up for what’s on the horizon, here are two ways they can get ready.

1. Lead with emotional intelligence
A labor shortage made staff relationships more valuable than ever. Fast casual executives and managers should be emotionally intelligent and have their loyal colleagues’ back from the front of the house to the kitchen, checking in on them regularly to ensure they feel safe around patrons and coworkers.

I recently spoke with Kevin Healy, owner of The Boathouse Restaurant Group in Virginia, about how his teams use a blend of emotional intelligence and common sense. As one example, when guests refuse to wear a mask or follow procedures, they have to be helped, and Kevin’s policy is to lift the pressure off the servers and hosts and instead have the managers take care of the issue.

“Our staff knows that they can get a manager and the manager will take care of it. I mean, we don’t expect our host to be the one telling an irate customer that they have to sit down,” he said.

The way Healy’s team clearly assigns swim lanes to manage potentially difficult situations is huge for staffers’ happiness. Consider that 72% of restaurant employees ranked team communication as important to their satisfaction at work, and front-of-the-house performance has been an important factor for how happy customers have been during the pandemic.

2. Innovate in digital experience and grow digital revenue
To enable servers to handle more tables and in turn create happy customers, restaurants have added new technology in the restaurant as well as to create off-premise channels like takeout and delivery.

For example, introducing contactless dining solutions helped Roc ‘N’ Ramen — a Japanese-style full-service restaurant in New Rochelle, New York — enhance its unique style of hospitality, increase average check size by 15%, and open a second location. Another digital-first restaurant is Philadelphia’s Unity Taqueria. It only takes orders through onsite kiosks, online ordering and delivery channels — a business model that has it avoid labor shortages and pay staff a living wage, all while fulfilling its mission of helping people recover from incarceration.

Indeed, such cases underscore that constant evolution is key to meeting and exceeding customer experience expectations in today’s restaurant business. Executives and managers should not only wow customers with a great experience but also understand that they need to be emotionally intelligent for their staffers. Strike that balance, and you may have a winning formula for 2022 and beyond.

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