25 Things to DO Now to Prepare for the Return to Restaurants

Get ready for a comeback.

One day soon, patrons will again pour out of their homes and into restaurants in search of a great meal, and you want to be ready for them. Research is indicating a pent-up demand and consumer desire to return to normalcy and back to your restaurants.

While the current focus may be on pivoting to carry-out and delivery, or a temporary closure, there are business-building ideas you can be working on today to get your business ready for the return to the dining room.

61% of consumers believe it’ll be safe to dine inside of restaurants by the start of July or sooner.

Datassential, Coronavirus Traffic Brief, 4/1/20

Menu Planning

  • Limited-Time Offers: LTOs can help keep a menu fresh and generate incremental traffic. Use this time to explore new products and recipes to set your LTO calendar for the next 6 – 12 months. Learn from the mistakes of 2008, and don’t get caught in the cycle of discounts and deals to win back customers. Keep up the innovation and unique experiences consumers crave.
  • Traffic Driving New Flavors & Foods: During stressful times, comfort foods are king. On the other side, should come a desire to experience and experiment once again. Review industry publications for trending new items, or ask your distributor about their latest introductions. Find out what products other restaurants were having success with and work on recipes that can incorporate new items onto your LTO calendar.
  • Improved Ingredient Utilization: Do you have any ingredients that are unique to just one or even two dishes? How are those dishes performing as a percent total sales? Are they worth keeping? If the dishes perform well, can you add a new recipe to expand the ingredient usage? Maybe try an LTO with that ingredient. Use this downtime to evaluate efficiencies against the menu benefits from slower turning ingredients.
  • Beverage Stations: If you have a self-serve beverage station, you may want to consider moving to a service-only option for the short-term or increase canned and bottled offerings in your restaurant. Some consumers may have hesitations about communal drink stations, so plan to have additional options available.

Trend Integrations

  • Plant-Based: Haven’t yet incorporated plant-based options on your menu? Plant-forward food is a trend with staying power. Look for plant-based proteins that are a fit with your menu items, flavor, and prep methods. Your suppliers and distributor partners can help you with menu ideas, applications and show you the range of products available.
  • Snacking: Younger consumers prefer to build their meals from snacks, sides, and appetizers. Consider half sizes or mini versions of your top items or expanding your sides menu. Both can meet the growing snacking need and also provide an easy way for guests to sample additional menu items. 
  • Sweet Treats: Consumers still crave indulgence, even the younger generations. Increase dessert sales and check averages by offering smaller or “mindful” portions, on-trend flavors, or sweet and salty combinations to appeal to today’s consumers.
  • Beverages: Revamped classic cocktails, bubble teas, and oat milk are all predicted to heat up on menus in 2020. In addition to being a top trend for the year, kombucha is leading the pack of better-for-you beverages that consumers are craving. Reach out to manufacturers or distributors for samples and information to see what might work with your concept.
  • Keto/Paleo: Restaurants are continuing to add keto and paleo items to their menus to capitalize on consumer interest in these new diets. Review your current menu items to see if anything can be tagged as Keto or Paleo friendly, or develop recipes for potential LTOs or new additions based on the diet criteria.
  • Fusebiquity: Infuse some of your comfort food menu classics with the hot global trends to create an intriguing new item that drives buzz and trial. According to Datassential, the fusebiquity concept is a dominant trend they are observing in top-performing new menu innovation and LTOs.

Marketing

  • Engage Your Online Audience: Spruce up your social media channels and start posting. Let your guest know what’s going on with your restaurant. Are you still open for pick-up and delivery? Have a new third-party delivery option? According to Datssential, 36% of consumers are still getting food from restaurants, and an additional 25% are considering it. Keep up your brand awareness so you can pick-up more business now, or be able to alert your engaged audience once you do re-open.
  • Customer Newsletter: If you are not yet doing a customer newsletter, it’s a great time to get started. Like social media, inform your customer base on what’s going on in your restaurant. Communicate deals, new specials, or even ask them to vote on new menu items. If you don’t have a customer email list, post a newsletter sign-up sheet on your website and pin to the top of your social media feeds so you can start building one. Emails are a top marketing tool, and they are free!
  • Updated Menus: How about an updated look for your menu? If you are changing menu and beverage options, consider a refresh on your menu design and images. Concerned about the cost? Ask your supplier partners or distributors for options. Many offer menu mention programs to help reimburse you for the cost of printing new menus when you include their brand names or logos.
  • New Wall and Window Posters: Several manufacturers offer complimentary dining room posters, window posters, table tents, menu inserts, and more. Have new menu additions – make sure you have them promoted. Now offering delivery – let customers know. Drive attention and trial with refreshed signage solutions.  

Packaging

  • Sustainable Options: Millennial consumers have high expectations for sustainable packaging solutions for their take-out and delivery meals. From compostable containers to butterfly cups or bamboo straws, innovative new sustainable packaging was all over the 2019 National Restaurant Show. Request samples and see what options work best for your menu.
  • Straw Alternatives: Gen Z consumers are very opposed to plastic straws. If you haven’t already made the switch to sustainable options or strawless lid solutions, start evaluating options to see what works the best with your beverage options.
  • Individually Wrapped: While bulk versions are undoubtedly the most cost-efficient solution for disposable servingware, straws, and condiments, like beverage stations, consumers may have some hesitations for a little while. Investigate individually wrapped and portion control alternatives to help increase consumer confidence and alleviate concerns.

Sanitation Practices

  • Communicate Cleanliness: 43% of consumers name clean & sanitary conditions as the top concern when choosing a restaurant. Communicate with signs, websites, social, and newsletters what new procedures you are implementing as part of your commitment to sanitation.
  • Training and Continuity: Develop new training materials for employees on cleaning, personal hygiene, and general sanitation practices. Train team members on these enhanced practices and review frequently, especially as additional employees return to work.
  • Visual Demonstration: 71% of consumers state that visibly seeing workers wiping down surfaces will be an absolute requirement to make them more comfortable dining out. Show consumers over and over again that you are cleaning all surfaces regularly.
  • Touchless Payment: This was a trend before the pandemic and has only grown in importance. If you are still a cash-only business or haven’t moved to touchless payments, do it now. Consumers had already embraced the convenience of touchless payments, and now it has transformed into a sanitation benefit.

Carry-Out and Delivery

  • Partner or Self-Delivery: Many third-party delivery services are currently waiving or changing their fee structures to restaurants. Use this opportunity to test out these partners or a self-delivery option to see what works best for your restaurant and customer base.
  • Menu Planning: Adapt menus to fit the realities of transportation. Delivery and carry-out have been on the rise due to younger consumer behavior preferences. But not all menu items travel well. Consider limiting your offering for delivery or carry-out if you know select dishes do not perform to your quality standards. Evaluate how to get the best at-home experience out of those must-offer menu items. For example, experiment with different packaging solutions, reheating instructions, or how best to assemble each dish in the container.

Resources

  • Follow Industry Associations and Research Organizations: The National Restaurant Association, Datassential, and Technomic are a few of the organizations providing information regarding the effects of the pandemic on the restaurant industry. They are making complimentary research and guidance available that can help you stay informed on new developments and give you valuable insights into consumer needs and expectations. Follow these organizations on social media or subscribe to their updates via email.
  • Apply for Assistance: Get your paperwork in order and start applying for available federal assistance, including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and the SBA Economic Disaster Injury Loan (EIDL). Apply for industry-related support like the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund and others to help you weather the storm and come out stronger on the other side.

The restaurant industry is resilient, and we have survived tough times before. Reach out to your colleagues, suppliers, distributors, and industry partners for additional ideas and support through this challenging time.

Catherine Porter is a marketing consultant specializing in the food industry. Known for her comprehensive understanding of foodservice trends, consumer insights, and industry dynamics with the ability and vision to synthesize the information into new products, strategies, and solutions for operators and manufacturers. You can find Catherine on Twitter at @cpmktservices or on LinkedIn.

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