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Getting Restaurants Ready for Post COVID Dining

Published April 20, 2021

How does the restaurant industry move forward post-COVID? For the first time most restaurant companies are on the same playing field regardless of their size. More than ever restaurants are competing for the same dining dollars. While more and more people are getting vaccinated, there are still some big QSR restaurant chains that do not have open dining rooms open so guests are going wherever they feel like they can best get their desired normal dining experience, and while drive-thru and digital business will continue to be a huge revenue driver for restaurants, QSR guests are longing for a ‘normal dining room experience’.

Restaurants who have yet to open are busy figuring out how to reload and get staffed with quality employees who are trained to deliver a great guest experience and that is no easy task. Many of these restaurants like McDonalds and Chick-Fil-A have been closed for over a year to inside dining business. This is a huge challenge for restaurant companies and as they strive to ramp up staffing and training a huge pent up demand for the inside dining experience is getting closer every day.

Many restaurants over the last year have converted dining rooms to dry storage areas and are not guest ready on top of not having the staff needed to operate effectively as dining rooms reopen.

On top of all of that there is a huge war on talent for restaurants to attract the best people and then be able to hang onto them. Restaurants need aggressive recruiting campaigns but must also invest in the training systems to make sure they can retain the folks they hire. Paying well is not enough. There has to be a reason to stay with them. There has to be a feeling that they are contributing and can also achieve a quality of life that is no longer for optional for employers to provide.

Some companies like Chipotle are offering huge benefits to help retain employees. Chipotle is offering 100% paid tuition through their Cultivate Education program for 75 different business and technology degrees to employees who have worked more than 4 months. While not all companies can offer such a benefit, every company has to figure out a way to connect with potential employees reentering the workforce in order to retain them. Offering compelling benefits and reasons to stay are no longer nice to have offerings, they are essential for every restaurant company.

As restaurants begin to reopen dining rooms, there are 3 challenges facing most restaurant companies:

  1. Hiring new employees to operate their restaurants
  2. Training those new employees to not only serve the guest but to ensure that all COVID protocols are executed to give the guest a safe dining experience
  3. Retaining all of the employees they hire to avoid excessive turnover

There needs to be a clearly outlined staffing plan for each restaurant because it will look different store by store. Along with the staffing plan is the financial commitment to not only hiring these new people when there has been significantly less dollars spent on labor over the last year. Operators will need to resist the temptation to run lean and mean and try to reopen effectively on a shoestring budget. Then, everyone has to be trained, not only on how to execute the operating system, but also how to engage the guest and remain COVID safe in what is sure to be a highly sensitive environment upon reopening.

Timing is going to be the key in being able to accomplish these three things effectively. Restaurant companies should be 6-8 weeks ahead of the anticipated dining rooms reopening, which some chains are looking at doing in the next couple of months. That means beginning to hire slowly NOW, layering the staff in, and training them to allow them to be as productive as possible upon reopening so that every single restaurant doesn’t feel like a new store opening. This is key to providing a guest experience that is as seamless as possible and will bring them back in again quicker. How restaurants handle the reopening of their dining rooms is going to have a huge impact on their ability to drive sales and profits.

COVID has been an unprecedented challenge in the restaurant and hospitality industries, but it has also provided a huge opportunity for every restaurant to capture pent up dining dollars that have not been spent for over a year. If we execute well the industry will build guest loyalty and goodwill that will pay off for years to come.