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Restaurants will need to think differently post Covid-19

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Sony V Mathew, chief brand consultant, ESAF Small Finance Bank, Kerala writes on what the restaurant brands will be required to do on re-opening after the lockdown 

The hopeful end of Covid-19 is likely to influence the habits of people when it comes to leisure travel and eating out. From the perspective of the restaurant owners, this is a warning call to shake up and organise with new vigour. Small restaurant owners who rely on borrowed funds and day to day income, without sufficient working capital, will be the biggest losers. For those restaurateurs with enough capital to survive, this is the time to think in retrospect and bring in appropriate changes.

Already big QSR players like Dominos and McDonald’s have introduced contactless delivery systems. Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Popeyes, Burger King and Tim Hortons will offer bonuses to employees who work in April, despite the outbreak. These restaurant chains are planning to use thermometers to take employee temperatures on a daily basis to make sure they are healthy.

The game of renewal starts even before the restaurant re-opens. Through PR and Social Media, the promoters can explain the initiatives they have taken to ensure that the premises are free of the virus. It is also important to mention about the stringent medical check-ups the employees should undergo on a daily basis. The same information can be displayed inside the restaurant premises on a standee, leaflet, table top or through a recorded video to be played in the TV. Anti-bacterial gloves should be a must for all the staff including the cashier. In short, the premises itself should clearly convey to the consumer that some serious efforts have been undertaken to make it free of virus. In metros and other densely populated places, or places where more cases have been recorded, restaurateurs can consider enhancing the interiors to bring in a fresh lease of life. A glass-walled kitchen that is easily transparent from outside is recommended. Also, cameras inside the kitchen should be made visible to the customers in big screens. This would ensure professional dressing / mannerisms of the kitchen staff and add up the responsibility of the owners to maintain it clean and perfect. Remember, taking more responsibility is one way to ensure success. Also, make sure that the interior doesn’t look cramped and there is sufficient space between tables.

Cleanliness will be the new differentiator

Renewed emphasis should be given to cleaning of premises, when the restaurant is up and running. Whenever the tables are up for cleaning, make sure that it is cleaned frequently with sanitisers or other germ killers to convey that the restaurant promoters are very serious about delivering a healthy experience. Also pay attention to all surfaces customers are likely to come in contact with including doors/switches and ACs. For that, the promoters may need to appoint more cleaning staff not only to clean the eating area but also the entrance, kitchen, washrooms, toilets and staff quarters.  Even frequent cleaning of furniture at the waiting area can be considered, based on the gravity of the situation. Most service industries rely on training of frontline staff to build their brand. In restaurants, this is not something we see very often. This points to the need for quality recruitment of suppliers and cleaners in restaurants. It would be good if the restaurant owners resort to a strict process to ensure quality in recruitment. Professional recruitment agencies would help them in on-boarding the right people. It’s time to think different and make a difference.

Recruiting people who come for the lowest wage should not be the criteria, instead the owners should pay more and win the best talents who can do quality service. If the restaurant can tie up with a reputed finishing school, then it could bring some real tangible difference to the function of service. Also the promoters should make sure that staff who are popular among a particular category of customers should be adequately incentivised to retain talent in the industry.  Many habitual restaurant goers opt for a particular restaurant based on their equation with the guys doing the service. Enough free time should be given to the staff to make sure that they are active and always ensure quality in service. More number of staff may be needed to work on shifts.

Also, the promoters can think of displaying through videos, the source of the food that is being prepared and the time of sourcing. Enough mechanisms should be in place to underscore its authenticity. The staff in the kitchen also should be introduced to the customer through videos. It is better to have a reservation policy to discourage unnecessary queues at the waiting area. If you could inform the customers about the estimated time of arrival, it would be a welcome idea. You can also consider thinking about ‘sit-in’ luxury only to reserved customers, if the situation warrants. These kind of detailed transparency can bring in the desired long-term results and will help in overcoming the fear of the people. The business should also devise a strategy on how to deal with sick customers.

The common mistake that most café owners do is to make hay when the sun shines. Rather, they should learn to remain sustainable and should not look for immediate profits. Instead of feeding more number of customers in a single day, the focus should be on feeding with quality for more number of days.

For the government, this is a huge opportunity to frame rules related to the hygiene process inside a restaurant. Human memory is short so once the dust gets settled, people may come back to their favourite eatery. But if one restaurant can set the ball rolling by thinking differently, then gradually others would be forced to follow suit. In the end the customers and the public will be the winners. When you let the public win then your business will simply thrive.

Build on customer relationship

Even before the lockdown, reports revealed that there was a dip in habitual restaurant-goers by about 25 -30 per cent. In some cities in South India, the impact was quite more than 30 per cent. The lockdown added more fuel to their woes, resulted in layoffs and closures. Also data shows that demand for Chinese food has come down drastically. Global players in QSR may come back to normalcy sooner than later, due to their deep pockets and fast actions. Among the other categories of restaurants, casual dining, premium casual dining and fine dining, may find it difficult to survive, if they don’t quickly adopt the safety standard practices. We can expect the dark times to last around 6 months, after things get back to normalcy. By that time, owners should equip themselves with contactless delivery mechanisms through Uber and Zomato or rely on indigenously developed home delivery systems. This is the time to reap good benefits through digital marketing, social media, SMSs and emailers. But make sure that your communication is hyper-personalised.

Take this as an opportunity to deepen your relationship with the customer. Branding in its true sense is an unexplored area in the restaurant industry. For those who dream big, this is the right opportunity to build one as it will last forever. Even before the Covid-19 scare, we have seen a significant number of restaurants shutting down each passing month. The post Covid-19 era will only add insult to injury. It’s time for restaurant owners to focus on value than profit. When you deliver value profit will automatically follow in the long run. Customers won’t mind paying a bit more for the value they receive.

The recent developments show that elimination of human race is not that tough, a simple virus can do the trick. Every businessmen should ensure that lapses from them should not trigger another episode of epidemic. Restaurants could be the most vulnerable spot to revive the virus.

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