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Nearly every aspect of our daily lives has been touched by the measures implemented to slow the spread of Covid-19. Slowly, cities are reopening, and life is returning to restaurants around the country. At the peak, according to Datassential, 11.5% of restaurants across the United States have been confirmed closed and 35% of restaurant businesses are in enrolled in the SBA payroll protection program. Alas, there are signs people are ready to get back out and visit with friends and dine in their favorite restaurants. We spoke with a few operators to discuss their approaches to these unprecedented times of change and disruption.

The farmer's market at the Texas Roadhouse Danbury Farmer's Market at Texas Roadhouse Danbury, CT

Guests are hungry to return

While 84% of people surveyed by Datassential report missing the experience of dining in a sit-down restaurant, many restaurants are not able to open in that capacity due to current regulations or their own concerns. However, they are taking steps to stay engaged with their customers. A twenty-five-year restaurant veteran Matthew Rusinko, Managing Partner/Owner Texas Roadhouse Danbury, CT shared,

Right now we are continuing to adapt the business to meet the guidelines in each phase until we can open our doors to diners. We did a farmers market last week and we will be doing it again on June 4th, we are beginning to create outside dining space later this week, we are continuing with daily family meal packs/specials and holiday meals (Mother’s Day, Memorial Day), and hand cut steaks are available for purchase so customers can grill them at home.

Will we ever be “back-to-normal”?

While the vast majority of restaurants plan to reopen in the next few months regaining business lost during the closing could be a way off. Maintaining business continuity looked very different from restaurant to restaurant but upgrades to takeout and delivery infrastructure are here to stay. For instance, according to Datassential, 58% of operators are leveraging 3rd party delivery firms versus only 44% before the crisis while curbside to-go has seen a staggering increase of 54%! And many operators will keep some of the adaptations they implemented moving forward. Joe Adney, Chief Marketing Officer of Black Bear Diner, has been very happy with the restaurant’s partnership with 3rd party delivery firm Doordash. According to Joe, the restaurant has been able to reach guests through delivery they otherwise would not have engaged with. He advises to pay attention to the details to maintain the restaurant experience. Black Bear has developed items specific for off-premise dining and the results speak for themselves.

Meeting Guests Where They Are

Mitigating the stress and worry of customers has influenced operator’s strategies since the social distancing measures have been in place. The successful ones will remain, but for how long? Datassential reports that 49% of consumers are still reluctant to dine out. Forecasting the bounce back will be difficult. Richard Taitt, Chef and Owner of Bistro Nolah in Montreal has adapted his business but is very mindful that much depends on his guests.

Beautifully set tables in the conservatory of restaurant Nolah in Montreal. Tables at Bistro Nolah
Richard Taitt, Chef and Owner of Bistro Nolah in Montreal Richard Taitt, Chef and Owner of Bistro Nolah in Montreal
We have transitioned to take-out what will be the short term change? Who knows, it depends on what the government is going to expect us to do. Furthermore, not knowing how people will return. It could be a rush, or what I think, people being afraid to sit in a dining room again at least in the beginning or until they find a treatment. It will be a slow road to recovery restaurants will have to find a new way. Moving forward this situation has to become part of your business plan, because it could be a different virus with the same or worse consequences.

The restaurant industry is strong and resilient

The current situation has forced everyone to take a hard look at their businesses. The staying power of the many new offerings will be determined on their business results. However, hopefully the sense of obligation and renewed purpose among the restaurant community will remain permanent. Guests will return to their favorite restaurants to celebrate and socialize again, and operators will be ready to continue to entertain and delight them. Even if it looks a little different than before.