Last weekend, I went to brunch with my daughters. Yes, we actually went into a restaurant, sat down, and were served a meal by a masked server. The restaurant was following its county’s guidelines – seating at 30% capacity, all employees wearing face coverings and gloves. As for the kitchen, “Because of social distancing rules, only two people are allowed in the kitchen,” the server told us, attributing to the very long ticket times. (We waited about 50 minutes for our food.) “Hey, no worries!” I replied. We were just happy to be out for a meal together and feeling safe.
As stay at home orders are slowly lifting across the country, what does that mean for tea and coffee houses? How can you re-open, follow all the guidelines, and instill confidence in your staff and customers? If your restaurant is small, does it even make sense to re-open with constrained occupancy? These questions and more are definitely on the minds of restaurateurs of all shapes and sizes. Carole Bright-Alvarez, owner of iN-TEA, a teahouse and retail operation in Littleton, CO. iN-TEA has been able to remain open for limited service. “We are open 11-4 daily for to-go food and drinks and loose-leaf takeaway,” says Bright-Alvarez, “We have closed our seating and retail areas to the public; however, customers can still purchase retail items with the help of staff. Bright-Alvarez is also thankful for her online sales, which are up 150%. “The increase [in online sales] does quite make up for our 75% loss in foot traffic, but it is what’s saving us right now,” says Bright-Alvarez. While many teahouses have transitioned to takeout and online sales only, a good number of them have closed altogether. What does re-opening look like, and how do you re-open with confidence? I chatted recently with Bob Duprey, founder of the hospitality training platform, Restaurant Playbooks, for his ideas on a successful re-opening.
“There are three phases to a successful re-opening plan,” says Duprey. “The first phase is keeping employees, food, and customers safe. “The restaurants that are open now have been working through this,” Duprey adds, “It a very dynamic situation right now, and we are being asked to do things right now that just aren’t in our hospitable nature, like keeping our distance. This is serious behavior change, and it requires constant reinforcement,” explains Duprey. “Customers now have a heightened sense of awareness and are looking for clues to let them know the restaurants’ management is doing everything to keep customers and employees safe. If they feel that is not the case, it is game over. The customer will not be back, and they are likely to share their negative experience on social media too. This new layer of safety is now a differentiator.” From how the customers’ transactions are handled to employees always wearing facemasks and washing hands, restaurants must execute safety protocols 100% of the time. To help restaurant owners and managers reinforce phase one protocols, Duprey has developed a free covid-19 training resource offered through Restaurant Playbooks.
Phase two looks at how to survive in the new model. With past forecasting out the window and changing supply chains, menus need re-engineering. Discovering menu items that travel well, pair well, and sell well are essential. Successful operations must reduce waste, strive for order accuracy, and manage the possible points of failure proactively. “Rethinking everything about how you do what you do is phase two,” Duprey tells us. “Getting feedback from the customer is an important part of phase two. Seek that feedback out. Thoughtfully reimaging the experience from start to finish, and having someone responsible for seeing the experience through is paramount.”
Phase three focuses on the dining room. “In-house service adds a new layer to phases one and two,” explains Duprey. Restaurant layout and flow for social distancing requirements, how to handle condiments, and staff interactions from the moment the customer walks in the door to the final transaction are some of the things to think through in phase three. In the kitchen and behind the counter are critical areas as the operation gets busier, but still must maintain distancing protocols. Addressing how to make back-of-house operations efficient, fast, and safe is equally vital. (The above-mentioned 50-minute ticket times are not sustainable for long in any restaurant.) Bob likens the situation restaurants are in today to a seasoned pilot going through a checklist before every flight. “You have to do it right every day. Survival in this environment requires a daily commitment to a heightened level of attention to detail, or your chances of surviving are slim. Those who do get it right will be the winners as we slowly begin to re-open,” Bob comments. “Things are changing every day, and restaurateurs must continually adapt, train, and reinforce.”
Tea and coffeehouses are not exempt from any of these restaurant re-opening requirements or the continually changing circumstances. In addition to following guidelines set forth by local authorities, being able to rethink every aspect of your operation and implementing these changes keep your employees and customers confident and safe. Rona Tison, VP of Corporate Relations at ITO EN North America Inc., reminded me of a quote by Winston Churchill, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” That is the opportunity restaurateurs of all kinds have now. With ingenuity, attention to detail, and follow-through, the industry can write a new playbook that allows us to re-open with confidence and success.