Many restaurateurs are thinking creatively to calm nervous patrons."

As restaurants reopen and work through the challenges brought on by the pandemic, operators are finding new ways to ensure customers feel safe, improve the eating-out experience and bolster sales.

For some, the focus is creating an environment that is welcoming while promoting physical distancing. For others it means reworking a business model that once relied on eat-in dining. For many, technology is driving contactless sales and overcoming pain points.

Here are four ways operators are encouraging more visits and better margins:

1. Adaptive Thinking

Many restaurateurs are thinking creatively to calm nervous patrons. Brooklyn-based Olmsted is attracting customers with a fun, physically distanced outdoor experience. The owners have turned their back patio into a summer camp experience, serving up inspired drinks (a watermelon filled with punch) and entertainment such as movie night, trivia night and music night. Raised garden beds keep tables — and diners — safely apart from each other.

In Ocean City, Maryland, Fish Tales Bar & Grill offers an original solution to social distancing. Elaborating on their seafood-and-water theme, the owners have placed giant rubber tubes atop round mobile tables, which individual customers stand in as they enjoy food and drinks outside.

2. Restaurant to Resale

Other operators are driving sales by offering a range of meal ingredients and grocery items. A group of 20 food providers in Washington, D.C., have joined forces to create Neighborhood Provisions, an online marketplace for chef-prepared foods, fresh meats and pantry items. Participating restaurants include Iron Gate and Red Apron Butchery, plus wineries, bakeries and breweries. Neighborhood Provisions provides same-day and next-day deliveries in the greater D.C. area, with offerings based on location.

FutureBars, which operates Bourbon & Branch, Rickhouse and other specialty bars in the San Francisco area, is converting many of its storefronts into retail liquor stores. The operator is leveraging its experience operating upscale liquor store Casks, a spirits destination for at-home mixologists.

3. Starting as Takeout Only

Businesses designed to thrive as takeout and delivery services have had a leg up during the pandemic. One success story: Farm Direct, founded by two freelance chefs as a takeout and delivery service for five-course meals. The owners use Instagram as their advertising medium and orders are taken via Instagram’s direct messaging tool.

4. Chains Making Changes

Large quick-serve operators are building on their strengths to respond to new customer behavior and improve service. Taking cues from Chick-fil-A, Starbucks is focusing on the customer experience at the drive-thru. Associates are being equipped with handheld devices to take orders from customers waiting in line, increasing speed of service to customers who feel safest in their cars. Starbucks also is deploying a new curbside pickup option at up to 1,000 locations by the end of the third quarter. In urban markets where drive-thrus and curbside aren’t possible, the chain will create smaller-footprint “Starbucks Pickup” stores that will offer a walk-through experience. More than 50 of these units are planned over the next year to 18 months; several hundred are expected to be in place in the three to five years.

In no rush to open its dining rooms, Del Taco and its franchisees also are focused on drive-thru, takeout and delivery, which addresses customer preferences, streamlines operations and helps control costs. The chain is partnering with Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub and Postmates to support delivery, which accounted for 7% of system sales in the second quarter.

As the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 evolve, so does the restaurant and foodservice industry. Whether businesses are temporarily adjusting or planning permanent pivots, their ability to adapt to accelerated change showcases the industry’s resiliency.

Madison Parsons
Associate Research & Development Chef
CSSI Marketing + Culinary

Madison Parsons is a classically trained chef. Before joining CSSI, an Advantage Marketing Partners agency, in 2019, she worked in fine dining restaurants in Chicago and New Orleans and served as a test kitchen manager for an airline food provider.

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