The global COVID-19 pandemic has hit independent restaurants extremely hard.
Nationwide lockdown measures have forced most establishments to close their doors, resulting in massive revenue loss and forcing owners to furlough or lay off staff.
Restaurant sales have fallen by 80%, and millions of restaurant workers have been made unemployed.
As an independent restaurant owner, your number one priority right now is to figure out a way to stay afloat.
That’s why we’ve collected a few tips and tactics—as well as examples from other restaurants—that we hope can help you weather the storm.
1. Experiment with different pickup and delivery models
With dine-in business either restricted or prohibited, many restaurants have pivoted to offering customers curbside pickup and contact-free home delivery options.
For example, Selby’s in Redwood City, California, started its Family Meal program once lockdown was announced, delivering a unique three-course meal to customers every day of the week.
And each of the major third-party delivery platforms has taken some steps to support small restaurants:
- Uber Eats has started paying out for deliveries on a daily basis rather than weekly to help restaurants with daily cash flow.
- Grubhub is temporarily deferring collection of commission payments.
- Postmates has started to waive commission fees in the SF Bay Area, LA, Sacramento, and Detroit.
- DoorDash has offered commission relief of up to 50% as well as marketing support for new and existing restaurant partners.
But some restaurant operators have decided to dodge delivery app commissions altogether by delivering orders themselves.
Fida and Robert Ghanem, who operate Mad Hatter cafes in North Carolina, built their own delivery system and even rehired non-kitchen staff members as delivery drivers: “We decided not to go for the third-party apps because we needed to keep as many employees working as possible.”
Doing deliveries yourself may be cheaper than using a delivery service, but you’ll need to reach out to your customers so that they know to order from you directly—either over the phone or through your website.
Alternatively, you could use a service like Tock to Go:
This new platform helps dine-in restaurants easily switch to takeouts and deliveries by providing the infrastructure for customers to place orders. The app lets restaurants create to-go menus and offers a two-way text messaging system and maps integration to help restaurant staff coordinate pickups and deliveries.
Pro-tip: Since Tock to Go doesn’t provide delivery, it’s able to cap its fees to restaurants at 3%—far less than delivery app commissions.
Don’t forget, if you’re opting to make deliveries yourself, you should implement contactless payments and deliveries to protect your drivers and customers.
2. Sell gift cards and vouchers
Another way to preserve some cash flow is to sell gift certificates that customers can redeem once your restaurant has reopened.
These certificates could offer anything from discounts on future meals, happy hours, or even chef’s table dinners.
Toast.org has launched Rally for Restaurants, a public directory that makes it easy for customers to find the restaurants they love and buy digital gift cards. You can add your restaurant to the directory here.
The Dining Bond Initiative is another global campaign helping restaurants revamp their gift certificates programs.
Working just like old bank bonds, customers buy a dining bond at a value rate today so they can redeem it at the full face value once your doors have reopened. For example, you might sell a $100 bond for $75.
There’s no fee to join the initiative, and restaurants get 100% of all sales. Transactions are handled directly between the restaurant and customer, and restaurants can set their own terms and conditions.
One example of a participating restaurant is Hole in the Wall, a cafe in New York’s financial district that’s offering dining bonds at 25% off redemption value.
3. Rework your menu
Many restaurants that have continued to operate have had to rethink what they can offer customers.
A menu that works well for a dine-in setting doesn’t necessarily make sense when it comes to takeouts and deliveries.
Canlis is a 70-year old fine dining restaurant in Seattle—usually associated with its $135 tasting menu and lounge pianists—that has transitioned to offering more delivery-friendly foods like burgers, bagels, and sandwiches.
Many restaurants have also shifted to selling ingredient boxes, wine bottles, cocktail kits, and even grocery staples as new income streams.
Danny Schwartzman, who runs the Common Roots Cafe and Common Roots Catering in Minneapolis, now has a crew of staff preparing and delivering orders for prepared foods, produce, and groceries like rice and milk:
The Sixty Vines restaurant in Dallas has been selling two-person meal “survival kits” for customers to put together at home. For $60, each kit includes the choice between two wagyu steaks, filets, or roasted chickens, as well as various garnishes and sides.
4. Stay updated on government relief programs
The federal government has introduced various relief packages to help businesses cope with the impact of the pandemic. You should regularly check for updates as new announcements are made all the time.
The government’s Payment Protection Program (PPP) is a loan designed to help small businesses keep employees on their payroll. The loan is forgiven if workers are kept on the payroll for at least eight weeks and if the money is spent on utilities, rent, or mortgage interest.
The Federal Reserve is also set to introduce its Main Street Lending Program, which will offer small and medium-sized businesses non-forgivable loans starting at $500,000. These loans will have to be repaid after four years.
Another relief option that may work for you is Employee Retention Credit. This measure gives you a tax credit of $5,000 per employee throughout 2020 if you employ fewer than 100 workers.
Check out this resource from the Independent Restaurant Coalition for more information on legislative responses affecting small businesses.
5. Maintain a healthy workplace
Chances are your restaurant hygiene is already on point, but with the spread of COVID-19, extra sanitary procedures should be put in place to protect your staff and customers.
The CDC says that COVID-19 mainly spreads through close person-to-person contact and can also spread from contact with a contaminated surface.
This means you should actively encourage staff to stay at home if they feel sick and minimize contact between employees and customers as much as possible.
You should also consider increasing ventilation rates into the different sections of your restaurant.
To encourage employees and customers to wash their hands and follow respiratory etiquette, the CDC recommends that you:
- Provide tissues and no-touch disposal
- Provide soap and water, or alcohol-based hand sanitizer (that’s at least 60% alcohol) if soap and water aren’t available
- Place hand sanitizers in multiple locations
- Place posters that encourage hand washing in places they’re likely to be seen
- Discourage handshaking
You should routinely clean and disinfect any surfaces that are frequently touched—like work surfaces, tablets, keyboards, door handles, and telephones—and encourage workers to avoid sharing tools and equipment where possible.
You can find a list of EPA-approved disinfectants for use against the novel coronavirus here.
6. Plan for reopening
As states begin to ease lockdown restrictions, restaurants will have to be prepared to welcome patrons through their doors once again.
To do this, you will have to follow the federal return-to-work guidelines as well as state-specific reopening guidelines for restaurants.
For example, Florida’s guidelines require restaurants to limit indoor dining to 25% of normal capacity, while restaurant workers in Georgia are required to wear face coverings at all times.
In Austin, Texas, barbecue restaurant The County Line is taking numerous precautions as it reopens. Patrons have to stay six feet apart, only disposable menus are available, no condiments are kept on tables, tables and chairs are sanitized once patrons leave, and all staff members have to wear masks.
For more information on how to prepare for reopening, check out the National Restaurant Association’s reopening guidance.
Get your restaurant through the crisis
These are very difficult and uncertain times for America’s 350,000-ish independent restaurants.
What the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be on the hospitality industry is a complete unknown right now.
What we do know is restaurants are a much-loved part of American life; they are the lifeblood of our towns, cities, and communities.
We hope this post can go some way toward helping you figure out new ways of navigating this unprecedented crisis.