Industry Trends

Guide to Reopening Your Restaurant Safely 

Jun 09, 2020 • 10+ min read
Happy business woman reopening her restaurant
Table of Contents

      There is nothing balanced about the way this pandemic has impacted various industries. For example, if you own a delivery service or provide technical support, there’s a good chance you’ve seen your fortunes improve during this otherwise disastrous time.

      Those working in the restaurant industry have taken the brunt of the fallout. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20.5 million jobs were lost in April. That grim record contributed to a national unemployment rate of nearly 15%. Of the overall jobs lost, 7.7 million were from leisure and hospitality (by far the hardest-hit industry nationwide).

      Amidst the fallout, normal life has been upended for all Americans. From going to the gym to grabbing a beer after work, the pandemic has introduced new risks to most of our daily activities.

      “The coronavirus pandemic isn’t going to end without a vaccine,” says science reporter Aylin Woodward. “A group of US researchers suggests future waves of infections will last through 2022, and the country is struggling to adapt to a new normal in the meantime. We are all becoming accustomed to a constant internal monologue about minimizing the risk of coronavirus infection: ‘Is it safe to go hiking?’ ‘Should I dash into the pet store?’ ‘How close is too close to stand in line at the coffee shop?’”

      Your restaurant might be a cherished part of many customers’ lives, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into guaranteed business. Desperate times have called for desperate measures.

      The Decision to Reopen

      As states and counties around the nation now begin the reopening process, small business owners are assessing their own options and challenges. There are new logistics to consider—like how to promote customer safety while still maintaining a vibrant and welcoming atmosphere, or how to handle liability when it is so difficult to identify where a person becomes infected.

      “As the latest data shows, the rate of deaths, new infections and hospitalizations appear to be slowing in some parts of the country and most states are making plans on how to restart their economies, leaving restaurant owners, in particular, with a tough choice: Open at the risk of a resurgence of the invisible contagion formally known as COVID-19, or wait until the scientists reach a consensus that it’s safe,” explains a restaurant industry report from ABC News.

      It’s become clear throughout this crisis how difficult it is for experts to reach a consensus. Opinions change rapidly—what was widely accepted one day (i.e., there’s no need to wear face masks) can be completely reversed the next. These oscillating facts don’t necessarily negate the value of expert opinions: they show the nuance with which we must approach them.

      The decision to reopen your restaurant must ultimately balance customer safety, employee safety, and business urgency. There’s no universal answer for when it’s safe for our nation’s restaurants to open their dining rooms. Perhaps the pizza place on the corner opened last weekend, while the taco shop on Main Street won’t fully open for another 2 months. What matters is that you do your research and make an informed decision that meets the needs of your customers, your employees, and your ownership.

      Don’t let anyone pressure you into this decision. If your customers are clamoring for you to open your doors, you should feel grateful for their attention and flattered by their loyalty. But do not reopen until you feel confident that you’re making the right decision and have a strategy for implementation.

      Staying Connected With Your Loyal Customers

      The National Restaurant Association recommends that any restaurant owner planning to reopen should focus on communication. It’s not enough simply to post a message on your Facebook page that ambiguously announces “We’re opening soon!” You need to reach out to your customers using every communication channel at your disposal. In this era of shifting opinions and murky details, become their source of direct information.

      “We will be opening our doors on June 5,” an effective message might read. “Visit us anytime from 8am–4pm Monday–Friday or 8am–1pm Saturday–Sunday. Reservations are recommended, so please call ahead: 834-299-0924. We can’t wait to see you!”

      It matters that all details are crystal clear. Your most ardent fans have been anxiously waiting to see announcements—and you also might be able to snag some first-time customers if your messages are effective.

      In addition to the essential details about when your restaurant will be opening, there will be other information to cover.

      “Make technology your friend,” explains the National Restaurant Association. “Contactless payment systems, automated ordering systems, mobile ordering apps, website updates, and simple texts can help you to communicate and conduct business with reduced need for close contact. As you begin to reopen, keep communicating with customers (your hours, menu items, reservations, etc.), and help promote your social distancing and safety efforts.”

      The closer you can stay connected with your customers, the stronger of a reopening you’ll enjoy. They’ll know what to expect from your restaurant and how to best support you. There’s reciprocity in this relationship: you need your customers’ patronage to survive as a business, and they rely on you for meaningful dining experiences.

      Setting Yourself Up for Safety and Success

      Your restaurant’s strategy for reopening should be predicated on established health guidelines. Restaurant owners who make safety a secondary condition might be able to generate strong revenue in the early days of their reopening, but they run the risk of spreading sickness among their staff and customers. In this unfortunate scenario, lives could be severely impacted, and any momentum earned by the earlier-than-advisable reopening would be lost in the fallout.

      Ultimately, the only sustainable and ethical way to reopen is to proceed cautiously, with respect for everyone involved.

      The experts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have released detailed guidelines to help reopen your restaurant while also lowering the chances of spreading COVID-19. Given the vast differences around the country in the number of cases, population density, and other factors, customization is the name of the game. These guidelines certainly aren’t intended to be cookie-cutter.

      “Restaurants and bars can determine, in collaboration with state and local health officials, whether and how to implement these considerations, making adjustments to meet the needs and circumstances of the local community,” explains the CDC. “Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of each community. These considerations are meant to supplement—not replace—any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which businesses must comply.”

      By collaborating with the relevant authorities in your area, you’ll be able to move forward in a way that works for everyone. The closer you work with others, the fewer surprises there will be down the road.

      From a Distance There Is Harmony

      Any discussion about how to run your restaurant safely comes down to proximity and interactions because customers are most likely to spread COVID-19 through respiratory droplets—the stuff that naturally comes out of our mouths while talking, coughing, and sneezing—which can be a big problem for spread. It’s like a viral circle of life, as COVID-19 comes from people’s noses and mouths, then infects new people through their own noses and mouths.

      Given the nature of the virus, the size and setup of your restaurant matters. If you run a small pub where people love to linger, you’ll face more challenges than a burger joint equipped with a contactless drive-through.

      Here’s the CDC’s breakdown of COVID-19 risks based on various settings:

      1. High risk: Locations with on-site dining (indoor and outdoor) where the seating capacity hasn’t been reduced. If tables aren’t spaced 6 feet or more apart, you could be putting your customers in danger.
      2. Moderate risk: Locations with on-site dining (indoor and outdoor) where seating capacity has been reduced and tables are all spaced 6 feet or more.
      3. Lower risk: Locations where on-site dining takes place only in an outdoor setting and tables have been adequately spaced. These restaurants encourage customers to get their food to go, whether through delivery, drive-through, curbside pickup, or takeout.
      4. Lowest risk: Locations with no on-site dining. Customers can only get their food by delivery, drive-through, curbside pickup, or takeout.

      You can help decrease the risk of spread by installing physical barriers in your restaurant. Whether it’s a sneeze guard or a larger partition, the barrier can help block the aforementioned respiratory droplets that have gotten us into this whole mess. Physical barriers are particularly useful in places where your customers find it hard to keep 6 feet apart, such as cash registers, host stands, and food-pickup locations.

      Adding physical guides like signage or floor tape also provides helpful distancing reminders to customers. Remember, this can be a confusing time for all of us. It’s sometimes hard for all of us to know where exactly to stand or maneuver in a business to keep ourselves safe and avoid upsetting others. The more guidance you can provide customers, the better.

      As a rule of thumb, shut down all spaces that unnecessarily bring people into close proximity. This might include your employee break room or a party room with banquette seating. In situations where you can’t close these communal spaces, try to stagger usage to limit how many people will be inside at the same time. Also, don’t forget to increase your cleaning and disinfecting.

      How to Make Your Surfaces Safer

      Speaking of cleaning and disinfecting, you may be wondering what steps you should take in order to protect everyone in your restaurant. The most important surfaces to target are those touched on a regular basis. Cash registers, workstations, door handles, sink handles, and bathroom stalls should be cleaned as often as possible. Shared objects such as tables, bars, and payment terminals should be wiped down after each use.

      Only use products that meet EPA standards and are intended for the surfaces you intend to use them on. Carefully read all instructions so that the cleaner is left on surfaces only for the appropriate amount of time.

      It will be essential to train your employees on how to use all cleaners and disinfectants effectively and safely. And don’t expect them to remember everything. There should be recurring training on how and when to use all products in order to lower the risk of COVID-19.

      Additional factors to consider:

      • Employees should wear gloves when handling or disposing of trash
      • Make sure your cleaning schedule is user-friendly and clearly communicated
      • Encourage employees not to share equipment or supplies unless it’s necessary
      • Replace reusable items, such as menus, with digital or disposable options when possible
      • Encourage the use of a touchless payment system
      • Don’t allow customers to bring in their own utensils or containers
      • Use a ventilation system that properly brings in outdoor air
      • Limit crowds in your waiting area by utilizing texts or app notifications
      • Don’t use buzzers to notify customers that their food or table is ready
      • Eliminate self-serve food and drink areas such as salad bars, buffets, and drink stations

      There are obviously multiple areas of improvement for every restaurant. Carefully consider your unique situation and then take action as you see fit, remembering that the situation is constantly evolving.

      “The coronavirus has upended the restaurant industry worldwide with the speed of a lightning strike,” says Restaurant Business. “Every day brings new information and new recommendations. Complicating matters, multiple authorities are responsible for issuing guidance: the US Centers for Disease Control, the US Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, and others. As a result, keeping up with best practices can be a full-time job in itself. Use a free tool like the ComplianceMateC19 app, which aggregates and updates safety, sanitation, and wellness checklists and workflows specific to COVID-19 in real time as new recommendations emerge.”

      By staying updated and taking a proactive approach to lowering risk, you’ll empower your employees to help keep everyone in your restaurant safer.

      Working With Your Team

      It’s essential that you get all your employees on board with your efforts. Ask their opinions and take their concerns seriously. By giving them a voice in the matter, they’ll be more likely to support any decisions made. Each employee will be doing hundreds of small tasks each day to help keep your restaurant clean, so this buy-in is crucial.

      You should set the expectation early on that employees need to stay home if they are feeling sick or have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19. It’s important for them to feel safe in reporting health-related concerns to you. If there is fear of reprisal, you’ll never receive the honesty necessary to implement these types of policies.

      Additional recommendations from the CDC to keep your team safe:

      • Require employees to wash hands before preparing food, after preparing food, after handling garbage, etc.
      • Ensure all employee handwashing includes soap, hot water, and at least 20 seconds of scrubbing
      • Ask employees to cover their sneezes and coughs with a tissue
      • After a sneeze or cough, employees should throw away the tissue and immediately wash their hands
      • Make washing stations with soap available wherever possible
      • When soap and water aren’t readily accessible, provide hand sanitizer (minimum 60% alcohol)
      • Require employees to wear a cloth face covering
      • Train employees on how to properly wear, remove, and wash their face coverings

      Some of your employees might be at higher risk of COVID-19, including older employees or those with certain medical conditions. Consider offering them opportunities that could limit their chances for exposure. For example, you might modify their role to remove them from high-traffic positions such as cashier and move them into the back where they can help track inventory.

      As with your customers, communication will be key to keeping your employees motivated and confident. Every time you provide clear information to them—even if it’s not necessarily good news—is a chance to build trust. When your employees are on board with your reopening strategy, they’ll be better able to provide the dining experiences your customers crave. Everyone will be able to get what they want from the opening while working in the safest environment possible.

      About the author
      Grant Olsen

      Grant Olsen is a writer specializing in small business loans, leadership skills, and growth strategies. He is a contributing writer for KSL 5 TV, where his articles have generated more than 6 million page views, and has been featured on FitSmallBusiness.com and ModernHealthcare.com. Grant is also the author of the book "Rhino Trouble." He has a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University.

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