One of the big discussion topics this week at The Spoon has been around the reopening of restaurant dining rooms. When will it happen? How will it happen? Will anyone even want to go out to eat?
Answers will be ongoing and, like everything else in the last six weeks, will probably change regularly. And here’s one more to add to the mix: What do restaurants need to do to prepare for as smooth a reopening as they can possibly accomplish?
I’ll answer that with a line from The National Restaurant Association’s newly released “Reopening Guidance” report: “Make technology your friend.”
Fear not. This isn’t the part where I tell you to hedge all your bets on a piece of software (or hardware) and pile on a bunch of extra solutions your already trimmed-down staff will have to learn. Instead, consider which tools will help your business communicate as directly and efficiently as possible with guests about what to expect at a reopening.
As The Association says:
“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.”
Some of these will be easier to implement than others. I was just talking to a family member of mine who is as we speak trying to set up contactless payments for her hospitality company, and she is definitely losing sleep over it. In a separate conversation, someone on the task force in charge of Georgia’s restaurant reopenings admitted that contactless payments will be one of the more difficult things to put in place for restaurants.
But this task force person also said restaurants should be “embracing technology wherever [they] can.” Looking again at The Association’s guidelines, there are simpler tech tools restaurants can use to communicate reopen dates and any accompanying changes. Consider email updates or social media posts to tell folks about adjusted hours, new policies (e.g., “make a reservation”), and safety protocols. Use the humble text message to notify guests when their table is ready. And talk to your existing restaurant tech providers, like your POS vendor, to see if they can help you set up some of the more complicated tools like contactless payments and mobile ordering.
At the end of the day, tech should be the means to the end, not the end itself. Bear that in mind as you explore ways to integrate it into your reopen strategy, whenever that happens to be.
Maybe We Should All Look to Fat Brands to Figure Out a Ghost Kitchen Strategy
Ghost kitchens are not top of the priority list for restaurants right now, but as demand for off-premises orders goes up, they will be. As we’ve discussed before, restaurants need a certain (and rather high) level of demand to justify using a full-on ghost kitchen facility. Otherwise the economics don’t make sense.
That said, a good ghost kitchen strategy can actually start right in your own kitchen before growing into the kind that needs a dedicated facility to function.
Look at Fat Brands. This week, the company, which owns Fatburger, Hurricane Grill & Wings, Elevation Burger, and other chains, announced its first-ever ghost kitchen facility in Chicago. The location, done in partnership with Epic Kitchens, will be for delivery-only orders, and will house a number of virtual restaurants.
Fat Brands was doing ghost kitchens before they inked a deal with Epic, though. Last year, the company started using Fat Burger locations to double as mini-ghost kitchens for the company’s sister brands. Customers on one side of the country could suddenly order from the menu of Fat Brand restaurants historically only available on the other side. Doing so let the company test the waters, so to speak, with virtual restaurants and ghost kitchens before signing a more official deal with a dedicated space.
Starting small and in the confines of your own restaurants’ kitchens is definitely a lower-risk way of trying out a ghost kitchen. Restaurants can test and learn about some of the operational differences between off-premises and in-dining-room models, and they’re not locked into a long-term contract if the plan proves unfruitful. Speaking of which, in-house ghost kitchens are also a way to gauge just how much off-premises demand you really have from your customers and project whether that will grow enough to warrant a bigger operation, as Fat Brands has done.
The pandemic’s effect on the restaurant industry will almost certainly ensure demand for off-premises orders keeps rising, even after dining rooms reopen. Even as you’re trying to keep the lights on, consider whether you’re on the path towards using a ghost kitchen, and if taking the first small steps in your own kitchen makes sense as a starting point.
More Notable Restaurant News
Low-tech drive-thru innovation: Today, Taco Bell’s Southern California HQ is doubling as a giant drive-thru for large trucks carrying essential items across the supply chain. The chain is giving away free meals to truckers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and others driving vehicles that wouldn’t fit through a normal drive-thru lane.
QSR, meet the sewing machine: Employees of quick-service chain Raising Cane are now sewing masks to donate to hospitals while dining rooms remain closed. While the chain’s drive-thrus remain open, at sit-down locations, it is paying its staff to learn how to sew these masks instead of just furloughing people. Raising Cane donated 600 masks after the first week of production and said it expects to crank out even more “as Crewmembers get more proficient.”
Big chains aren’t necessarily reopening. States like Georgia and South Carolina are set to reopen their economies next week, but not everyone is on board. Among restaurant brands, TGI Fridays and Starbucks are not necessarily ready to fling back their doors immediately. Instead, their reopening plans will factor in not just state/local laws but also infection rates and their own market analysis. So while all this talk of reopening is exciting, it realistically will be a long while yet before many food businesses turn the lights back on in the dining room.