Pandemic Forces Operators to Remain Agile

October 14, 2020

The foodservice industry faces significant challenges but also sees enhanced focus on safety, menus and service.

One of the key characteristics of the “new normal” governing this year’s foodservice operating environment is that change is always right around the corner.

Whether it's adjustments to on-premises dining restrictions, new recommendations for foodservice health and safety training and procedures, or unexpected supply chain disruptions, new challenges emerge almost daily. Successfully navigating this environment requires not only a fresh set of operating policies and procedures, but also the ability to adjust on the fly to unexpected obstacles — and opportunities.

Many operators, in fact, report some silver linings amid the grim pall of the crisis, says Mark Steele, founder of the Las Vegas-based Restaurant Hospitality Institute, which offers pandemic-related safety training programs.

For example, the pandemic has forced operators to take a fresh look at their foodservice health and safety training and procedures. This is something most operators have always taken seriously, but the current environment and the new normal have demanded a more comprehensive — and highly visible — approach.

COVID-related research fielded by Datassential in mid-July, 81% of consumers say they’re being more careful to check that restaurants are strictly enforcing safety precautions before deciding where to eat. This focus on safety protocols can be expected to continue as cooler weather reduces opportunities for outdoor dining, which has been considered a safer alternative to eating indoors.

Core Safety Guidelines

In addition to the ongoing food safety practices that operators must adhere to, state and local authorities also have imposed additional rules that operators need to follow. The new rules have come with added inspections, Steele says, as operators report increased visits from various agencies seeking to ensure compliance. “They’re really just checking on the things you should have been doing already,” he explains.

A recent ServSafe training video from the National Restaurant Association identifies the following as key practices for employees:

Prevent employees from remaining at work if they’re feeling ill. Pursue a policy of thorough hand-washing. Cover sneezes and coughs. Wear face coverings. Maintain social distancing as much as possible. When social distancing isn’t possible, as is the case in many small kitchens, face coverings are crucial. “It’s nearly impossible to social distance in the kitchen,” confirms John Secretan, president and owner of Laguna Beach, California-based Zinc Café & Market. He says kitchen workers have become “almost like family” that might be living in close quarters at home, and that Zinc’s employees have been extraordinarily careful.

Meanwhile, Steele says the workers he’s trained in Las Vegas have been overwhelmingly receptive to operating under the new foodservice health and safety training and procedures. “They are paying close attention to the training that’s coming out,” he says. “Everyone is laser-focused.”

In fact, operators have discovered that managing the behavior of rebellious customers can be more challenging than managing the behavior of workers. “You could be doing everything right,” Steele says, “and then you have a couple of bozos come in who don’t want to wear masks, and they could be the ones who get you fined.”

While employees have always had to manage unruly guests, new requirements based on mask wearing and social distancing, which can be fraught with political undercurrents, have intensified the challenge. Management intervention may be required more than ever before, operators say, and consumers welcome it. Datassential’s research found that 83% of consumers believe restaurants should require customers to follow safety guidelines. “People want rules right now,” says Datassential Founder Jack Li.

Focus on Service, Menus

In addition to updating and prioritizing health and safety procedures, operators are discovering that with fewer tables, they can focus on delivering even better customer service, Steele says.

Many are also streamlining their menus, which they say has allowed them to concentrate more closely on the limited variety of items. A focus on food takeout and delivery has also helped operators retain sales and enhance their expertise in those areas of their business. And increased outdoor dining opportunities have allowed operators to get creative with seating on sidewalks, streets, parking lots and rooftops.

The outlook for the industry remains cloudy in the near term, however. Much depends on the financial condition of consumers, as well as the ongoing spread of the virus. Many quick-service and fast-casual restaurants that have focused on food takeout and delivery have been able to blunt the impact of the pandemic, but the challenges remain acute for the casual- and fine-dining segments.

"Rising cases, delayed dine-in reopenings and potential reclosings are a clear near-term negative for full-service restaurants," Jake Bartlett, a SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst, says in a July 14 report, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

As the pandemic continues to present new challenges, operators will need to remain vigilant around safety issues and be prepared to leverage opportunities around menu innovations and off-premises solutions.

Mondelēz International Foodservice supports the industry’s efforts to thrive in the new normal, offering foodservice operators a host of resources – from innovative new menu ideas to tips for takeout and delivery.

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