In an unprecedented time, restaurants large and small are closing dining rooms, laying off staff, and scrambling to figure out off-premises solutions.
Empty, closed-off dining rooms even in areas where it’s not mandated by local governments are certainly the most visible response to the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic.
Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Chick-fil-A were the first brands to announce they would shut down dining rooms, but remain open for delivery and to-go orders. And hour-by-hour, more brands announce drastic changes to operations from closing dining rooms, reducing hours or shutting down completely.
Chipotle announced a full-scale closure of dining rooms, only staying open for pick up and delivery. And it’s among a large group of restaurant brands that are taking extreme measures around cleanliness in the era of COVID-19. On top of the robust post-norovirus Chipotle protocols including sick leave, mandated hand washing and air filtrations, the company announced a handful of COVID-19-specific measures.
Among those are expanded emergency leave benefits for employees, increased sanitation of high-touch and high-traffic areas, more frequent hand-washing requirements, tamper-evident packaging and an internal task force to monitor and provide guidance to the restaurant operators. The company also announced “increased precautions” in areas with emergency declarations.
Union Square Hospitality, the umbrella company for Danny Meyer’s restaurant empire, laid off 80 percent of its staff to deal with its many closed restaurants. A rumored “shelter in place” possibility is pushing things faster in the exceptionally dense urban core that is New York City. The company created a fund to help laid-off employees weather the storm, seeded by Meyer’s “entire compensation” and all executives will take a pay cut. All funds from cards purchased through March 24 will also contribute to that fund.
“In the 35-year history of Union Square Hospitality Group, this is, without a doubt, the most challenging period any of us has ever encountered as leaders. Reconciling who we are as a people-first company with this brutal moment is nearly impossible,” said Meyer in a statement. “…Our revenues have been decimated, and the foundation of our business has been seriously tested. In the absence of income, restaurants simply cannot pay our non-working team members for more than a short period of time without becoming insolvent. In that scenario, no one wins.”
Short of a full shutdown, many casual dining companies are tweaking operations significantly. Independent fine dining establishments are doing everything from offering a slimmed-down delivery menu to pivoting into completely new menu items that deliver well and let quarantined folks either indulge to eat some of their anxiety or get some nutrients to supplement the endless snacking (as this editor is guilty of).
On a larger scale, many casual dining chains are putting together similar plans to keep operations going while “social distancing” radically changes the industry.
Fogo de Chao, maybe the exact opposite of social distancing on a good day, is offering its unique meat-centric menu for curbside pickup and delivery in some markets. Customers can get their favorite gaucho meat and sides without the gaucho.
STK Steakhouse is offering a new takeout menu at all locations nationwide. It includes a Surf & Turn Special with an 8 oz. filet and Lobster tail for $59 for customers who are looking for a nice splurge date night.
Boston Market axed delivery fees and is pushing feast meals for 12 so families stuck indoors can get a smorgasbord and some leftovers as well. The company is delivering meals to the front door with no contact if customers prefer.
For limited-service restaurants, things may be slightly easier. And many companies are pushing delivery and pick-up in a new round of marketing. Wing Zone, which predominantly does its own delivery, has shifted to unlimited free deliveries for a month. Co-founder and CEO Matt Friedman said a big marketing push around that actually pushed sales up year-over-year.
“We’re putting a lot of marketing dollars behind it and we’re paying for that out of our pocket,” sad Friedman. “I think the biggest thing is taking care of our people. We’ve had a nice surge in delivery, so whatever driver wants to work, they’re able to work. People have been incredibly gracious with tips.”
He said the company is “definitely not over staffed” but expects more people to come in as time goes on when savings dwindle and cabin fever sets in.
Just Salad, the lunch-heavy suitable salad concept made the move to 100 percent digital ordering to ensure the safety of staff and customers, it’s also more efficient for delivery orders.
“By focusing solely on digital orders, our team can execute at an even higher level and is well-suited to handle the increased demand we expect from customers who are working from home,” Kenner said. “As we see more orders come in through our digital channels, these measures will help minimize impacts to their work schedules and maximize their safety. We are also providing an additional free meal to employees and their families, should their work schedules become impacted by the COVID-19 situation.”
Kenner said the company has a 15-minute-or-your-money-back guarantee for pick-up patrons in New York and New Jersey. Like many companies, it’s also suspending deliver fees and putting orders tamperproof packaging.
Mooyah Burgers Fries & Shakes is offering free delivery through the company app as well, and communicated directly to loyalty members to update them about cleanliness. The push to online and free delivery was already planned as a way to drive customers to the company app, but President Tony Darden said they pushed the campaign up significantly to both capitalize on homebound customers and keep sales flowing, at least trickling. Darden said they’ve slowed down the menu innovation and limited-time-offer (LTO) schedule as well.
“We’re putting some of that innovation work on hold to market to go and the app, and let our owners focus on executing in their four walls,” said Darden. “The last thing we want them to do is figure out a LTO roll out or training.”
Scores of restaurant owners are scrambling right now to figure out what exactly to do, and as many people Food on Demand has spoken with, things remain “fluid.” But the sliver of good news is that everyone seems to be pushing in the same direction. Restaurant operators have some practical tips for the industry at large as well because as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the industry, people still have to eat.