Your table is ready, a masked hostess informs you. No, you are not sipping a drink at the bar, but sitting in your car. You enter and pass a number of empty tables and hand sanitizing stations before reaching your table. It is sparse, with a paper tablecloth and single-use menu awaiting. Perhaps there is a plastic wrapped bundle you might receive on a plane with a napkin, cutlery, salt and pepper. “Welcome,” your waiter says. “Is this your first time at Le Bernardin?”

As the first states begin to allow restaurants to reopen for dine-in service, the experience for everyone will be drastically different. Is the breadbasket a thing of the past? Are shared plates no more? What will happen to the pages and pages of menu at The Cheesecake Factory? Little guidance has been offered beyond capacity limit requirements and some safety recommendations. For many restaurants, they need to figure out the details. The Texas governor suggested restaurants have someone to open the door for guests to minimize grabbing of door handles and other high-touch surfaces.     

To reassure customer safety while adapting operations to maximize revenue, there are lots of considerations for full-service restaurant operators.

Safety First: Protecting staff and guests is the top priority. That may mean forgoing staff family meal for a while, reducing high-touch surfaces, new payment processes, and masks and gloves for staff and customers whether required or advised. The sanitization and wiping down of surfaces are table steaks. 

Menu Focus: With reduced business and uncertain supply chains, focus and flexibility will be important. What are your most popular or profitable dishes? What will the customers you anticipate in your restaurant be looking to order? What works best for take-out and delivery? Ten-page menus and ten-course tasting menus are likely on hold for now. Though the latter can provide focus if it is all that is offered, though the time required for it, I suspect, is longer than most people will be willing to spend in the restaurant.

Disposables: The war on plastics has taken a back seat to the war on Covid. Menus, tablecloths, plates, cutlery and even condiments may be our single-use future. It will create more cost and waste to the operation, and I don’t anticipate cutting into a bone-in ribeye with a plastic knife, but I think all of these will need to be considered and incorporated into their operations as appropriate.

New Upsales: With potential loss of bar business, fewer customers and likely courses, restaurants need to be creative to maximize check size. If alcohol restrictions continue to be waived allowing for alcohol delivery, that will be a big help. Restaurants can also build a dessert to go program, anticipating diners will be less likely to stay 30 minutes after their meal for coffee and pie. Perhaps a meal kit program that people can take home with them after their meal for dinner the next day.

At Home Experience: Restaurants that relied on dine-in customers need to plan for at least half their business being takeout and delivery in the coming months. Trying to extend the restaurant experience to home is an interesting opportunity. If you were known for your eclectic music, create a Spotify playlist for the home. Perhaps you were the romantic spot with a flower in a small vase at every table. This is something you could offer with deliveries. Consider the unboxing experience you can deliver.

Creating a new experience for guests that is safe, inviting and enjoyable will be needed to rebuild the full-service restaurant sector. We will not be going immediately back to large gatherings of friends, colleagues and celebrations. Operators will be dealing with varying levels of anxiety among staff and guests that will need to be addressed with empathy, communication and creativity. We cannot simply wish for or expect normality in the near-term. Being flexible to adjust to a new business model will better position restaurants for success.