Back to Business: How Bars & Restaurants Can Navigate Re-Opening Challenges  7/8/2020

The last time I spoke with Art Sutley and Ashley Bray, Publisher and Editor respectively of Bar Business Magazine, it was April and we were early in the lockdown phase due to the coronavirus pandemic. During that interview, we discussed what bars and restaurants need to do to survive the lockdown, and what they need to start thinking about when we eventually started reopening.

Now bars and restaurants beginning to reopen. Well, kind of. The country is really a patchwork of different phases of re-opening, with some places allowing limited indoor seating, others, like my home city of New York just recently allowing outdoor dining. Then you have other areas that opened up earlier that are now shutting down due to spikes in Covid cases, many caused by reopening too early, or doing it improperly – or both. 

So during this interview, we discussed the current state of the industry as it pertains to opening back up for business, and some best practices bars and restaurants can deploy in order to provide a safe operation for guests, while at the same time maximizing revenue opportunities. As you’ll learn from the interview, these two things are often closely tied together.

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‘Next-Step’ Challenges
The bar and restaurant industry is facing “next-step” challenges about how they must run their business today, which is different than how they have previously run them, and may evolve yet again depending on what happens next with the pandemic. We need to treat our operations as if we were in a soft opening for the next few weeks to work out all of the kinks. But the good news is, we’re slowly but steadily opening. It’s HOW we open that’s key. Paying close attention to local regulations, and most importantly, the safety of staff and customers, is critical.

Three Waves of Customers
Bar expert and host of TV show Bar Rescue Jon Taffer pointed out that there are three waves of customers that will be coming back to bars and restaurants. The "First Third" are those young and fearless consumers with no pre-existing conditions. The pandemic is not a big deal to them, and they are going to be the first ones to come back. They are also the ones that will be flaunting the rules and can get an operation into trouble by not adhering to local regulations. 

The second wave is referred to as the "Reserve Third." This is the group that is going to basically wait and see what happens to the first wave of guests who are already going back out to bars and restaurants. They are a little more cautious and hesitant, so in those cities experiencing surges due to the first wave of customers getting sick, the Reserved Third are probably not going to come out just yet. 

The last wave Taffer refers to as the Certain Third. This group needs to be certain that they are going to be safe, and will be the last to get back out, many even staying in until there is a vaccine. Many of these are older, with pre-existing conditions, and safety is paramount to this group, so they will be the last wave to enter restaurants and bars. Unfortunately for owners and operators, this is also the group with the most disposable income. 

The Importance of Messaging
As you’re opening up, a big part of making people feel safer is leveraging your communication platforms, and so your social media channels and website should be buzzing with content aimed at making guests feel comfortable patronizing your establishment. This is particularly the case for the Reserve Third and Certain Third groups mentioned above. You need to be putting out regular messaging around your cleaning protocols, social distancing measures, and any menu changes. For example, if you have moved to a virtual menu, how can guests access it? These are all things that your customers are going to be looking for. 

All of your content should be geared toward making them feel safe, which will give you a better chance of getting them through the door once they are ready. It’s also important to let your customers know what protocols you have in place regarding social distancing, mask-use, and anything else regarding the re-opening. For example, while it may be okay for customers to not wear masks while seated at an outside table, they may be required if they come inside to use the restroom. By getting your protocols out there in your messaging, you can avoid any confusion or uncomfortable situations.

Messaging is also how you can maximize your delivery and takeout opportunities, particularly with to-go cocktails as regulations allowing them have been extended by many states. While food delivery makes some money, you can easily add anywhere from $15 to $30 to an order with to-go cocktails, so be sure your audience knows they are available.

Flexible Barriers/Fixtures
Barriers are huge right now, whether they are plexiglass or other plastic material to block off or separate eating areas. Regardless of what type of barrier you use, be sure to invest in something that’s modular or flexible in some way, as the only thing that’s certain about today’s situation is that it’s uncertain. They should be inexpensive and easy to take down or move around as the need arises. 

Get in Touch with Touchless
Touchless is quickly becoming the norm. The fewer contact points your customers have to make in their journey through your restaurant, the better. Virtual menus mentioned above are part of this, as are single-serve condiments and disposable cups and straws. Touchless payment systems are becoming more prevalent, too. 

Bottom Line: It’s All About Managing Expectations
Overall, the most important thing is to be proactive in managing the expectations of your guests. The rules are different, service may be a bit slower, you may have to place time limits on tables to ensure enough turns. Make sure you’re guests fully know what they can expect from your operation during the re-opening, and let them know that we are all in this together trying to create a successful experience for everyone involved!


Joseph Tarnowski

VP Content

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