Within the larger hospitality sector, there’s a new reality for restaurants and food operations. CoVid-19 has disrupted business models and inflicted revenue wounds, but it has also caused customer confidence to wobble a bit too.
The coronavirus is re-writing the “contract” between the dining room and the customers at the tables, and, in response, food operations large and small have focused on re-building that confidence.
At Charcoal Group, staff training – and re-training – has been based on a new employee document, a good portion of whose 50 points is dedicated to staff training around the coronavirus, according to managing partner Jody Palubiski.
New cleaning regimens have been implemented, tables have been spaced more widely to meet the 6-foot distancing threshold, there are new Debit machine protocols and staff are masked.
In the kitchen, cooks are wearing masks and visors or googles or a combination thereof. It makes for a hot work environment, especially for the cook at the grill station. When you pass through Wildcraft’s front doors, you immediately see a self-serve table with tongs to pick up a complimentary mask, if you need one.
The only item on the tables in the Wildcraft bar is a sign with a QR code to scan into your smartphone to view the menu. The sign notes both a thank you to diners and a promise to maintain a safe environment.
The result, according to Palubiski, is guests having expressed a certain comfort with the steps that have been taken.
Each business is different, but all restaurants have taken similar steps toward heightened attention to detail for guest safety. And like the Wildcraft experience, customers have been pleased.
“It was smooth sailing for the re-opening,” according to Dan McCowan of Red House in Uptown Waterloo which recently opened a new patio.
“Guests were all happy to wear a mask when required,” he says. “All in all, they were pleased with the seating plan and the safety precautions.”
When asked, restaurateurs admit that most people were looking for patio seats, an indication that customers lack some confidence in these early days of Phase 3.
And it may be restaurant owners too: Some dining rooms remain closed with restaurants focused on their patios, delivery and curbside pickup – all modes of getting food to customers that will continue to be a significant factor for restaurants.
Fat Sparrow and Taco Farm co-owner Nick Benninger hasn’t opened all of his restaurants yet, but he says the steps they have taken have proved beneficial to building customer confidence for dining in.
“The re-opening went well. We kept our seating very limited in the dining rooms,” he says, adding that engaging with customers in a physically distanced fashion felt good. “It was great to have smiling faces back and seeing staff interact with happy guests. It goes a long way toward getting back to normal.”
With a few restaurants under the Neighbourhood Group brand, including Kitchener’s Borealis Grille, Court Desautels acknowledges that guests might feel uneasy about the dining room environment and that it’s a matter of time. The first days open, however, were positive because of the protocols Borealis implemented.
“Guests were all happy to wear a mask when required,” says Desautels. “All in all, they were pleased with the seating plan and the safety precautions.”
Has the dining room brought sales back into line with what they were last year? No, says Benninger, not surprisingly. “Sales are still a long way from normal, but this is a step in the right direction.”
Within a sector characterized by razor thin margins, area restaurants are working hard to be sustainable; like a team of rowers, they are pulling together.
“It’s a case of ‘co-opetition’,” as Palubiski coins it. “Competing businesses are sharing best practices and protocols for safety to re-build the sector.”
The rising tide indeed lifts all boats, and a sense of collaboration, camaraderie and unity among restaurants is helping nurture customer confidence. It may, in fact, be the start of a fresh contract being drafted – one that focuses on the current new reality.
“We can see it working so far,” Benninger says. “Staff and customers alike, have been very respectful of the new rules and the new situation.”