By Suzy Fleming Leonard | Published 6:00 a.m. ET May 25, 2020
The one certainty restaurants have faced during the novel coronavirus pandemic is uncertainty.
As the country comes back online at the speed of a ’90s dial-up modem, restaurant owners are trying to find ways to follow social distancing guidelines, cater to an uneasy clientele, keep guests and staff healthy and turn a profit.
“The entire industry is reinventing itself,” said Marbet Lewis of Spiritus Law Attorneys at Law, a Coral Gables law firm that works with the hospitality industry.
“Businesses don’t know what to plan for,” she said. “It’s difficult to look at what your budgets are, what your budgets are going to be in a month.”
Many Florida restaurants reopened May 4 at diminished capacity. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Phase 2 of the reopening plan on May 15, allowing more guests into dining rooms. Still, it could be months before eating establishments return to a semblance of what they were at the start of 2020.
Nationally, restaurant employment has fallen to the lowest level since 1989, according to a National Restaurant Association analysis.
“Just three months ago, there were more than 12 million people on the payrolls of eating and drinking places across this country, but today more than 6 million restaurant workers are home without a job — and that number is going to grow,” Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the association, said May 8.
Restaurants and bars are important to the local economy, too.
“Ensuring that restaurants reopen is critical for our tourism infrastructure,” said Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism. “Locals can really help by patronizing our restaurants now. Tourism dollars help everyone, including businesses, jobs and locals as well.”
To be successful amid the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants need to appeal to a new kind of customer, Lewis said. Many are afraid to go out and need to be reassured.
Others are eager to return to normal, and may test boundaries, forcing restaurant management to walk a line between offending customers and following state-mandated rules.
“It’s going to be small steps to get back to operational capacity,” Lewis said, “not to what things were, but to what things are going to be.
As guests make their ways back into dining rooms and outdoor patios, here are a few changes they may notice.
Florida restaurant employees are not required to wear masks and gloves under DeSantis’ April 30 executive order, which allowed restaurants to reopen. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation encourages restaurant staff and customers to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
The CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering to contain the wearer’s “respiratory droplets and help protect their co-workers and members of the general public.”
Servers, hostesses and other employees at many, but not all, Space Coast establishments have donned masks.
Alex Litras, owner of Cafe Margaux in Cocoa Village, sees them as an added layer of comfort for his guests, a visual signal that the servers and staff take each diner’s safety seriously.
He’s prepared to keep his mask on indefinitely.
“This just might be the reasonable thing to do moving forward indefinitely,” he said. “One of the reasons we’re trying to get into that mindset is, you accept it more if you’re not looking forward to an end.”
Single-Use and Electronic Menus
Have you ever opened a menu and found evidence of the previous diner’s salsa spattered over the appetizer offerings? What was a little icky in the pre-coronavirus world won’t fly these days.
Many restaurants are opting for single-use menus that go from the server to the guest to the recycle bin.
Tablets at the table, thoroughly sanitized between parties, could negate the need to place orders through a waiter, Lewis said.
Some restaurants now offer a Tablet at the table so patrons can order without a waiter, Lewis said.
Another electronic menu option is available in the purses and pockets of most diners.
“To help reduce contact, we’ve added a QR code to every table and at our hostess station so you can use your phone to go straight to our menu without needing a physical menu,” Sandbar Sports Grill in Cocoa Beach posted on its Facebook page on May 12. “You can also visit our website or hit the Menu button on our Facebook page to see a menu as well. Physical menus are still available on request.”
More Focused Menus
Katherine Fridl, who owned and worked in restaurants for decades before becoming a restaurant consultant, said for smaller eateries to survive, they will need to pare down their menus.
“They’ve realized they have way too much inventory,” she said. “They’re all re-writing their mission statements going forward.”
Chain establishments with large freezers and bulk-buying power can afford to be all things to all diners, serving tacos and egg rolls, spaghetti and sushi. Mom-and-pop joints will need to get back to their roots, Fridl said.
“I think you may see an increase in specialized menus,” she said.
Smaller restaurants can shine by being nimble, changing their menus to match the availability of fresh vegetables, seafood and meat.
“I think a lot of chefs now are learning to go to more seasonal and daily rather than having a menu, which I think is good,” Fridl said. “It keeps the menu changing. I’m a fan of seasonal and fresh product.”
Bye-Bye for Now, Buffets
If a restaurant guest is hesitant about touching a menu after someone else, imagine the squeamishness about the communal practice of filling a plate at the buffet or salad bar.
“Salad bars were already not as popular as they once were years ago because of the increased food safety risk of maintaining food at the proper temperature,” said Kevin Murphy, a professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “Both salad bars and buffets are not gone forever, but they will be gone for a while until COVID-19 is under control. Eventually they will come back as popularity dictates.”
This could signal a return to cafeteria-style dining. That’s the plan, at least in the short term, for North Carolina-based Golden Corral, which has 483 buffet restaurants in 40 states.
“We have developed new service models to comply with variations in state and local guidelines,” according to a statement at goldencorral.com. “We are prepared to temporarily provide our guests an enjoyable Golden Corral experience delivered in new ways, including cafeteria-style, where we serve you on our buffet lines, or family-style, where our servers bring an endless buffet of Golden Corral favorites to your table.”
More To-Go and Delivery Options
“A lot of us now have relearned what it’s like to spend time at home,” Lewis said.
Before dining rooms began to reopen, restaurants adapted, offering dishes that travel well, family meals, take-and-bake options and even groceries. Expect these to continue.
“There’s going to be a lot of people who aren’t ready to go back out,” Lewis said. “If you want to reach those customers and reach that segment of the world, you’re going to have to innovate to do that.”
That’s what Jacqueline Sampson, owner of Pompano Grill in Cocoa Beach has done.
“We’ve come up with 200 menu items of things that will travel well, or we partially cook it and you finish cooking it when you get home,” she said. The restaurant plans to release new menus every other week that include individual entrees, appetizers, family meals and desserts.
The food is available for pickup or delivery.
As for online ordering and delivery, that’s here to stay, Lewis said. Diners have gotten used to the convenience of it.
Along with online menus and online ordering, online payment will continue to be important, both for convenience and safety.
Paying online for pickup or delivery means no one has to exchange (or touch) money. Receipts don’t have to be signed. It removes another layer of contact between restaurant and customer.
Touchless and limited touch payment is also becoming more prevalent for dine-in. Many restaurants already had begun implementing table-side payment as a security measure. Servers bring tablet computers or other electronic devices so credit cards never leave guests’ hands.
“At Hell ‘n Blazes, we believe we led the industry, at least locally, in providing table-side payment/checkout so customers could keep an eye on their credit cards during the process,” said Don DiFrisco, owner of the downtown Melbourne brewery and restaurant.
“Now, we have found that our system, while not 100% touch free, but it can be, can facilitate a much more ‘clean’ transaction.
“The customer can swipe their card tableside and not touch the terminal while doing so. The customer can also elect to sign the tablet or not sign, and the transaction will still be valid. If a customer elects to sign the tablet, our servers carry small bottles of sanitizer that they may use after signing with the finger or they can use virtually anything as a stylus to sign.
“We are also exploring how our system will work with Apple Pay or similar non-contact payments via a smart phone.”
Experts predict anywhere from 20% to 50% of small restaurants won’t reopen, or won’t reopen for long.
“Restaurants, bar owners and servers, they’re the heart of our culture,” Lewis said. “Some of these businesses, they were built on someone’s life savings.”
Now they face losing everything, through no fault of their own.
“I think the next few weeks will be very telling,” she said.