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Foodservice operators pivot and close as Covid-19 spreads

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Foodservice consultants are in a unique position to help restaurants and operators deal with the crisis

Many restaurants, bars, food halls, coffee shops and other foodservice outlets have been forced to temporarily close their dine-in areas as a way to contain the spread of the deadly, highly-contagious virus, Covid-19.

This has had or will have a series of immediate and potentially longer-term impacts on restaurants and the industry at-large. Foodservice consultants are therefore in a unique position to offer their assistance.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many foodservice consulting firms have had to close offices and change interactions to ensure the safety of their staff and clients.

For example, New York-based consultancy Next Step Design has required all employees to work remotely until March 27, and this decision will be evaluated on a week-by-week basis following that date. “Additionally, the firm’s employees should avoid unnecessary work-related travel and opt for virtual meetings wherever possible,” said founder and principal Russell Stilwell FCSI in a statement.

Leveraging technology

Stilwell says the team is making use of multiple technologies and systems to continue serving clients while practicing social distancing. These include using a  secure and high-speed Virtual Private Network (VPN) for access to files; Microsoft Teams for workplace chat, video meetings, file storage, and application integration; Zoom for video conferencing; Autodesk® BIM 360 for live design team collaboration; and Bluebeam for virtual plan review and coordination with Revit® and AutoCAD® design teams as well as clients.

The NSD team also have daily team check-ins to keep in touch. “We believe if we keep productive and stick together, we will come out of this crisis stronger than ever,” Stilwell said.

Push for off-premise

While more restaurants these days are set up for delivery and/or off-premise dining, many are not, especially independent outlets in the finer dining segment. Others may have been in the middle of setting up their delivery programs, and will now have to ramp up their efforts faster than ever to meet a (hopefully) exploding demand.

So as a foodservice consultant, how can you help? There is the immediate need for extra packaging and to-go supplies, of course, so now is a time to reach out to dealer partners.

Design-wise, there might be an immediate need for layout and equipment changes in the kitchen in order to help operators shift to a higher-volume, assembly line-like production set-up.

Staffing shifts

As a result of the temporary – or indeed permanent – layoff of front-of-the-house servers, there is likely an immediate need for extra hands in the kitchen to help package food for delivery and takeout, as well as possibly even deliver meals directly or bring them to the curb for pickup.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker was the first governor to temporarily close restaurants for dine-in for at least a two-week period, and as a result a number of restaurants in Chicago immediately shifted to delivery and curbside pickup, the latter of which helps reduce the number of people congregating inside.

Four Star Restaurant Group, for example, began offering curbside pickup available at its various locations from 11am until 8pm daily. Customers are asked to call directly to place orders and pay via phone, and the team will bring food in a sealed bag out to the car in 30 minutes (wearing gloves, of course).

Safety and sanitation

While most operators know the importance of sanitation and food safety, going forward, this  will be even more imperative, especially as we enter another flu season in the Fall, when the coronavirus could come back with a vengeance. Note that coronavirus is not spread through food, but an asymptomatic employee not wearing gloves could spread it to packaging materials, for example.

Regular cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces throughout the front, back and outside of the house will need to be even more heeded now and in the future. Foodservice consultants might be able to offer their services on how to source, store and efficiently use not only standard sanitation supplies, but also higher-tech systems like reverse osmosis, oxygen cleaning and more.

Industry expert Matthew Mabel, CEO of Surrender, encourages his clients to also talk about safety with their guests, arguing that they really have no idea how much time, effort and energy goes into this. “So, you should tell them, through e-mail marketing, social media, PR, your website and your conversations and managers’ conversations at table visits with residential and commercial neighbors in your community,” Mabel wrote in his latest newsletter.

Looking after staff

Mabel also stresses that the time for paid sick leave is now. “No one wants to take on a new expense that may be administered unfairly,” he writes. “But your policy to stop sick people working, however you may have strengthened it during this crisis-is not enough.”

A quick calculation with one of his clients’ restaurants found that they could pay a week of sick leave for the entire staff by raising prices less than three quarters of a percentage point (.00063% to be exact). Darden Restaurants was one of the first restaurants to announce during the Covid-19 crisis the implementation of paid sick leave for all employees and managers.

Before restaurants were ordered to be closed, some had already begun to step up sanitation efforts. In Chicago, Clever Rabbit began printing menus on paper that would be tossed out/recycled in between each seating, and another restaurant brought back the chalkboard menu concept.

Amelia Levin