Creative Restaurants During Coronavirus: 8 Tips for the New Normal of the Restaurant Business

Since March, restaurants have had to think outside the box to keep their businesses afloat.

While it’s been an unprecedented struggle, it’s also been inspiring to see these creative restaurants during Coronavirus. Many restaurant owners have found new and innovative ways to bring in customers and keep their business steady. Here are nine lessons to help you keep your own restaurant going.

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In mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the United States, most restaurants were forced to face a challenge they never anticipated—closing their doors to their loyal customer base. In-person dining was no longer viable with most states on lockdown, forcing restaurant owners to get creative or face the possibility of closing permanently.

Unfortunately, some restaurants couldn’t outlast the shutdown, but as we’ve reopened and navigated through this uncertain time, others have found new ways to thrive and even grow during this challenge. What made the difference for some that succeeded, and how can you replicate that for your restaurant?

Here we explore eight lessons for restaurant owners willing to get creative in their offerings to customers.

1. Rethink the Dining Experience

For many, dining out is an escape, a treat, and an easy way to unwind after a long week. With restaurants closed due to the pandemic, many people really missed out on the dining experience. As soon as they were able, many loyal patrons were poised to return to their favorite joints.

With restrictions in place regarding the number of patrons allowed indoors, the savviest restaurants rethought the typical dining room model and literally started to go outside the box. Offering outdoor dining was one of these creative methods for bringing in more customers, even when the dining room was closed.

If outdoor dining isn’t a feasible option for your restaurant, try rethinking the indoor dining experience. How are you creating partitions for safe socially distanced dining indoors? Think of creative ways to construct partitions between tables—ideas range from hanging old windows from the ceiling to creating standing partitions with doors, plexiglass, or other materials. Brainstorm other functional ways to add safe socially distancing in ways that match the theme and décor of your restaurant.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding us, it’s certainly worth exploring the possibilities of outdoor dining, even now. Does your establishment have patio space? Or sidewalks you could convert to outdoor seating? Space heaters, low-cost roofing and screens, and a few outdoor lights can transform a corner of your parking lot into a welcoming “three-season” patio to extend your outdoor dining life.

2. Introduce and Promote Curb Side Pick Up

For restaurants that already offered carry out, adjusting to curbside pickup was a relatively easy shift. But for traditionally dine-in establishments, adding in the option of curbside meant the hope of being able to ride out the pandemic wave.

The success of curbside pickup has been one of the most inspiring examples of creative restaurants during Coronavirus. Many restaurants found new ways to take orders over the phone, offer contactless pickup, and provide customers with food (and employees with jobs) even during the pandemic’s direst points.

Resources like OnMilwaukee offer listings of local restaurants providing curbside service (and as you can see, it’s quite prolific). Those outside of the Milwaukee area will still find plenty of options for curbside and contactless food. Restaurant owners should explore the listings and take steps to ensure they get a listing in the resource.

Even after the lockdown measures lessened across the Midwest, and restaurants began to offer some dine-in options, many people were (and still are) wary of eating indoors. With occupancy restrictions in place, maintaining a curbside option allowed owners to offset lost revenue and maintain a connection with those customers who preferred a takeaway option. In many cases, it looks like curbside will be here to stay.

3. Roll Out Weekly Specials

What better way to help make your customers and community think of you first when selecting their dining experience than to create weekly specials? No matter the type of restaurant you are, regular and unique specials draw people to you, particularly during this pandemic.

With a lack of “drop-in” diners, the specials board may seem obsolete, but the truth is, it’s just shifted. Almost all restaurant-goers check the websites of their favorite joints before going out to eat. Often, they want to know the safety measures that the establishments are taking, but many of them also want to look at the delicious dishes and start fantasizing about dinner!

If you’re considering which specials will help diners get in the door (or on the curb), think beyond just the Taco Tuesday or Wednesday Wings, and dig into what your customers may be missing most. Some establishments figured out a way to include carry out alcohol with purchases. Does your special include a South American dish? Include a pitcher of to-go margaritas for the road. Gameday? Promote a six-pack of local beer to go along with that bucket of your famous wings. Include plenty of photos of everything to whet customer’s appetites.

4. Delivery, Delivery, Delivery

With so many loyal customers staying at home throughout the course of the pandemic, delivery options became very popular for many restaurants. Some saw the need to increase the number of delivery drivers on their team, while others shifted and found ways to launch a delivery program.

What’s important to remember is that with so many delivery programs available to partner with, places like DoorDash, GrubHub, Uber Eats, your restaurant can shift to offer delivery with very minimal impact on your staff and scheduling. GrubHub even deferred some of their fees for participating Indianapolis restaurants to help them get back on their feet.

While these food delivery providers aren’t always a perfect option (many can charge hefty participation rates), it does allow your restaurant to offer delivery, especially if your restaurant is struggling with dine-in business. A shift toward delivery options will help your typical dine-in customers think of you more often and keep your revenue flowing. The bonus is that visibility on a delivery service may attract new people to your establishment. See if your current waitstaff is interested in shifts as delivery drivers or curb-side runners. If you are struggling to find shifts for your staff, adding delivery options could benefit both your customers and your employees.

5. Offer Meal Kits to Heat and Eat

Not all customers can eat their meal right when they pick it up, and some dishes don’t transport well. Kitchen staff can adapt to this problem by creating heat and eat options and “meal kits.” Partially cook some items, package all the parts separately, and provide directions for how best to prepare once they have arrived at their final destination.

Madison restaurant, Pasture & Plenty, offers farm-to-freezer meal kits using locally sourced ingredients. Many other Midwestern restaurants are providing similar meal-kit-to-go creations. This creative restaurant-response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been a trend that may stay well after the pandemic. 

Restaurants can market meal kits as plan ahead options for one night or a week, and items could be pre-cooked and frozen to stock up on nights where you might be offering popular specials. Remind customers when they call to order a meal to-go that there are meal-kits to take home as well.

6. Take the Bar Home with Carryout Cocktails

Depending on your restaurant’s liquor license and restrictions, you may be able to offer diners a drink or two to take home with their dinner. After all, nothing completes a meal like the perfect cocktail or a delicious pairing of wine.

Lack of alcohol sales has had a significant impact on some restaurants. Some states have adjusted laws regarding alcohol delivery and carry out during these times, which gives restaurants a chance to respond and get back some of that lost revenue. While it’s not quite the same as patrons ordering several drinks throughout their meal, it does provide restaurant owners with a method for selling at least a few beverages.

If your restaurant qualifies, create a menu of carryout cocktails tailored to your customer base. If your restaurant is known for making a fantastic mojito, sell them in large jars to go. Is your local crowd missing your world-famous margaritas? Find a way to sell them in larger bottles, and pair them with your menu items and specials. Restaurants like Milwaukee’s Celeste offer delicious beverage kits for brunch and to accompany special meals.

7. Pay it Forward with Meal Donations

Many communities have responded tenfold to the heroes working on the front lines during this pandemic. While it’s always good to support your community, it also helps to boost your public profile and may even earn you some extra press coverage.

You can encourage your customers to support essential employees with a meal by either purchasing food outright to be delivered to a group or offering a deal, like “buy two, give one.” Restaurants like Bounce in Milwaukee have come up with unique programs, including their “pay it forward pizza,” where patrons can buy an extra pie for a family in need.

Offering up the option to buy a meal for a nursing unit or the break room at the local grocery store is a great way to help your customers pay it forward, as well as emphasize your focus on the community at large. This option also allows you to maintain some regular sales, despite a potentially quieter dining room—a win-win for all!

8. Get Social

During a pandemic, one of the few ways people could truly interact regularly was through social media channels. In fact, many restaurants have found that social media and an online presence has been crucial to their survival. If your restaurant doesn’t yet have an online presence, get one ASAP! Even a Facebook page will help.

Ready to increase your social presence? Use this platform as a way to get your promotions going with a catchy hashtag. #TakeOutTuesday or #FridayFajitas can stick in customer’s heads and make them think of you first when that day rolls around.

Word of mouth via social media is also beneficial. Many new Facebook groups appeared during the stay at home mandates. People could exchange information about which restaurants were still open, which ones needed support, where to find the best burger at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday. This word of mouth is inexpensive and easy advertising.

In Wisconsin, one relatively small Mexican restaurant in suburban Milwaukee found itself with a substantial new fanbase and a wait time of several hours for food. The quality of the food was one thing, but word of mouth about how the owners treated the customers is what drew more and more people to Casa Noble in Waukesha.

Looking to the Future

There’s no doubt that when this pandemic subsides, “normal” will not be what we expect it to be. Many of our new patterns may become regular, and realizing how quickly things can change, may leave many industries adapting to stay ahead of the curve.

The restaurant industry will be no different. Speculation that things like “no contact delivery” options and more space between tables to allow for social distancing may be much more common. Gone will be the days of using every inch of space to allow for maximum dining; instead, we will see dedicated corners for carrying out and drive through, even in sit down restaurants.

Change doesn’t need to be a bad thing, but it is hard. And when change comes due to a global crisis and not because it was in the plans, it’s even more challenging. The industry has adapted and made the best of a difficult situation, and a lot of really innovative ideas have come to fruition because of it. Creative restaurants have found ways to survive during Coronavirus.

So, embrace the “new normal,” keep thinking outside the box, and watch your customers adapt with you. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together, and those who have been the most loyal will stick with you.

Reliable Water Services is Here for You

Hot water is critical to health, sanitation, and safety in general, but it’s especially vital to the industries we serve—and the majority of those industries are considered essential businesses. As our customers remain operational during these unprecedented times, so does Reliable Water Services.

Making sure our customers have hot water has always been our main priority, and now more than ever, we are here for you. We will continue to provide 24/7 water heater services to our customers, ensuring you have the hot water your business relies on. Our office team is practicing social distancing by working remotely or staying 6 feet apart while in the office. Meanwhile, our service technicians and installing contractors are following extra safety guidelines to ensure they can service your building safely without putting themselves or your staff members at risk.

Our team at RWS has always viewed the relationship with each of our customers as a partnership. Through this partnership, we will work together and get through these unique and challenging times. As always, should you need service contact us 24/7 at 1-800-356-1444. Stay safe, and be well!