The Masked Server: Making Hospitality Happen Despite Masks in Restaurants

The last several months have been some of the toughest the restaurant industry has seen.

Staff has worked hard to weather the blows and keep customers coming in the door. Although there have been many positive steps, from focusing on increasing pickup and to-go orders to allowing dining outdoors and proper social distance, restaurant owners are still figuring out the right path in this new territory. So, how can staff create a welcome atmosphere for diners when the situation still feels daunting? How do we convey a sense of joy and hospitality when servers’ smiles are hidden behind masks?

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It’s no secret that Coronavirus has drastically changed the way the hospitality business is run. From seating capacity to sanitization to masks. Almost every aspect of dining out looks different from the way it looked last December. Our lives have changed, and the service industry has been dramatically impacted.

But like those in the culinary industry always do, they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and found innovative solutions to problems. They offered fundraisers, to-go delivery and pickup, and found new ways to share the food and love with their community.

Now, as America creeps cautiously back out into the world, we’re still figuring out the best ways to navigate a novel virus. According to the CDC, wearing a mask is just one way to protect yourself and others against COVID-19, and in many areas, wearing a mask indoors is mandated. These regulations leave the service industry with a new question: with masks in restaurants, how does staff convey a welcoming, service-oriented atmosphere?

The Logistics of Dining in Masks at Restaurants

Servers wearing masks and other PPE while serving customers in restaurants is becoming common practiceWhile actually EATING while wearing a mask presents a few logistical hurdles, masks are a new part of the dining experience. What does dining in a mask look like?

For patrons, restaurant dining in a mask means wearing their mask when they arrive at the restaurant. Under most guidelines, customers should wear the mask while ordering food, but they can remove it for eating and drinking once the food is served. Trips to the restroom should include a mask as well, and once customers are ready to head out, they should wait for their check with masks on. It will require practice until we’re all used to wearing masks in restaurants.

The tables in the dining room should be well-spaced, offering at least six feet between diners. Servers and waitstaff should easily walk through the dining area without getting too close to guests.

For the restaurant’s part, staff and servers should always wear a mask while serving customers, preparing food, and even busing and clearing empty tables. Hand sanitizer should be placed prominently throughout the restaurant, and guidelines should be posted. Plastic and paper service ware will help ensure the safety of diners. After years of doing away with single-use plastics like straws and utensils, Coronavirus has forced us to bring them back temporarily. Disposable menus are another recommendation worth following—anything to minimize the handling of items will help keep everyone safe and healthy.

There is a psychological element to wearing masks in restaurants that increases diners’ comfort as well. Have servers visibly sanitize their hands before returning to each table; this will ease customers’ fears and help them feel safe. Other measures like plexiglass between the tables, customer hand-sanitizing stations, and even temperature checks can be extra precautions appreciated by some patrons.

In foodservice and safety, gloves are typically only used when touching prepared food, but some restaurants are going the extra mile with regular glove use. Should you choose to encourage staff, consider the example of The Select in Sandy Springs, GA, which has servers wear different-colored gloves every time they return to a table. The “wardrobe change” lets patrons know that they’re prioritizing safety and taking the extra steps.

These safety precautions are a lot for restaurant owners and staff to take on, but it’s a temporary necessity in our current environment. Should someone at your restaurant test positive for COVID-19, transparency is your best option. Let customers and staff know that you’re shutting down to deep clean for a few days. It’s a difficult situation, but if handled correctly, it shouldn’t impact your business negatively in the long run.

The Masked Server

Service with a smile has long been the mantra of the foodservice industry. Food conveys connection, warmth, and love. So taking away or “hiding” that smile behind a mask is a tough pill to swallow.

One restaurant in Atlanta, Ray’s on the River, has worked with staff on voice intonation. Masked faces are hard to read and may even be tough to understand. Servers must annunciate clearly and speak slowly in an upbeat tone to patrons. Help them learn how to “smile with their voice” by smiling behind the mask as they talk.

The new normal is seeing wait staff wearing masks and other protective gear while working in restaurants during Coronavirus

Clear face shields are another possibility but must provide enough coverage to be protective. Look for face shields with full head wraps or look for masks with clear windows in the front. These masks were developed for those who rely on lipreading for communication, but they can also help servers who want patrons to see their smile. When customers see a friendly face, it puts them at ease and allows them to enjoy their dining experience.

As Bill Kohne, co-owner of Hugo’s Tacos in California explained to USA TODAY simply: face masks “aren’t a choice. This isn’t company policy, this isn’t a belief of mine or anybody else that masks are good. It’s part of a public health code.” This is part of our new normal for the time being, so we have to figure out how to make it work.

Dealing with Not-So-Friendly Situations

By now, if you’ve spent any time on social media, you’ve likely heard a horror story of someone berating a server or customer service representative over mask use. In stressful situations and uncertain times, people often have a short fuse and may take it out on the staff. Unfortunately, when enforcing the mask rule, you and your team may encounter customers who may be angry, belligerent, or even violent.

The front-of-the-house staff has had to shift into becoming mask-enforcers. Where they may have faced an occasional upset customer in the past, these vital workers are becoming more and more exposed to dismissive, aggravated, and angry people, which can be very stressful for everyone.

As the restaurant owner, it’s essential to take time to brush up on communication training with your staff. Check out restaurant resources for best practices and review them with your servers. It’s also crucial to check-in regularly and be there for your team who may need extra emotional support during this time. Staff and other customers trust you to ensure the mask guidelines are followed and your restaurant supports that protocol.

The co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, CO, Bobby Stuckey, explained to his staff, “Every person is on a different point on the bell curve of COVID-19 stress levels, and they need to adjust to those.” Remind staff that it’s important to be empathetic and understanding to customers right now (but also support your staff and have their back)!

One way to ease the pressure on front-of-the-house staff is to post guidelines prominently around your restaurant. Communication with the community is crucial to your continued success. You should advise customers of your guidelines on your website, through social media, on your front door, windows, and tables. Customers are doing their research these days, so they likely checked your policy before they arrived at your establishment. Reminders may be needed, but most customers want to do the right thing and follow guidelines to keep themselves and others safe.

Selecting the Best Masks for Your Waitstaff

Wearing masks while working in a restaurant is a necessary step to protect staff and customersDepending on your establishment, you may want to require a specific type of mask. Should everyone wear a consistent color or matching mask? Do you want to allow your staff to select a mask of their preference?

There are a variety of options for this new facial uniform. Disposable, paper masks are less expensive, but a clear plastic face shield allows customers to see the server’s smile. A cloth mask could be embroidered with the company’s logo and perhaps the server’s name (but servers may need multiple masks to change out during shift).

Lower cut masks still cover the nose but show more face to see the server’s expressions. Custom-made masks with a picture of the employee’s face could also be a fun alternative. Many medical professionals have found that wearing smiling photos of themselves on their name badge, can help put patients at ease. Servers could take a lesson from them and try this method in the restaurant setting as well.

When you decide on the right type of mask, you should also consider the length of time and conditions for your staff wearing the mask. Restaurants (even socially distanced) can become crowded and hot. Masks must be breathable and comfortable if servers are expected to wear them all shift. Staff may need to take extra breaks as they adjust to working in PPE.

It’s also essential to train your staff on the proper handling and removal of their mask. Touching the mask by the straps instead of the front is ideal for hygiene. It’s a good idea for servers to bring a backup mask or two if they need to switch during a shift. Masks should be put in a Ziploc-type bag until they can be taken home and sanitized or washed.

At the end of the day, masks aren’t anyone’s favorite attire, but they’re necessary precautions for our world. Wearing a mask is about easing customers’ fears, keeping them safe, and helping them feel relaxed.

The virus has shown our shared humanity. Remind servers that the most critical aspect of customer service is to connect on a human level. Handwritten notes on receipts, attentive listening, eye contact, and fun, lighthearted conversation can make up for the hidden smiles.

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!