The Post-COVID Restaurant
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Beginning of June, I went out to the desert to plan the re-opening of the food and beverage operations at a hotel near Palm Springs after it had been closed for 3 months due to COVID-19. In March, the governor of California had mandated all restaurants to cease indoor dining. Hotels were obligated to close down shared common areas such as pools, spas and gyms to protect the population from itself - which left destination lifestyle resorts no other choice but to completely shut down operations.
Once restrictions were lifted in June, we were allowed to re-open the hotel as well as dine-in operations at the restaurant, as long as we ensured enough space for guests to social distance, provided disinfectants and employees wore masks.
During our first week back in business, COVID cases in California surged from around 5000 new positive cases per day to 11’000 new cases per day. The whole world talked about California - and we talked about how to increase the average check to make up for the tables we had to remove to guarantee a 6ft distance.
We opened our doors to guests not only during the biggest surge of COVID cases in California, we were also located in one of the few counties that got placed on a watch list because of the disproportionate amount of infections.
I tried to navigate (but mostly drowned) in the ethical waters of employing staff in an environment where they were constantly exposed to the virus, but trying to implement ways to keep them as safe as possible, the constant fear of getting shut down from one day to the next and operational difficulties such as not receiving deliveries from vendors or vendor reps simply not having returned from furlough yet.
COVID-19 currently has no expiration date and leading a business through it comes with its own set of challenges. This is only possible with a culture of change and innovation. Corporate cultures that embrace change require trust and employee empowerment to allow for immediate implementation of changes in the day to day business. Being able to experiment and make operational changes immediately, allowed me to turn this situation into a financially successful summer.
This being a commercial property in the US, it is a matter of when, not if, a guest will sue when they get sick. Whether they have a basis for it or not doesn’t matter.
Therefore, we did not only follow all the Health Department COVID-19 guidelines to the T, we also implemented them in the most visible way possible.
All staff were mandated to wear a mask that covers mouth and nose as well as disposable gloves at all times. Guests had to wear a mask when entering the restaurant and when getting up from their table.
We removed some of our furniture to allow a 6ft distance between each table and a big sign at the door reminded guests to social distance and be respectful of each other’s space.
Salt and pepper shakers were removed from the tables and replaced with an elegant sanitizer dispenser and a QR code menu as the new center piece.
We placed a table right behind the host stand, where we visibly sanitized all laminated menus after each use with Health Department approved COVID-19 sanitizer.
Chairs and tables were also sanitized after each guest.
To offset this additional cost, we implemented a 3% health charge that was automatically added to each bill. Surprisingly, we have not received one complaint about it, neither did any guest ask about the charge.
Another major operational challenge was getting regular deliveries. “We are currently out of diet coke” was not a response I expected to ever receive from a major beverage vendor. Our beverage program has a strong focus on unique and local wine, liquor and beer. Many producers, especially local breweries, stopped or reduced production during the COVID shut-down since they couldn’t deliver to restaurants anymore. Shortages in the supply chain of fish and certain vegetables also affected our menu due to inconsistent deliveries.
Only two weeks after we opened, COVID cases in California had gotten so out of hand that we were mandated to close our indoor dining. Were it not for COVID we would have never even remotely considered serving our guests outside during the scorching hot desert summer with a temperature of still over 100 degrees at 8pm. Were it not for COVID, our guests would have also never accepted a table outside. But this is the time to try new things and because fewer restaurants are open, guests seemed to be much more forgiving.
The news about re-opening the restaurant in the middle of the pandemic was met with various degrees of enthusiasm by the staff. While the kitchen crew was energetic and thrilled to get back to work, the front of house staff was less than excited to spend their days in close proximity to strangers who are not wearing masks and to touch their dirty dishes. All while earning less money than before the pandemic - but too much to qualify for unemployment benefits from the government. The federal The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which became law on March 27, 2020, significantly expanded unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic and increased the weekly $450 unemployed workers received from the State of California by an additional $600 per week from the federal government. This resulted in a monthly unemployment check of around $4200 and provided a comfortable enough income to enjoy what was for many their first long vacation ever. This increased unemployment compensation lasted until end of July. By re-opening end of June, we asked them to forego an entire month of paid time off, which, for many of them was probably the last time for the rest of their lives that they got a whole month off paid.
Nevertheless, many decided to come back to work for the few shifts per week that we could offer, along with the promise that once business picks up, they would receive their five shifts per week before I gave any shifts to employees that decided not to return to work immediately.
To protect the business from any liability, we required all staff to measure their temperature 2h before the start of their shift and submit it online. Any temperature above 100F (37.8C), being in direct contact with a person that tested positive or displaying any known symptoms prohibited them from coming into work.
This, and the loss of at least one staff member per week due to quarantine or a positive COVID result, made staffing an even bigger challenge than it usually is.
As always, the guest decided on how difficult or how easy they wanted to make service for us. The vast majority was simply grateful to be able to go out for a nice dinner, create some resemblance of normalcy, and many thanked us for re-opening.
We heard from other restaurants and bars that guests requested their cocktails in disposable plastic cups or disposable cutlery for safety reasons. We did not experience anything like that, in fact, our guests seemed to want a service level as close to “normal” as possible. It turns out, the guests did not care whether we touch their water glass when refilling it. Something we had internally discussed at length before re-opening.
In fact, we worked so hard to create a normal hotel experience for our guests, that some of them forgot that COVID was still a threat. It was easy to let yourself believe that the old normal was back while sipping cocktails at the hotel pool, which is why most did not wear a mask when ordering at the pool or when walking up to the host stand of the restaurant.
Every now and then a guest asked whether we could make an exception and allow them to sit at a table inside the restaurant because of the heat. But as normal as life within the hotel appeared, we were still bound by the health department COVID guidelines.
Guests were only allowed to enter the restaurant to go to the bathroom. On the way to the bathroom however, they often seemed to get lost in photoshoot sessions – after all, when do you ever get to take your influencer pictures in a completely empty restaurant?
All in all, it was definitely worth re-opening the restaurant in the middle of the pandemic and turning our garden into an outdoor experience that allowed us to serve one hundred covers on a Friday and Saturday night while other restaurants limited themselves to take-out.
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