What Will Make Restaurant Guests Feel Safe During COVID-19?
About two weeks ago, my husband and I went out to lunch. It was only the second time we’d gone out for a meal since March.
We chose a local restaurant that we like with plenty of outdoor seating, so it felt like a pretty safe option. When we went to the bar to place our order, the bartender was serving another customer. She took the customer’s card, swiped it on the POS, and returned it.
She then rang in our orders and ran our credit card, before getting our drinks. I ordered an iced tea, and the bartender used her (unwashed) hand to add a lemon. She also passed us silverware rolls with the same (unwashed) hands.
Under normal circumstances, this would be unremarkable. It is unreasonable to expect a bartender to wash her hands every time she touches cash or a credit card. But during a global pandemic when we’re all on heightened alert, I was disappointed by the lack of concern being shown for extra sanitation.
While the staff was wearing face masks, there were no gloves, no hand sanitizer, no proof of additional care being taken to make guests feel safe. We will definitely not be back to this restaurant anytime soon — and that’s not good news in an industry that’s struggling.
So how can the hospitality industry make guests feel safer during the coronavirus pandemic?
Guests will infer based on what they see
To those of us who have spent years working in the hospitality industry, the “back of house” is a simple, utilitarian place. But for guests, there is a lot of mystery about what’s behind closed doors in a restaurant or hotel.
And that lack of knowledge means guests will make their own assumptions based on what they can see. If a restaurant or hotel doesn’t seem to be concerned about increased cleanliness out in public, guests will infer that there are no heightened precautions being taken in the kitchen either.
While the FDA has issued a statement that there is no evidence of COVID-19 being transferred through food, it doesn’t matter — it’s about how your guests feel. You have to show them that you’re taking the issue seriously and making an effort to keep them safe.
Put on a show
A visible increase in cleaning will help. Staff should be wiping down tables with a disinfectant spray between each guest. Bartenders should clean the POS screen as often as possible, plus other high touch areas, like door knobs, the bar top, and credit card readers.
Judicious use of gloves can also be helpful, but staff needs to understand how to prevent cross-contamination with those gloves.
What about the bathrooms? Many a time, I have entered a restaurant bathroom with a laminated cleaning schedule up on the back of the door. It doesn’t instill much confidence when the “hourly cleaning log” hasn’t been updated for 6 hours. Having a log is a great idea, but only if staff is using it.
Temperature checks are another highly visible precaution, although they require a staff member to be outside at all times to execute.
Treat cleanliness and hygiene as part of your marketing strategy. Although cleanliness has always been an important factor for restaurants and hospitality businesses, it’s never been more important to share that message than it is now.
Not every business will have the same opportunities for contactless operations. Implementing a contactless payment system is not always feasible, although new players on the scene are trying to change that.
I recently learned about a company called Outpay that provides a fully contactless payment system through the customer’s phone. Guests can set up an Outpay account when they arrive, which only takes a minute. Then their credit card will be synced to their bill, so there is no opportunity for walked checks. It integrates with many POS systems too, which has always been the pain point of rolling out new restaurant technology. It sounds like it may be a good option going forward.
Many restaurants have started using QR codes for their menus, instead of single-use paper menus. The guest can scan the QR code on their phone, and then view the menu right on their device. It’s easy to setup, but keep in mind:
- QR code menus will be viewed on a mobile device. So avoid PDF menus that require pinching and zooming in. Instead, use a responsive HTML menu that will be easy to read on all mobile devices.
- Make sure all menus are available by QR code. That includes food menus, kid’s menus, drink menus. You may need multiple QR codes, or your QR code can lead to a landing page with links to each menu.
Websites like Flowcode let you set up QR codes for free.
And if you haven’t upgraded your paper towel dispensers, soap dispensers, and faucets to touchless versions, now is the time.
Communication to reassure guests
While you’ve probably already implemented extra precautions in your cleaning and sanitation policies, do your guests know about them?
I’m not talking about another flurry of “How we’re addressing coronavirus” emails. We all got plenty of those back in March and April.
I’m talking about something onsite. When people show up at your doors, they should easily get an idea of what you’ve changed. Signage on the door or a note added to your QR menu could do the trick.
Maybe your bussers are only allowed to touch dirty dishes, and your servers are only allowed to touch clean. That’s a change that may not be visible to guests, but they would appreciate hearing about it.
One restaurant that I’m a fan of has been closed since March, and they’re planning to re-open in October. They’ve been hyping up their re-opening plan on social media, which makes me feel like they’ve really thought through changes to their service methods.
If that restaurant we visited a few weeks ago had a sign that informed us of new cleaning policies, I may have felt more comfortable during my lunch.
Restaurant operators ≠ health officials
Restaurants and food service providers have always had some measure of responsibility for public health. But in the current climate, those requirements have skyrocketed.
For all the National Restaurant Association’s claims that “…[restaurant operators] know what to do to make the restaurants safe” as they pushed for reopening, preventing the spread of airborne particles has never been in our wheelhouse.
Now operators find themselves in a tough spot. As protections run out, they have to reopen to stay afloat. They need to promote their restaurants and try to attract as many guests as possible under the current guidelines, while even the experts aren’t sure what the best course of action is.
The best they can do is push out new cleaning and operational procedures to make their restaurants as safe as possible, and then promote those new policies to make guests feel comfortable coming back.
While I wish I could support every restaurant right now, I’ll only be visiting those that are prioritizing sanitation and cleanliness over the next few months.
Header photo by Miikka Luotio on Unsplash