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Expectations from restaurants during the pandemic and beyond

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It would be safe to assume that consumers expect safety and hygiene to be a basic need from restaurants going forward. Until now, it was taken for granted. Let me start with an example. I recollect that clearly demonstrated better hygiene and open kitchen was one of the main reasons for Saravana Bhavan in Chennai becoming an iconic and hugely profitable brand back in the day. Whether it was keeping the spoon sanitised in warm water or dressing all the staff well, they did it out of the need to differentiate and not because the customers demanded it at that point in time. One may argue it still did not help them survive the vicious restaurant life cycle. My argument is that they certainly and very successfully extended it for quite long! We shall not go into the reasons for their decline as this is not the intention of this communication. The intention is to learn from the best always and evaluate if it suits you today. Herewith, I am trying to bring out of the cloud a few things that we might not be considering during these stressful times. Of course, this is not the laundry list of things we must do as businesses to keep alive post the lockdown but a priority list at the least. Certainly, there are multiple more efforts that need to be taken as the situation evolves.
“Vision without execution… is just hallucination” – A Visionary
Demonstrate what is expected from you: I would like to start with hygiene. The includes environmental hygiene both outside and inside your restaurant. No more we can give an excuse that I can’t help it if the outside is not clean.
– Change location, work with the corporation to do what it takes
– On the inside, be minimalistic with your décor and furniture and space them out. Use Stainless steel furniture to ensure easy moving, cleanliness and hygiene. Avoid wodden furniture and fabric/leather seating. Keep the floor visible and cleanable. Spacing the tables means lesser PAX per sqft but this is expected out of you.
– Seeing is believing. People want to see that hygiene is being maintained. Maintain a log clearly visible to the customers about when the facility was cleaned. No more hiding it behind a door!
– Have the employee temperature checks done everyday recorded and displayed at the entrance and on social media (hiding the names on Social Media).
– Improve lighting (natural if possible) and make sure there are no dim lightning or corners.
Manage your menu: Most people complicate the menu and end up giving enough reasons to customers to complain about the consistency. Given the labour churn, It is not possible to maintain consistency in delivery. Customers will now need Healthy, Tasty and Soulful food. An elaborate menu also leads to high ingredient storage space, costs and management.
– Trim and simplify the menu. Aim at keeping only close to 50 percent of your existing menu.
– Look up previous sales data about what has sold the most.
– Start with understanding what your customers have missed most during lockdown and try and include as much of it as possible in the menu. It is a huge learning that will serve us well going forward.
– List down the ingredients that are used the most among the top sellers and optimise your ingredient inventory based on that. Do not over stock inventory.
– Remember, people will be scared to try out restaurant style food for a while but are forced to eat outside for unavoidable reasons.
– Add healthier and more simple home style food options in your menu.
– Do not overdo it but include sufficient number of menu items that are usually made at home.
– Turn yourself into a home style kitchen.
Overemphasis on ingredients: Local, Sustainable and Natural ingredients will be the minimum that would be required to please a customer.
– “I can’t afford it” is not an excuse that sounds acceptable anymore by an hotelier. The idea is to service the customer to ensure that he feels he has had a nourishing, safe and delicious meal at the right price.
– This is the only way to ensure his return or even his visit!
Authentic Food anyone? Improve the authenticity of the taste of your food. I have dined at so many restaurants who have not made any effort on the menu. It is simply about copy paste and excessive usage of frozen and convenient foods. There is no authenticity to this.
– Try to specialise in the menu items that you offer. Trust us, they will need a lot of pursuing to eat out and choose your restaurant! Give them stuff that you have prepared yourself.
– With a simpler menu, it is going to be easier.
Transparency needs to be redefined: Customers will need to be convinced about the hygiene of your location if you want them to dine in your restaurant. Remember, the decision to choose the restaurant for dine in is almost always taken before the travel commences.
– Try to showcase your storage area and kitchen area as much as possible in your communication.
– Open up your store CCTV camera views to outsiders during working hours. Have a request based solution. Of course do not show it out at night.
– Highlight the type/brand of oil that you use. Mention the sourcing points of your ingredients. Increase traceability for the customer. Be an open book.
– Highlight the local element of your product
– Highlight the nutrition of the food that you are serving. Try to highlight the calories most importantly.
– Do not compare your menu/food with others. Customers shall see through this and perceive it negatively during these times.
– Days of using colour/ artificial flavours are numbered.
– Calculate the cost of the item and display the final cost on the menu.
– Let the customer have access to your recipes. This is the time to be bold and opportunist. Please the customer no matter what it takes.
– Make him feel that he is eating at the safety of home and paying the right price. This does not mean lower prices.
– Follow the FSSAI labelling regulations (generally used for packaged foods) for each item on the menu. Ensure that you do not use foods that were stored in the open or which might have a risk of being damaged or spoilt. The world order has changed. Please change accordingly. What have you got to lose?
– This is perhaps the best time to invest in a community fridge which shall feed the poor and needy outside your restaurant. The restaurant can keep unsold food and even guests can request the extra food ordered to be kept in the fridge. Thus also reducing unnecessary packaging.
Customer Engagement: This cannot be over emphasised during this period.
– Continuously engage and communicate with your community/customers with simple and planned messages. Use Social Media, SMS, Email, FB, Instagram, Phone calls, Whats app, Telegram or anything you can do to reach out to them.
– Start with recording your own videos immediately. It can be done with your own “smart” mobile phone. This is the most reassuring media.
– Directly ask your customers how they think you can improve and what they would like you to offer. It could mean changing your cuisine offering completely if that’s what all your customers want! Ensure that you make those changes and go back to them. They will certainly be obliged to give you a try!
– Ask them how you can improve your hygiene. Please do not be ashamed. There is nothing worse than not being able to cater to your customers requirement.
– As soon as you have made changes, record a video/pictures and circulate to your customers. Seeing is believing and if they see that you have taken steps, they are immediately more confident about dining at your location. They will see your work style and become your ambassador.
– Keep your social media active with latest content and communication from you to your customers directly.
– In the restaurant, no conflicts should be encouraged. Empathy towards the customer must be increased. Under normal circumstances, a customer complaint is looked at as an opportunity, but now we need to look at it empathy also.
– Elderly and very young customers should be given specific additional care and treatment.
Up-skill your staff: Train them to take on additional tasks and multitask. This is going to be the new common.
– Please lay off anyone who is a habitual offender of non compliance. Do it before anything else. The last thing you need is a guy who takes your business for granted in this phase.
– Use their language to help them understand what it takes.
– Make groups for hygiene and nominate a leader accountable for each group. Mention the expectations clearly to the leaders and the teams. Huddle up each evening without fail. This is a typical corporate style approach and it must work for you. They cannot go back to their old ways of working.
Outsourcing during the pandemic: My Favourite! The smartest of them all will outsource the most critical job to their most important stakeholders. In this case your customers.
– Call your customers to help you redesign your menu. Ask them to select their menu.
– Ask them if they can share a recipe and that you will implement it if there is a demand.
– Execute it to their satisfaction. They are the reason you exist (has never been any other way!)
Reduce costs at any cost! This is obvious but cannot be over emphasised. You cannot loose money to inefficiencies during this time.
– Stop printing menu cards. They are dirty and seen as unhygenic most of the times. A simple menu can be printed and pasted or published on a screen.
– Ordering at the table can be stopped. The customer can be requested to either order via a device placed on the table or at the cash desk.
– Simplifying a menu, reducing menu items and having only fast moving products will certainly help reduce inventory and hence investment costs.
– No discounts to be given or advertised.
– Decrease working hours of restaurants during which customers can walk-in. This way your staff can double up for multiple roles.
– Stop paying fancy PR and Social Media monthly retainers. You are doing enough PR.
– The media and customers will find you if you are doing good work. You need customers to walk in now and nothing else.
Innovative sales models to ensure cash flow: This is the right time to innovate.
– Start a subscription services for meals and foods. Follow and demonstrate all the required safety norms during contactless delivery. This gives you some money upfront and helps you keep aware of targets.
– Start “order to pick” models and ensure payment is made in advance.
– Do not engage with delivery partners as far as possible.
– Allow customers to choose, in advance, a slot when they want to come to dine.
Partner with your employees: Considering we are today talking about survival and meeting basic needs, make your employees partners and a transparent share in your business without having to increase salaries.
– Work out a way that you move to a 100 percent success based payoff where an employee surely takes away more than he used to with a low minimum wage guarantee.
– Turn them into weekly pay and not monthly pay during this period without effecting their legal status.
– Communicate with them frequently and ask them their ideas. They will implement them more happily if it originated from them.
Increase credibility with stakeholders: Reach out to your financial partners and stakeholders to convince them that you are doing your best everyday.
– Send them over the list of your efforts and even better a meal! You need supporters and not influencers right now.
– Make the payment cycle weekly for all. Make part payments. This way your stakeholders are all satisfied and they will feel the pinch lesser. Turn the tide your way! (This is a contribution from my dad.)
Why profit? Forget profits for now. Think operational breakeven. It is a matter of our survival. As our PM Modi rightly said, “Jaan hai to Jahaan hai”. Please note that I am not using this to demonstrate my support for Modi ji. He is India’s Prime Minister and hence he deserves this mention. My dad says “Maa nahi hai aur tum mausi ki chinta kar rahe ho!”
It is about the fast and not the big: Contrary to popular belief, I think it is about the businesses who respond fast and win customers.
– This is a golden opportunity to do whatever it takes within your scope.
– Larger chains are not as agile as the small/medium ones and cannot response as easily as you can. You are not called small and medium businesses for no reason!
– There is no excuse not to act fast without your own limitations. Start now!
Please remember these initiatives cost you noting more than human effort. If any of you feel that you do not have records of your customers, please remember that it was your decision to give it away to online aggregators and that this database could have been worth its weight in gold as of now. As people famously say, data is the new oil (gold!). If you feel that you cannot make these and more changes, please ask yourself this question: What choice do you now have? What did you bring with you? Get your creative juices flowing and demonstrate entrepreneurship which is the sole reason you are in this business. Start looking as other restaurateurs as your friends and not competition. Have a large heart and behave humanly. They have no choice either! One question that we all should be asking ourselves is whether we shall see the same pre-corona environment ever? The answer is quite certainly a NO. The conditions were tough earlier on and is going to get even tougher. These tactical moves can help you to an extent but shall not be sufficient if your basic model does not change.
Last but not the least, once the lockdown is over, let us show our respects, love and appreciation to all the women in the house whose work load has doubled during the lockdown and who have as always not complained about it at all. They deserve the 1st vacation and as soon as safely possible. Also, a more prominent role in your restaurant business perhaps?

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