The COVID-19 Pandemic has almost certainly been the restaurant industry’s greatest challenge to date. Never before have so many restaurants been forced to cease operations – some never reopen. Early indications, from China and other countries where the pandemic seems to be more under control, suggest that guest demand likely will not immediately rebound when restrictions are lifted. However, restaurants that have adapted during the crisis and plan ahead to innovate further and apply what they learned optimizing their restaurant model for the “next normal” will be much better positioned to bring sales back to pre-crisis levels. As I always tell my teams “luck favors the prepared.”

As we boldly wade into 2021, we do so with guarded optimism, we can see a light at the end of the tunnel and we are hopeful it is not the train. We are hopeful and optimistic because one thing is certain…at some point, dining in restaurants will once again be a pleasure that people across the country can enjoy.

The actions that savvy restaurant operators take now will go a long way toward preserving their business through the crisis and equipping their restaurants to serve guests, not just during—but also long after—the recovery. Here are three glimmers of hope that we can grasp onto within the restaurant industry.

Digital innovation fueling restaurant resilience

Online ordering, curbside pickup and third-party delivery have never been so hot. At the onset of the pandemic, DoorDash sales went up 110% from the start of 2020. Nearly half of Americans began ordering delivery or pickup from restaurants one to two times a week. Digital services such as delivery apps have been able to keep the industry alive during the darkest of times.

Now that many customers are well adjusted to online ordering, curbside pickup and third-party delivery, these means of interacting with customers are not going away any time soon. Businesses should continue to emphasize and put marketing dollars toward these channels, especially to captivate younger generations. Who doesn’t want food delivered to them in the comfort of their own home?

Knock Knock? Who’s there? Health department – Introducing the “Smell Test”

The Marion County Public Health Department has stepped up in numerous ways to help during the pandemic. Particularly, its team has done an amazing job working with restaurants to keep customers safe. As it enforces safety precautions, it protects guests and provides resources and information to help businesses pass the “Smell Test.” Think about the last time you walked into a restaurant – did you look around?

During the COVID-era, customers will often look around with a mental checklist to decide if a business, restaurant or venue is successfully enforcing the rules that will keep them safe. Does the restaurant or business have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations clearly visible? Are other customers social distancing? Are all the staff members and customers wearing masks? These are a few of the check boxes that can be crossed off during the Smell Test.

The Marion County Public Health Department is helping to keep people safe and businesses to reopen safely, while enforcing safety, and even increasing safety measures during times of heightened concern. No longer should individuals fear the health department, as it should be praised for its tremendous work!

Fall back, spring forward

As we approach the one-year mark of the onset of the pandemic, the world has learned how to adjust to the “new normal.” With spring upon us and warmer weather in Indianapolis, local eateries can attempt to breathe a (masked) sigh of relief.  Outdoor dining during the warmer weather is a welcome alternative to off-premises only. Though the prospect of full-capacity indoor dining in the coming months is unlikely, restaurants can look forward to filling more outdoor seats than ever before once we hit spring. After every storm there is often a rainbow.

The restaurant industry is not the only one with glimmers of hope for 2021. Looking ahead, shopping malls, movie theaters and other small businesses can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Businesses – whether restaurants or not – should continue to move forward with and put an emphasis on delivery or curbside pickup initiatives. These innovations allow customers with varying comfort levels to be reached and provide business. All industries should continue to listen to the Marion County Public Health Department and enforce safety measures. As we reach warmer weather and the vaccine rollout continues, foot traffic will increase. Business owners will begin to see more and more customers enter their stores seeking the quality services and products they know and love.

Lee Kleiner is the Area Director of Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh and President of both Janes Restaurant Group and Quest Logic Investments. He has spent over two decades in the franchise business.

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