An Open Letter to Restaurant Owners in a Time of Crisis

A Collection of Near-Term, Up-to-the-Minute Solutions for the Restaurant Industry

March 27, 2020
by Buck Sleeper
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In the past several weeks, your industry has gone through enormous upheaval. Your sales may be down—even way down. In response to state guidance or individual prudence, you may have switched to off-premise dining options only (delivery, drive-thru, pick-up). Many of your employees may have been furloughed or laid off. It’s possible you’ve closed entirely. There will surely be tactical difficulties in the weeks and months ahead, followed by a longer-term adjustment to what is likely to be a “new normal” in food service. In the coming months, restaurants will operate differently than they did even a few weeks ago.

In my role as restaurant innovation lead at EPAM Continuum, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the future of food service, and how changes in technology and culture will impact your industry. Our organization has a deep understanding of employee and customer needs, and we’re continuing to build on this knowledge through conversations with restaurant owners, diners, and industry experts.

We’ve compiled the following collection of near-term solutions: Some of them may be in-flight already, and some might not be relevant for you. In our projects, we often talk about how even the obvious things can go unsaid until you say them, commonly held beliefs may look different from a new perspective, and that each idea is a foundation to be built upon. In a subsequent post, we’ll talk about how we think the industry and consumer confidence might shift permanently.

For now, we hope a few of these references can be jumping-off points for you and your team.

Lifting Up Employees

There’s been an incredible outpouring of public support for restaurant employees, hopefully more is coming as part of federal relief packages. Managers, delivery drivers, line cooks, and wait staff are on the front lines of this crisis. They are putting themselves at risk to keep others fed. In addition to doubling down on standard sanitation, ServSafe and Toast are both suggesting additional cleaning procedures for restaurants to follow. Many businesses are taking extra steps to keep employees safe, like temporarily banning personal cups at Starbucks, employing contact-free delivery at Borough Provisions, and in general, closing the dining room to limit interaction with customers. Others, like Chickadee in Boston, have shut down and are asking for support via gift-card purchases instead.

Businesses with cash reserves are offering extra hazard pay, making sure employees have health insurance, and are ensuring sick pay if they must be quarantined. In addition to physical safety, this is also a good time to double down on minimizing stress and promoting mental health wellness. Toast has a good set of guidelines on employee benefit policies for further detail.

Now, we know your businesses are hurting, and it may seem like immediately introducing new services or offerings to bolster sales is the best way to manage vulnerability. It isn’t. First, keep your people safe; then work on keeping them employed. Your staff will thank you for it, and customers are more likely to support companies that put worker safety over profit.

If you’re like me, being around people outside your family is scary right now. We’re being told to keep our distance, and friends and strangers alike feel more like “vectors” than individuals. You might feel the same way about your customers. Whether it’s a wink, a thank-you note, or a virtual all-hands, look for ways to lighten the mood.

Supporting Community

Whether you’re a national chain or you run a single location, there’s never been a greater need to think globally and act locally. Being on the front lines (and being one of the few businesses on Main Street still open), affords you an unmatched sense of what’s needed in your town or city. Where you’re able, support essential workers directly; where you’re not, make sure to broadcast their needs to the government and your broader community through social media and/or local representation.

Companies like Sweetgreen are giving out free meals to healthcare workers; though, if the response on Instagram is any indication, there’s confusion about availability and concern that it’s just a marketing tactic. Salare in New York City is directing help to its own industry by sending out meals to food service workers who are recently out of a job.

Restaurants can also be a conduit for direct capital donations. Botanica in Los Angeles has been distributing gift cards for people in need that can be redeemed for their own prepared foods. Flour Bakery in Boston is donating 100% of proceeds from online purchases towards an employee relief fund. Other businesses are supporting their communities (and competitors) with information and best practices, such as Ayr Muir, Founder and CEO of Clover Food Lab, who published about how his organization has managed tech costs. New York’s Dig has set up a page on their website sharing best practices around enhanced safety protocols, contact-free delivery, and even protocols for shutting down your kitchen.

Expanding Your Offering

Your customers need different things from you today than they did two weeks ago, and what they need today could change two weeks from now. The time of day, manner of pickup, and format of product that you used to sell is likely no longer relevant. Best practices and ideas are likely to come from frontline staff, since they’re the ones seeing customers day to day. Here’s few that we’re seeing so far:

Some customers still need your base offerings, like a single sandwich or drink. With so many people sheltering in place or social-distancing, there’s a new need to feed larger groups of people, and minimize the number of trips out of the house. Before closing operations last week, Clover Food Lab sold meal kits—instead a of single Chickpea Fritter, you could purchase a box with the fixings for 10 to make at home yourself for $50. But don’t forget the instructions… Since closing, Muir has been hosting a video series on how to cook some of Clover’s signature dishes.

Other businesses are opening up their entire supply chains for purchase: Even though sales off the menu may be down, there is still demand for the goods and ingredients of local farmers and manufacturers. Some restaurants have pivoted to become corner grocery stores. Still, others are selling more than just food, listing their toilet paper and other pantry items alongside prepared meals.

There is still a need for this to be an on-brand experience, not a competition with nearby grocery or bulk-goods stores. This is important for two reasons: First, it means you can maintain your existing supply chain without expanding into new SKUs/items; and second, it means that the mission and soul of your business can still be front and center. There’s something to learn from boutique hotels in this case, who often sell signature items from your stay, like the same mattress and bedding from your room, or the shampoo from the shower.

Thinking Ahead

We don’t yet know which of these changes are relevant just for the immediate future (pop-up grocery stores?), and which may be lasting protocols that become industry standard (contact-free delivery?). As we see good and impactful ideas out in the world, we’ll continue to share them with you. In the meantime, we’re thinking ahead to what the new normal might look like for the food-service industry, and what lasting changes to employee and customer needs will change the way you do business.

For the moment, there’s no better time to connect with your customers. Remember why people are going to restaurants in the first place. It’s not just to eat, it’s also to socialize, to unwind, to explore, and to indulge. Eric Rivera of Seattle’s Addo says this of running a restaurant in today’s chaotic environment: “Focus less on what you're used to doing and more on what people need. Think of the things that would be nice if you are sitting on the couch or need a little pick-me-up.”

More than anything, stay home, support your local restaurants, and wash those hands.

Buck Sleeper
Director, Restaurant + Retail Innovation
EPAM Continuum

If you have a new best practice to share, or are looking for a quick thought partner to bounce an idea off, send us a note.

About the Author

  • Sleeper Buck
    Buck Sleeper
    DIRECTOR, INNOVATION CONSULTING

    Buck Sleeper is an experience designer at the global design and innovation firm EPAM Continuum, working broadly to understand the needs and behaviors of humans, identify disruptive opportunities for businesses and institutions, and forge alignment within organizations to drive real change and implementation. Buck is obsessed with crafting a future that is inclusive, sustainable, and optimistic. He leads the Restaurants and Retail Vertical at EPAM Continuum, drawing from his diverse background of projects in education, healthcare, financial services, civic design, and connected devices to transform the future of shopping and eating.

    Buck is trained as an architect, previously holding positions at Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Kennedy Violich Architects, and Howeler Yoon Architects. Buck earned his master of architecture at MIT in Cambridge, and holds a bachelor of arts from Middlebury College in Vermont. He lives just outside of Boston.