Industry experts say all restaurant owners should do these 7 things to stay afloat and boost sales during the coronavirus pandemic

The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Stephane Mahe/Reuters
  • Business Insider hosted a SPOTLIGHT digital live event with restaurant industry leaders last week, moderated by retail correspondent Kate Taylor.
  • The event featured Checkers CEO Frances Allen, Raising Cane’s founder and CEO Todd Graves, and chain restaurant analyst John Gordon.
  • The speakers identified seven vital strategies that restaurants have been leveraging to successfully generate income during the pandemic and prepare their businesses for long-term success.
  • Some of the most important pieces of advice that the speakers had for owners were: consider offering family meals, pivot to delivery and curbside pickup, and focus on visible signs of sanitation.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On April 16, Business Insider hosted a SPOTLIGHT live event bringing together restaurant industry leaders to share their insights on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on business.

Retail correspondent Kate Taylor moderated a conversation between Frances Allen, the CEO of Checkers and Rally’s, Todd Graves, the founder and CEO of Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, and John Gordon, a chain restaurant analyst about how the restaurant industry has navigated the pandemic, and how restaurant owners can prepare for the future.

The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and not even big chains have escaped unscathed. But the speakers highlighted some effective tactics restaurants have used to stay afloat.

These were some of the most important pieces of advice Allen, Graves, and Gordon had for restaurant owners right now.

Let your customers know you’re open

Graves said that communicating with customers as actively as possible is key to drawing in business.

“The main thing is let your customers know you’re open,” Graves said. “Put out a yard sign, put out a banner, all your social media channels down to calling your customers.”

Gordon said that he drives around in the evenings to see what different restaurants are doing. Some have signs out and lights on, and some have gone dark. He said the latter is a mistake. “At least have some lights on for customers that are going to come by,” Gordon advised.

Take care of your employees.

“Leaning in, embracing your employees, taking care of them, and just keeping them for longer is going to overall improve labour costs,” Allen said.

In some cases, business owners are forced to make the tough decision to lay off or furlough their employees or reduce their hours. But that doesn’t mean your relationship with those employees ends.

Gordon said that one of his main takeaways from observing restaurants over the last month was that restaurants operating at diminished capacity should still “maintain some kind of relationship to your employees so that at least some of them have jobs.”

Open a drive-thru and/or curbside pickup

Graves said that he’s seen “incredible results” for businesses that have started doing curbside pickup and delivery. And Allen said that one of the first things Checkers and Rally’s did was set up and pivot to delivery.

Gordon added that delivery is an important way to maintain a connection to customers, even if it doesn’t bring in store-level profits. “Even if it’s a trickle, they have tried to manage it so that they’re achieving at least a variable profit on delivery. They’re maintaining a connection with their customers.”

Offer and advertise family meal deals

“What I hear from my colleagues and the restaurant business is that the family meal bundle approach is working incredibly well,” Allen said. The Checkers CEO said that the fast-food chain’s average check size has gone up, largely thanks to an increase in one-stop shopping. “The average check has been driven up by people wanting to stock up, people driving home and wanting to take food back for the whole family. They don’t want to go to multiple different places, so they’re buying more items.”

Graves also said he’s seen restaurants increase sales drastically by offering family bundles.

Gordon reinforced this with his experience working with restaurateurs. He cited one Italian restaurant, which maintained nearly all its sales by offering customers twice-a-week delivery of family meals.

Assure your customers your restaurant and your food is clean with visual markers

“Any restaurant that really focuses on cleanliness, sanitation, hand sanitizer, hand wipes…a lot of precaution around that are going to do better than then ones that don’t,” Allen said.

A focus on cleanliness is here to stay, at least for a while. So restaurants should think about more permanent cleanliness measures in order to reassure customers for the long term.

“There will have to be much more attention to operational protocols in terms of reassuring customers about sanitation and handling in the stores,” Gordon said.

Prepare your application for the next round of the Payment Protection Program

Graves said he expects a second round of small business aid to come out soon, and that businesses should prepare to apply now.

“If you haven’t applied for the SBA program for payroll protection, I recommend you get ready,” Graves said. “I’ve seen thousands of restauranteurs get needed lifeline money from the first tranche. I believe they will do a second tranche and to be able to get you through this time. It’s a lifeline for your employees. So I recommend you go to your banker. If you don’t have a banker, go to any banker.”

Be prepared to work with whatever the future brings — “normal” won’t be back anytime soon

“It is silly to think that there is going to be a grand switch that is going to come on and everything is going to go back to normal,” Gordon said. “That is not going to happen.”

It will be a long time before customers start to feel as safe to go out as they did before the pandemic started. That means that businesses, especially restaurants, have to plan to make major, long-term adjustments to account for an uncertain future.

Gordon said that curbside pickup will be key in the future and that operators will have to negotiate with landlords to make that work.

All three speakers said that social distancing protocols in restaurants will have to be maintained for a long time. Restaurants should be prepared for a major overhaul of operations to last well after the pandemic is over. Hand wipes, six-foot distance markers, sneeze guards, and no-contact ordering options are here to stay.