indoor dining

Hosting indoor dining with confidence this winter

By Doug Radkey

Consumers and restaurant operators alike are hoping and wanting to get back to “normal”, but as the winter months set in and when patios can no longer withstand the drop in temperatures, there is once again a heightened awareness of caution around indoor dining.

Pair this with the daily news of increasing cases once again and you may be left wondering how to navigate the months ahead. But there have been plenty of lessons learned over the past 20 months; lessons that will help guide you through what could be another rollercoaster winter and that perhaps can make things more memorable and profitable for your brand this time around.

Risk assessments

You must first understand the viewpoint of your target customers. While there has been a pent-up demand for consumers to get out and support local businesses, events, and restaurants, there is still a required level of risk assessment for most consumers.  You know… that little voice telling them to be cautious and to assess the risk of gathering indoors with people they don’t know.

What we’ve learned since the onset of the pandemic is that the lowest “risk” in terms of supporting restaurants and dining out is through outdoor dining, delivery, takeout, curbside pickup, and, if you’re lucky enough to have it, a drive-through.

We’ve also learned that indoor dining presents the highest potential “risk” and that we also now need to consider children who are not eligible for vaccinations, which again presents a risk to assess for consumers, operators, and staff alike.

To reduce the risks for all parties, it is best practice to first offer flexibility within your revenue channels by offering a variety of ways for guests to enjoy your food and drink and to also experience your overall brand. But you have to make these options both visible and accessible through a variety of channels. You want to make it as seamless as possible to order online, order delivery, arrive for curbside, or book a reservation for dine-in.

It is absolutely vital moving into 2022 to have a stack of technology that will create a seamless omnichannel experience to maximize your square footage and your revenue opportunities. That, in itself, will be a new normal.

Government mandates

If you’ve been operating since the pandemic started, you should have those flexible options available and you should be upgrading your technology to meet those expectations no matter your concept. But there is one element that will be different this winter compared to last: the option for indoor dining.

Even with the government mandating that guests must be double vaccinated (in most markets), the level of dine-in for both consumers and operators is still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. It is going to come down to your systems, processes, programming, and training to address and regain that confidence.

Addressing anxiety

For most operators, even though dine-in customers are likely vaccinated, the key will be in calming your guests’ anxiety and addressing their fears.

Your guests may still be wondering how many people have touched their food, plate, or drink before it got to them or their table. They may be wondering how much distance they should still be giving to strangers or even your staff. They may be wondering if they should still go if they have children. They may be wondering if they should still dine in even though they had a mild cough a week ago. This will all create a sense of anxiety and fear among your potential guests.

Your thought process, your flexible options for ordering, your designs, your technology, and your execution must ease these feelings.  This is where truly understanding your guests, your guest profiles, and your guest journey map is extremely important.

RELATED: Restaurant Branding During COVID-19: Being memorable

The service sequence

With a focus on indoor dining this winter, walk through the entire service sequence of your restaurant – from online reservations to parking, arriving at the front entrance, showing proof of vaccination, potential wait times and waiting areas, manoeuvring to tables, menu presentation, ordering, use of washrooms, the payment process, the post-visit marketing initiatives.

What opportunities exist to address guests’ fears and anxiety? What opportunities exist to reduce the pressure placed on your staff and the number of staff you need to execute a memorable dine-in service sequence? Remember – the labour shortage we’re experiencing in this industry is not only real; it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Outside of having incredible culture, how will your brand execute at a high level with the potential of fewer staff? Review your stack of technology, the size of your menu, the preparation of your menu, staff-aligned seating arrangements, the outsourcing of delivery, and your service sequence for off-premise and on-premise.

Make it an immediate goal to go through winter without having to use the “labour shortage excuse”. Use this time to prepare a memorable dine-in experience that will gain consumers’ confidence in the fact that you are in fact the safest and most memorable experience that they need.

This will be one of your most critical objectives to retain your guests for repeat visits while navigating the winter ahead with what will likely be less labour and higher operating costs.

Doug Radkey is president of KRG Hospitality Inc., author of the book Bar Hacks, and an international keynote speaker on all things restaurants, bars, and boutique hotels. Being in the hospitality industry for over 20 years has allowed him to become a leading voice in the development of detailed feasibility studies, award-winning concepts, strategic business plans, unique menus, memorable guest experiences, and financial management systems. For more information, visit krghospitality.com

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