Here's What You Should Communicate to Your Customers About Coronavirus

Chicago, Illinois

Editor's Note: Plate is making coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find more articles here.

You don’t need me to tell you that basically everything is up in the air (in the worst way possible) right now with the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus has already contributed to closing businesses like AL’s Deli in San Francisco which was struggling financially and then unable to hang on after losing all its catering business last week. After watching all the conferences, conventions and other events cancel—not to mention schools and businesses close—it’s clear that the pandemic will be the nail in the coffin for restaurants that were already on the bubble and something that severely damages others; Tom Douglas just announced he is temporarily closing 12 of his Seattle restaurants, following a 90% decline in business. The decision leaves 800 employees unemployed for at least two to three months.

I wish I had the answers for how to survive this time, but—spoiler alert—anyone who claims to have the answers is lying. We just don’t know what’s next, and how bad this is going to get.

What you can do immediately is communicate openly and transparently to your customers. People learned from the 2008 recession and Sept 11 how important it is to support small businesses in tough times. Here are a few things they would appreciate hearing.

Tell your customers what you and your team are doing to keep the restaurant clean. Most people don’t know how frequently you already clean and sanitize surfaces and serviceware, so explain your processes, plus the extra steps you are taking to keep them safe and the plan you created to keep your employees and customers safe. Are you adding more disposables to the mix? Increasing sanitation practices? Monitoring your employees' health? Tell them about it.

Make hand sanitizer available in bathrooms, at registers, host stands, POS machines and anyplace multiple people are touching a screen or sharing pens. Maybe even have servers offer it to guests at the table.

You know that discreet sign you have in the bathroom about employees washing their hands? Make it bigger. Even better, take a cue from Middle Brow Bungalow in Chicago and make it entertaining. You can’t overcommunicate stuff like that these days.

I really hope you have a decent paid sick leave policy in place for your employees. Now is the time to share that information with your customers. If your state is offering financial relief to employees who are out sick, share that news as well. Customers need to be reassured that the people who are sick are not cooking and serving their food out of the real fear of losing a paycheck.

Remind your customers to cancel reservations if they decide they aren't going out so you can adjust your food orders and staff; it's OK to share that you need that information to keep going. Ask them to consider buying gift cards to use after things return to normal (or normal-ish).

Eliminate printed menus and wine lists (or print single-use menus) and shared condiment bottles, so guests don't have to touch something that's been handled over and over again. 

Ask your customers to be open and honest with you if they feel sick or test positive, even if it's days after they dine with you. You need this information; trust works both ways.

Note that a lot of your customers are working from home, which can make them feel safe but isolated. If there is a way to safely let them work from your restaurant, tell them about the set-up, including wifi access and what you have on offer for them to eat and drink.

Also, now is a good time to add daytime food delivery, and increase all-day and nighttime delivery. Extra points if you can offer no-contact delivery to further eliminate interaction between customers and delivery people (but make sure they can still tip for delivery when they order).

Kill the buffet. No one wants it.

Consider bringing social distancing to your restaurant by cutting tables and creating space. Plumed Horse, a fine dining restaurant in Saratoga, Calif., is limiting its reservations and cutting half its tables in response to Covid-19, to make sure there is a minimum of six feet between tables in hopes that guests feel more comfortable.

If something happens, be open and honest with your customers; don't let them find out on the news. Take a cue from Danny Meyer’s powerful personal message to the public. Union Square Hospitality Group closed The Modern Monday after learning that a guest later tested positive for the disease. The company used a third-party cleaning service to sanitize the restaurant and reopened the next day. They closed Union Square Café and Daily Provisions Tuesday after an employee felt ill; the employee later tested negative for the disease. In each instance, Meyer communicated exactly what happened, and how his team was going above and beyond to make the restaurants safe for customers. It made me feel better, and was a reminder of how important restaurants are to a community. 

I’d love to hear any suggestions you have in the comments below. You can follow the hashtag #covidrestaurantstrategy started by Chef Matthew Jennings to share news and ideas on Twitter. Be safe. We are all in this together.

good luck finding any sanitizers....stores, amazon, and purveyors sold out