The restaurant industry has been especially hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many sites operate at a loss or closed their doors. For instance, the Ruby Tuesday chain filed for bankruptcy protection and announced plans to close 45% of its company-owned locations. Although it received a $10 million loan through the government’s relief package, it will permanently close 185 locations and lay off most of its 7,300 employees. Its remaining restaurants offer services under the many local coronavirus-related restrictions, which range from outdoor-only dining to inside dining with proper spacing between tables. Customers are usually required to wear masks, and servers use mask and/or face shield combinations.
It was found that the use of ropes or belts with stanchions are often not effective in closing off areas either outside or inside, as they are easy to knock over, children slip under them, and adults step over. A thriving business has sprung up to provide solid barriers such as large, heavy planters with flowers, or concrete wall sections. Some venues have been creative. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on pots or walls, a beer garden in Ventura, CA created essentially cost-free barriers from recycled wood pallets.
Others take liberties in expanding outside, in front of empty nearby stores and into parking lots. Cities such as Ventura have closed off entire downtown streets to enable bars and restaurants to expand into them, often with more tables than they had pre-COVID. Mediamatic of Amsterdam solved the problem of cold outdoor areas by creating small greenhouses to totally insulate their clients and keep them comfy even in winter winds.
Some take advantage of local rules for establishments such as craft breweries (normally only serving drinks) which can only be open if they serve food. They procure food trucks and serve reduced menus outside of the brewery, which sells coupons inside to be redeemed at the truck, thus becoming a “drinks and food”establishment.
Establishments are also creatively using non-traditional spaces for food service. Singapore Airport, which saw business drop 98% since COVID-19, has opened its largest passenger aircraft, the A380s, for food service while parked on the tarmac. Dining in Economy costs $40, Business Class costs $240, and a First Class Suite is $472. Food is not standard airline fare, but is served by an acclaimed chef. Meals are allowed inside because planes fall under different rules than restaurants in buildings do. The venue quickly sold out – $472 is still cheaper than what would normally cost $15,000-$20,000 with a flight attached.
COVID training of workers and managers remains a critical and challenging area for restaurants. The value is clear: OSHA has estimated that for every $1 a business spends on safety programs anywhere from $4-$6 is saved worker illness or injury costs. Legal liability linked to failure to train properly is rapidly increasing. In the past, the CDC estimated that the average large restaurant had four workers’ compensation claims a year at a cost of $45,000. This could double or triple with upcoming COVID claims. Damages can come in the form of fines by government agencies, lawsuits by workers and customers, the loss of a liquor license (in NY), and even negative postings on Yelp, which now has a COVID- related space. Training is clearly needed, and it needs to be both standardized and posted, e.g., with stickers on the door assuring customers that the establishment is COVID trained, just as some states have “A,B,C,D” stickers showing the level of a venue’s hygiene. COVID-Trained is a company that offers such nationally standardized training and stickers.
The ServSafe site of the National Restaurant Association lists legal requirements for each State in the US. Unfortunately, these fail to provide much guidance, and vary widely. Whereas Alaska demands a Person-In-Charge with a ServSafe Food Manager certification must always be on site, for instance, Colorado merely wants the venue to, “Provide guidance, training, and ongoing training on maintaining 6 feet distancing between employees to the greatest extent possible…”
What is lacking is any kind of nationally accepted standard for training and how to put that training into effect. Many chains claim they have conducted corporate-based training, but are generally not training experts, which can leave lots of loose ends. One problem is that any training offered does not assure that employees took it or understood it. Interactive testing within the training is needed, but is often not included in readily available (and even free) training videos. In addition, corporate or other existing training omits risk management—identifying danger areas and dealing with them. A recent publication that spells out much of this is The Road Ahead: Protective Business Measures in the Age of COVID-19, which recommends that restaurants form an action team responsible for training and sniffing out dangers. Team members should be trained by an expert company familiar with on-the-ground industry challenges.
With proper training and eagle-eyed managers solving COVID-related problems before they occur, restaurants can look forward to surviving and even thriving in the age of the New Normal.