Restaurants are readying their reopening plans against a backdrop of constant anxiety. Are restrictions easing too soon or too late? Will consumers come out to eat in enough numbers to generate profits? When they do, will they follow safety guidelines? Michael Maxwell, a consultant at Blue Orbit, a restaurant consulting firm based in Atlanta, says getting it right may be easier than many expect. He tells QSR Land what matters most.
QSR Land: As more states ease restrictions and restaurants can consider reopening, there are plenty of differing opinions about who’ll show up. Polls have found some customers say they’ll wait as long as a year before venturing back inside. What can QSR chains do to win them back?
Michael Maxwell: Everyone should approach reopening as if they're launching a brand new business. Everything is different, and it’s all about creating a feeling of safety. Even stepping back from questions about masks and how close people are, restaurants that seem comfortable and organized are going to put people at ease. That means having systems in place, putting guests at ease immediately -- because they feel like you've got their safety under control.
QSR Land: People are also afraid of other people -- that other diners will get too close, or not wear masks. How ready are restaurants for that?
Maxwell: Again, that’s about properly training staff. Just as you coach people to sell the special of the day, you have to have them role-play. How will they talk to someone about standing in line? About how to order a drink at the bar? About waiting in their car? No one can reopen with the same staff that they had and expect things to go smoothly.
They need to spend two to three days training that staff on how to control the crowd. [Staffers] need to know what to say, how to interact and how to be gracious. Crowds get out of control when they're left to their own devices. So it needs to be clear upfront.
QSR Land: What’s surprised you about restaurants these days?
Maxwell: Their creativity. As they try and figure out how to generate enough sales with far fewer seats, restaurants are trying many things as they think of ways to succeed. There’s no one-size-fits-all.
They’re expanding hours, offering special services for older customers. And they’re optimistic. Summer is typically a slow time because people go away. But this year, no one’s going on vacation. So even with limited seating, they’re hopeful they’ll have a wider audience.
QSR Land: How are restaurants calculating math differently? Initially, it seems like many said, “Any revenue is better than no revenue,” and rushed into takeout and delivery. How long can they go without having hard conversations about their break-even point?
Maxwell: Yes, those calculations are all changing. People haven't been making money, so everyone is going to be price-conscious. And yet there are big disruptions in the supply chain, with the price of beef and pork going up like crazy. That’s all working against restaurants.
My advice is to act as if you are opening a brand-new restaurant or chain. Reevaluate everything -- every single line item on your P&L -- and rearrange your finances to match.
QSR Land: Is there a risk in making too many changes?
Maxwell: One of the most difficult things is remaining true to your brand and creating a menu that's economical. You have to be able to make money, and do it with fewer people. But you still have to be you.
QSR Land: Finally, one of the most touching aspects of this pandemic has been the public outpouring of love for restaurants. People have been so touched by the struggle of laid-off workers, and the way restaurants have gone about and beyond to serve people. Do you expect that to continue?
Maxwell: Yes. People are looking for more opportunities to help each other out now. Restaurants will take even more of a major role.
I live in Kansas City, and I’ve been so impressed with how many people are supporting restaurant efforts like Takeout Tuesday. And they’re supporting laid-off restaurant workers, fulfilling their wish lists on Amazon. They understand restaurants are in the center of the community. They support your kid’s softball team, for example.
That will intensify. We might actually become a little bit closer, a little bit of a smaller world, as a result of all this.