Entrepreneurs

4 Things For Restaurants To Remember As They Come Out Of The Pandemic

All around us, the restaurant industry has gone through dramatic change. Numerous favorites are gone. Friendly faces we were used to seeing have disappeared. Everything looks different, whether you dine inside or sit in the open air.

We don’t know whether all of the change will continue as life slowly gets back to normal. But, we’ve learned a number of important lessons. Here are four key ones.

1) Your Fan Base Matters Enormously

At a time of crisis, the importance of regulars who live nearby and fans who are willing to support a place from afar is paramount.

Before the pandemic, any restaurant was willing to seat any patron who had money to spend, as long as they weren’t disruptive or disrespectful. But, in the past year, some of those people have simply vanished.

We’ve seen restaurant after restaurant launch GoFundMe campaigns, in the absence of federal aid, in order to keep the lights on. If you scroll through them, you can see who made or exceeded their goal, and who didn’t.

If you didn’t have a fan base before the pandemic, it was incredibly difficult to craft one during a public health crisis. The results are clearly visible.

Fortunately, the strongest places had avid customers willing to get carryout even when no one could sit inside, to buy gift cards even when the prospect of using them seemed far off, to order online when goods were available, and to show up even when states restricted available seats.

2) Focus On The Strongest Places

I’ve been writing for years that the restaurant industry was due for a great contraction. In cities like Boston, New York, New Orleans, Chicago and even here in Ann Arbor, there were just too many restaurants.

Of course, you couldn’t blame chefs and owners for wanting to expand, and for some, scalability was the plan. As soon as a place took off, many wanted to open another branch would open in a different part of town.

But underneath, not all these expansion spots were thriving, a fact that for years could be camouflaged. Big conventions, influxes of tourists, the arrival of thousands of kids for soccer camps all could fill restaurants on a temporary basis.

When the surface layer of demand vanished, we could see that there were many more restaurants than locals and a handful of visitors could support.

The pandemic has forced owners and restaurant groups to trim their lineups to the places that perform best.

In late 2019, Anchor Coffee House, a popular local coffee bar in Windsor, Ontario, expanded to three locations. Now, they are down to one, which I plan to visit once border restrictions are lifted.

In New Orleans, Michael Gulotta is focusing on MoPho, his casual Asian place, which sits in the City Park neighborhood.

As I’ve written in the past, his upscale downtown restaurant, Maypop, has been shut since the pandemic, even though it made him a finalist as Best Chef-South in the James Beard Awards.

If he were to re-open Maypop, that would sink MoPho, he told me, and if Maypop failed to draw the visitors on which it has relied for business, he’d be left with nothing. Better to concentrate on MoPho, which is attracting about two-thirds of its pre-pandemic orders.

3) Be Visible And Accessible

When you go on Instagram these days, you’re bombarded with posts announcing upcoming livestreams by chefs, restaurant owners and cookbook authors.

The smartest places and people got going early in the pandemic. Author David Lebovitz was among the first whose cocktail demonstrations found an audience. It was a logical extension for his book Drinking French. Since he couldn’t do a book tour, he took it online.

The same was true for Joanne Chang, owner of the Flour Cafe and Bakery Group in Boston, and for staff at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. She’s held baking demos on Sunday nights; Commander’s has turned Wednesdays into virtual wine and cheese parties.

There are so many now that if you aren’t already doing them, it’s almost too late to elbow your way into the mix. People are getting rectangular eyeballs, as my mother used to joke, from watching so many classes and demos online.

But that visibility has been super important during the pandemic. So is accessibility — responding to viewer questions and reader posts, sending emails, keeping in touch with customers via newsletters, even when you can’t serve them in person.

Of course, that sometimes backfires, as we’ve seen in arguments between chefs and abusive customers.

However, I’d rather see a chef defend their food and staff against the haters, than let nasty comments go unanswered. It humanizes them and reminds them that people are involved, not just brand names and logos.

4) Be Judicious—And Innovate

It might seem like an oxymoron, but the pandemic has been a time for restaurants to both be innovativeand to edit their menus to the dishes it makes the most sense to serve.

There has been all kinds of restaurant innovation this past year, from generous family meals that can be stretched over a few days, to flavors and dishes that cause diners’ eyes to light up.

I recently wrote about the family meal I got at Satchel’s BBQ for the Ann Arbor Observer, where I took home ribs and smoked salmon, which it recently added to its menu.

About a mile away, at Ricewood BBQ, the owners hold Burger Nights on Fridays and Saturdays. Each week features a different style, with no substitutions.

Who would line up for a burger, you might ask? But people do, and their burgers sell out fast.

However, the pandemic has also prompted places to cut back to the dishes that customers want most. Before Covid hit, Exotic Cuisine and Bakeries in Ann Arbor offered 68 items on its deli menu.

Now, it serves a rotating series mainly of classic dishes, listing the latest choices on its Facebook page and a chalkboard out front.

It can make items that are not on that menu, but it requires a minimum order of two pounds.

Knowing when to add new items and also having the courage to edit a menu are tricky propositions. But, both keep people on their toes, and help avoid the lethargy that’s been easy to give into the past months.

Last week, there was a bright spot for the restaurant industry. The newly signed stimulus package includes $25 billion in funding that will be overseen by the Small Business Administration.

Numerous restaurant owners have told me they were waiting to see whether the aid came through before they made decisions about the future of their places.

I hope the aid package will save them, and will give others the boost they need until people start coming back to eat in significant numbers.

For, that is the ultimate lesson we will be learning in the next weeks, months and years: where do restaurants fit into our lives, and will we still look at them in the same way as we did before Covid-19 hit.

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