Food Network chef: How restaurants can survive the pandemic

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By Robert Irvine for CNN Business Perspectives , Mon August 10, 2020

Robert Irvine is the host and executive producer of Restaurant: Impossible on Food Network. His new spinoff series, in which he helps restaurants recover during the pandemic, “Restaurant Impossible: Back in Business” premiered on July 30. He recently partnered with WorkMerk on the launch of VirusSAFE Pro, a health and safety checklist and verification mobile software solution for businesses. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own

I’ve spent my entire career in restaurants — cooking in them, building them and helping the struggling ones stay afloat. So to say that it has been incredibly difficult to watch as the restaurant industry has been devastated by the coronavirus would be more than an understatement.While the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected virtually every person and business on the planet in some fashion, restaurants have been dealt an especially heavy blow. Given how difficult it is for restaurants to thrive even under ideal conditions, I estimated back in the spring that 30% to 40% of all restaurants might never open up again. Yelp recently reported that the situation is even worse. It estimated that as many as 60% of restaurants that closed during the pandemic are now closed for good.Imagine what a contraction of that magnitude means for a business sector as enormous as the restaurant industry. It means hundreds of thousands of people out of work, family legacies destroyed and an American landscape peppered with hollowed-out buildings that used to be the beating hearts of our communities. Luckily, there are still many restaurants that are surviving even as the pandemic rages on, but their time is running out. They can’t afford to wait for more federal aid to kick in. Restaurant owners need to act now, and they would do well to start here:

Engage employees

Restaurants need to provide an ample supply of personal protective equipment and employ strict safety measures to keep their workers healthy, but that’s not enough. Now more than ever, managers need to stay flexible with their workforce regarding days worked and shift lengths as staff are not only trying to limit exposure, but juggling myriad personal obligations, like home-schooling their children or possibly caring for sick loved ones.Engaging with workers and being aware of their unique personal stressors isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do. Too many managers assume that their employees’ personal lives are in order unless they hear otherwise. No one can afford to make this assumption anymore.When employees face serious issues, it affects performance, morale and ultimately, customer experience. In other words, the problems of employees can quickly become the problems of a business. A staff that feels seen, respected and cared for is a more productive staff — one that is more likely to follow safety protocols and more likely to deliver a great customer experience, which leads to repeat business.

Offer customers peace of mind

The public is rightfully wary of dining out right now. The only way to win them back is with full transparency and an assurance that the establishment they’re about to enter is clean and safe.Restaurant owners must make it a point to have dedicated staff who are disinfecting high-traffic areas and keeping tables far apart so that customers see the effort the business is putting in to keep them safe. In areas where social distancing isn’t feasible — such as lines at the register or entryways — mask wearing must be enforced. This isn’t complicated; if customers don’t feel safe they are not going to come back. A constant, highly visible effort on this front is required if restaurant owners hope to build trust with their customers.On top of that, owners need to get the word out and take to social media or other marketing tools to let the public know that they’re doing everything possible to keep their establishments Covid-free.


If the establishment doesn’t already have a walk-up window for takeout, owners should build one for customers who are still too wary to enter the building. For the same reason, they should also consider building the necessary infrastructure for delivery if they don’t have it already.

Businesses should also be able to scale down operations to a reduced menu to cut back on inventory overhead — and simplify the process for the kitchen — at a moment’s notice. Cash-only joints must realize that those days are behind them. Accepting credit cards through an electronic point-of-sale system is now officially non-negotiable. Even in pre-Covid times, cash was a serious vector for viruses and bacteria. Better to mitigate that risk and encourage electronic transactions.The Covid-19 pandemic will eventually end. When that happens, the restaurants that survived will enjoy a well-earned boom. But the promise of better times ahead doesn’t mean that business owners can afford to throw away the lesson of this moment. Just because we’ve never seen anything like this pandemic in our lifetimes doesn’t mean we won’t see something of a similar magnitude in the future — be it in the form of another contagious disease, a worsening climate crisis or some totally unforeseen disruption brought on by advancing technology or general marketplace instability.No one can predict the future, but restaurant owners need to always be thinking of how they’ll be able to serve customers in the event of another shutdown. To successfully do this, they need to stay positive, stay vigilant and keep working hard. This can seem impossible at times, but it can be done.