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Staying Healthy While Staying Open During The Pandemic

From the first lockdowns to the early phases of re-opening, restaurants are navigating complex safety rules and implementing new best practices to keep their teams and customers healthy. Transparency, communication, and connection are important tools in reassuring both workers and guests.

Photo: Courtesy Tacombi.

Dario Wolos
Founder, Tacombi, New York

When the lockdown began, the feedback we were getting from a lot of our team members is that they wanted to work, that they wanted to keep coming in. It’s tough when you’re trying to figure out what’s best for the business and what’s best for the most important stakeholder, from our point of view—our employees—and how they, in turn, would protect our customers.

The restaurant business has been trending in the direction of delivery and takeout for a while. What this allows us to do is focus on this very important aspect of how people want that convenience today. Before all this, we were probably putting 80 percent of our attention on the full-service dine-in experience. Now we’re putting 60 percent of our attention on the delivery experience, and the other 40 percent on the packaged products that we already make, like tortillas.

Making food on a larger scale is pretty fun. Once you get into the details, you can still transfer a lot of the love that you lavish on the food in a store. Because we’re growing up in a world that thinks a little bit differently, you just have to figure it out. Everything goes back to your basis.

Otherwise the challenge of reopening really comes down to the safety of our employees, their level of comfort, and that of the customers. If there’s a situation where employees feel safe, customers feel safe, I think that’s the time. There’s so many variables around that, it’s hard to put your finger on it. What we really need is leadership in our local government. I think we are quite fortunate in New York to have great local leadership to tell us what they think is best for society. As humans, we need to find a way to work through this collectively. Taking into account all the suffering and all the pain, I think this experience clearly shows to everyone that we are absolutely connected. We’re all literally in the same boat.

Photo: Courtesy Giardino Gourmet Salads.

Ody Lugo
Founder, Giardino Gourmet Salads, South Florida

As a fast-casual restaurant, we were a little bit ahead of the game when it comes to all the changes. Our setup already had a certain amount of sneeze guards. Our employees were serving in the front, so they always wore gloves. We have wipes available at the tables. Before, customers picked their own utensils. Now all utensils are individually packed. We always had sanitation stands in the entrance—we would even take them out to the festivals.

I think the main focus is wearing masks, and I can’t see us not having masks ever again. We had our own masks custom-made. I just wish we all had clear masks, as that would make it easier having a conversation over our food when I’m talking to the customers.

We have thermometers and employee logs that they have to fill in at the entrance for every single shift. We’re also now trying to incorporate the idea of an ambassador—someone who will be coming around, explaining how everything works to customers, where to stand and where to go, what the sanitation rules are.

We have an email blast that has all the details of what we’re doing. We also did a survey. Some customers were more concerned about enforcing social distancing than the masks. It’s almost like they trusted that we’re doing our job, but they weren’t so sure about other customers.

Photo: Courtesy Fields Good Chicken.

Field Failing
Founder, Fields Good Chicken, New York

My wife and I had our second child on St. Patrick’s Day—the day after Andrew Cuomo announced the shutdown of all non-essential businesses in New York. So that was a crazy time. We had this intense conversation with all of our managers—what are we going to do? Can we be open? How safe are people coming to work? Who wants to work? So many unknowns. And at the same time, we were sitting here in New York in the epicenter of the pandemic, watching doctors and nurses go about their day to day job. It was super inspiring to see that kind of like commitment to humanity.

Operationally, we made a lot of changes in terms of safety requirements: occupancy restrictions in restaurants, making queue lines so people have to stand six feet apart, requiring masks in the restaurant, sanitizing every 30 minutes, contactless payments.

Delivery used to be maybe 20 percent of sales, and now we’re seeing it at about 80 percent of sales. I think as the city reopens, that’ll settle back into somewhere between those two numbers. But we knew this trend was coming. This whole pandemic has just exponentially sped that process up.

In the restaurant, everything is individually packed now instead of having utensils people can take. We have tamper-proof tape on packaging. We have contactless pickup, so the food is bagged and you just grab it. Same thing with delivery. We’ve limited occupancy in our restaurants to 10 people. We have required masks in all our restaurants—there are signs in the windows that say “masks required.”

We’ve been talking about safety in our email list and on social media and in the restaurants through signage. I don’t think it’s as scary anymore. I think it’s reassuring more than anything. We were one of the first restaurants in New York to send out a proactive communication saying, “Here are the things that we’re doing.” This was back in early March. It was the result of a conversation we had with our team, which was that our customers need to know this, and we need to communicate openly and transparently about what we’re doing.

I think what’s happening in the industry is all the trends have been accelerated exponentially. Delivery, mobile ordering, e-commerce, all of that is part of the technological revolution of the restaurant industry that was lagging behind other industries. This is forcing the industry to catch up.