by Susan Dekker, Director, Integrated Insight
Space management strategies inside restaurants look very different in a post-Covid-19 world. Regulations for social distancing have put restraints on restaurants that have limited party sizes, total dining capacity, and number of guests allowed per square foot. Additional space is needed to increase distance between dining tables, employees in the kitchen, FOH check-in, and waiting areas.
With capacity constraints and space limitations, restaurants need to optimize the utilization of space available to increase daily sales.
Maximize Existing Space
In order to increase space utilization, restaurant operators need to evaluate existing space. A few options to explore include:
- POS Stations: Guest expectations for safety are morphing, and many guests will expect contactless payment options. Consider switching to mobile tablets for both point of ordering and sales. There are plenty of off-the-shelf solutions available. This may reduce the need for the POS nooks currently dispersed throughout many restaurants in the front-of-house space.
- Storage Areas: Evaluate order quantities to reduce the area taken up for storage. The “Pre-Covid” order quantities and frequencies are no longer applicable in today’s operation. Consider ordering lower supply amounts on a more frequent basis to keep only the needed stock on hand. Restaurant operators can convert previously used storage space into guest-facing areas or increase square footage available for social distancing in the kitchen.
- Take Advantage of Available Outdoor Space: Many consumers will feel more comfortable eating outdoors because of the open space. Restaurants can get creative with utilizing outdoor space by converting parking and landscaping space into dining areas to maximize the available outdoor seating. As the weather gets colder, consider adding guest comfort measures such as tents and heaters.
Designate Space According to Guest Groups
Guest expectations and desires for the dining experience have changed drastically since the coronavirus outbreak. In order to optimize fulfillment space, restaurants need to identify the volume of dine-in versus carry-out orders. There are likely many more “dine-out” guests that prefer the drive-through, curbside pick-up, delivery fulfilled in-house, or delivery through third party apps.
Each one of these guest types interacts with the restaurant slightly differently upon arrival. Thus, be sure to consider each guest group and account for shifting guest behaviors when re-designing restaurant space.
Dine-In vs. Carry-Out
Restaurants should physically separate dine-in and carry-out guests since they require very different means of fulfillment. If possible, designate an entrance for dine-in and an entrance for dine-out guests. Consider retrofitting an area near an existing door to act as a dine-out counter. Conduct take-out as an independent operation from dine-in.
As an alternative, especially if separate entrances aren’t possible, consider implementing curbside pick-up for carry-out orders. Guests do not have to enter the restaurant which can free up space for a waiting area. Identify a few parking spots as “curbside pick-up.” A sign should clearly state directions and include key information like a phone number and parking spot number so the guest knows what to do upon arrival.
Reservation vs. Walk-Ups
For guests that are dining inside the restaurant, consider how to handle guests with reservations versus walk-ups. Operating by reservation-only gives restaurants the greatest ability to manage guest arrivals. However, be sure to understand the no-show rate, since you can’t fill in no-shows with walk-ins in a reservation-only operation.
If you do accept walk-in guests, look into off-the-shelf apps to utilize a mobile queue where you can text a guest when their table is ready. This allows the guest to wait in their car or other off-site location. You can also utilize apps like Yelp’s waitlist to allow guests to get in line prior to arrival.
Plan for Excess Demand
As more consumers begin to feel comfortable venturing out, demand could begin to outpace capacity and space limitations. If venues fail to plan for this scenario, it could lead to crowds of people waiting to enter without a way to properly distance themselves. The two most effective ways to prepare for this demand is to design a socially distanced queue or to utilize a virtual queuing system so guests can wait in their cars.
The video below shows the benefit of providing enough space to allow guests to properly distance themselves while remaining in order of arrival to promote fairness. Many venues are attempting to do this but provide too few queuing locations and the structure breaks down with excess demand. Providing ample queuing locations (even with masking tape!) will provide structure for the guests and prevent a dangerous situation from developing.
Virtual queuing is another great option for venues with ample parking. Many products exist to provide automatic text messaging to guests to inform them when their tables are ready. This allows guests to wait in their cars out of the elements and eliminates potential crowds. Some locations are avoiding the software costs by approximating a virtual queue using a host to text guests manually when their table becomes available.
Inside the restaurant, seating rearrangements will be mostly dictated by regulations, but be sure to understand both employee and customer usage. Does the route to the bathroom require guests to get uncomfortably close to an occupied table? Are there any pinch points where a server must squeeze by a table? Modify seating layouts as needed.
The back-of-house space may need to change. If delivery or take-out continue to be a large portion of sales, you may need to dedicate kitchen space to this operation. Also consider designating space to distribute dine-out orders, which can help reduce errors. Dedicate a leader with responsibility purely for delivery and take-out guests.
Always Provide Excellent Customer Services
Regardless of what changes you make to your restaurant’s physical space, guests should always receive excellent service. Guests waiting to pick up food still deserve the level of customer experience that dine-in guests experience. Even though they may not be sitting at a table, they are still forming an impression of your business.
A great way to elevate the customer experience is to provide coverings, fans, heaters, or water to outside queues based on the conditions. Adding an entertainment factor to queues and waiting areas can also elevate the experience.
Ultimately, be sure that the operational process is clear to the guest. Customers are likely already stressed given the current outside conditions, and clearly communicating the process can relieve anxiety. Continually update all guest communication channels with the latest policies and procedures. This includes social media, website, physical signs at restaurants, and instructions on Google business listings and third-party apps.
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