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The restaurant’s guide to surviving a pandemic

Editor’s note: A version of this post first ran on author Josh Kopel’s blog. Josh is an entrepreneur, restaurateur, and host of Full Comp, a new podcast for the hospitality industry.

When we emerge on the other side of this economic crisis caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant industry—and the whole country—will look different. Take a moment to mourn, then recognize something inspiring about that fact: This is our opportunity to rethink everything.

We may be in survival mode right now, but part of our brains need to start focusing on how we can come out of this period in a state of readiness for whatever comes next. Bouncing back stronger than ever won’t be a matter of luck or timing, it will take strategy and planning. Here are five things I recommend focusing on to give your business a fighting chance when the recovery begins. 

1. Get your finances in order

Still have cash in the bank? Keep it: You’ll need all of the liquidity you can get when negotiating with landlords and vendors. It’s also time to get your financial paperwork organized. Even though tax deadlines have been pushed out, take the time to get your personal and business tax returns in order for 2019 and locate copies of your 2018 returns. There are opportunities to apply for small business loans and other financial relief through the CARES Act as additional relief programs. There are also small business grant opportunities to take advantage of. All of these processes require paperwork, so make time to get that together now if you haven’t already.

2. Overcommunicate

Everyone knows you’re broke and struggling. For the most part, we’re all in the same boat. Stay in regular communication with your landlords and vendors. This is an opportunity to lean into your capacity for empathy. If the people you owe begin to see you as a caring human being and source of comfort and camaraderie, you’ll have built up months’ worth of goodwill before the time comes for negotiations. Be open about sharing where you are with your business and your finances, and always, always ask them how they’re doing—they’re probably struggling too. Offer to schedule regular calls to make sure everyone is on the same page. 

3. Create value in your community

We don’t know what the landscape will look like when we emerge from captivity, but we do know this: Things will be different, and it’s gonna take a village. This is the moment to analyze the neighborhoods around your restaurants and figure out how you can best contribute to those communities. Don’t wait for someone else to take the lead. Think about how your business can become a foundational element in the rebirth of your neighborhood by:

  • Setting your menu and prices to reflect the economic realities around you
  • Creating a space where people can come together
  • Hosting events focused on rebuilding social connections
  • Being flexible—adapting as the needs of your neighborhood changes

4. Make some noise

Now is the time to figure out who and what can help you drive traffic once you’ve reopened. Spend time laying that foundation now so you’ll be effective in spreading the word quickly when the time comes. Will it be social media influencers, local publications, your own social pages, or review sites like Yelp? Write your “we’re open” messages for your social media accounts and your email list. Start a list of local food writers and community websites to contact when your reopening gets close. Plan the updates you’ll want to make to your website, think about “reopening” flyers for the neighborhood and window/outdoor signage.

Take the time now to develop your rollout strategy to ensure that when you do open, everyone knows about it.

5. Get lean, stay lean

No one knows what kind of volume to expect once restaurants are able to reopen their dining rooms, but you should plan for the likely scenario that there will be a slow start after reopening. Start asking the tough questions now: 

  • What will your menu look like?
  • How many days per week will you be open?
  • What will your hours of operation be?
  • What will your staffing model look like?

My restaurant, Preux & Proper, was a full-service fine dining restaurant. For us, all options are on the table. We’re considering opening weekends only, for dinner service exclusively, with an “order at the bar” model. That may change by the time we reopen, but we’re using data to make those decisions. We’re putting in the work now so that the relaunch looks effortless and seamless. 

My guiding principle as I think about emerging on the other side? 

Forget who we were, and focus on who we can be.