By Kurt Teuscher, CEO, CICS Americas Inc.

Kurt Teuscher, CEO, CICS Americas Inc.

Kurt Teuscher

In mid-March, when COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, we didn’t know what to expect. We had no idea that we were facing months of stay-at-home orders, schools and businesses closing, and an economy in a dramatic free-fall. We couldn’t have predicted the first-ever government mandate to close restaurants, nor the enormous toll this virus would have on businesses, including within the foodservice industry.

Months later, the pandemic rages on. Florida, Texas, and California are seeing huge surges in COVID-19 cases. Businesses (including restaurants) that have been permitted to re-open are now closing again in certain states, to try and limit new cases. It’s very clear that COVID-19 is not a short-term problem – and businesses must develop long-term solutions to survive.

Many restaurants have been struggling since the pandemic began. Some offered take-out and delivery options only, as dine-in options remained closed. When restaurants were allowed to reopen in some states, it was at drastically reduced capacity. While some people were excited to finally leave their houses as quarantine restrictions lifted, many weren’t ready to return to restaurants, amid continued coronavirus concerns. Additionally, employees worried about whether they’d contract this highly contagious virus at work.

Additionally, restaurants have been learning how to manage strict new cleaning and safety procedures, as directed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They’ve had to elevate cleanliness protocols, implementing more frequent, thorough cleaning throughout each shift – in addition to the existing food safety procedures they’re already following (e.g., avoiding cross-contamination, cooking to proper temperatures, etc.)

To make it through this pandemic intact, you must reassure your two primary audiences – your employees and guests – that your restaurant is safe.

First, demonstrate that you value your employees and consider them your greatest asset. Recognize that they’re anxious in these unprecedented times, and prove that you’re providing a safe environment for them. Give them the PPE they’ll need to minimize exposure risk. Show them that you’re using chemicals proven to kill the coronavirus effectively. Allow them to remain socially distanced during their shifts. And give them a workplace that prioritizes a safe culture.

Secondly, if guests don’t feel safe, they won’t come to your restaurant. And, to put it bluntly, if you don’t have customers, your business won’t survive. Create a safe culture, and it will go a long way in boosting customer trust and loyalty, improving your brand reputation, and increasing sales.

In this “new normal,” restaurants must identify, create, communicate, and demonstrate a safe culture. To do so, implement the following steps:

Recognize that COVID is a long-term problem. The massive increase of COVID cases is frightening, especially as we see news stories and social media posts, spotlighting restaurants, and bars that aren’t adhering to proper protocols. Photos and videos clearly show these establishments are packed with people not wearing masks. And, increasingly, COVID cases are being traced back to restaurants and bars that aren’t following protocol. Some people are tired of being cooped up at home, they may feel inconvenienced wearing a mask, or they feel invincible against the virus. People want this crisis to be over so we can return to our old, safe, comfortable, normal lives. But, it’s clear that COVID 19 is still a massive problem that’s threatening our collective health and negatively impacting restaurants, bars, and other businesses. To establish a safe culture, restaurant owners, managers, and employees must take this threat seriously.

Identify the actions necessary to create a safe culture. Following guidelines and protocols is essential, but not enough. Restaurants have to go a step beyond to establish a safe culture. Culture is a set of common beliefs, behaviors, and values that are shared and embraced by people within an organization. If your restaurant establishes, enforces, and promotes a safe culture, your employees and patrons will feel safe at your establishment.

Implement a safe culture. Ensure that your management “walks the walk,” empowering everyone to work together to enforce a safe culture. Continuously train your employees, explaining to them why these protocols are so important. Write and display a Safe Place Policy. Identify the most updated protocols, guidelines, and COVID-19 information issued by the CDC and your local jurisdiction. Communicate these updates to all staff members, across all units and shifts. Ensure compliance. Patrons (and other key audiences) should see a spotless restaurant where employees and guests are wearing PPE, tables are spread out, seating capacity is reduced to avoid crowds, employees are regularly cleaning, etc.  Compare that scenario with this one: It’s a Saturday dinner shift, the restaurant is mobbed, people are standing crowded around the bar, no one is wearing masks, and people are all touching shared objects (e.g., menus, condiment bottles, iPads for ordering) that aren’t being cleaned between uses. Where would you rather dine?

Communicate strategically and effectively. Demonstrate (with words and actions) your commitment to a new, elevated safety culture. Display professional-looking signage prominently around your restaurant, reminding people to wash their hands, wear a face mask, and not enter your restaurant if they have COVID-19 symptoms.  Have other visible reminders – such as floor markers – to encourage proper social distancing. Communicate key messages on your social media platforms, reiterating your commitment to keeping your employees and guests safe. With appropriate communication – in addition to following proper protocols – you’ll reassure staff, guests, vendors, and other key audiences that you’re taking every precaution to maximize safety.

Prove your actions. Surveys show that people are still afraid of going to public places (especially restaurants and bars) due to COVID-19 risks. Therefore, you must prove to them that they’ll be safe at your restaurant. An effective way to do so: get audited by a third-party expert, who can verify that you’re complying with proper health and safety protocols. Professional auditors will issue a Trust Mark to restaurants that are successfully implementing protocols issued by the CDC, your state, city, etc. This prestigious Trust Mark will demonstrate that you’re a trusted establishment. One such Trust Mark, the In This Together brand, helps companies “prove” they’re a safe culture to customers, employees, vendors, etc.  Not only do you receive an esteemed Trust Mark that can be displayed in the restaurant, but you’ll also be listed as a trusted establishment on the In This Together website.

So – who do you want to be? The restaurant owner that disregards safety protocols, allowing crowds of people to congregate, mask-free, to socialize like it’s the “old normal”? While this restaurant owner might bring in an impressive profit on a busy Saturday night, they also risk infecting hundreds of people (or more), which could lead to negative media stories, possible lawsuits, harsh criticism on social media and, ultimately, a ruined reputation and a failed business.

Or do you want to be the responsible restaurant owner, who operates at a reduced capacity, offering take-out and delivery options in addition to limited dine-in seating? This responsible owner insists that employees wear PPE, has line cooks standing 6’ apart, and ensures that employees clean often using chemicals proven to kill COVID germs. This restaurant displays signage, and also posts on social media with clear safety messages, publicly vowing to keep employees and guests safe. They display their Trust Mark, and are listed on reputable websites as being a verified safe establishment. Their customers are loyal and appreciative, feeling safe onsite, dining there frequently, and recommending this place to all of their friends. This, my friends, is the restaurant that will survive and thrive during this pandemic and beyond.

Kurt Teuscher is CEO of CICS Americas Inc., a private third-party certification company that has performed certification audits of management systems for more than 15 years. CICS has extensive experience in a variety of industries, including food service, manufacturing, retail, energy, hydrocarbon, and more.  For more information, please visit www.safethere.com.