One thing we know for sure: we can’t predict what COVID will do next or what that will mean for those of us in the restaurant business. Depending on what’s happening with the virus in your area, you could be looking at closures, an increase in takeaway, or simply fewer diners willing to venture out into the world—even for special occasions.
One major lesson of the past couple of years is that no matter how carefully you plan, pandemic-related plot twists can come fast and furious. The advice below can help you prepare for different scenarios in an atmosphere where anything can (and probably will) happen.
Informed guests are happy guests
With the Omicron variant or any variants to come, safety regulations can change at the drop of a hat. You might find yourself solving new square-metre-based capacity equations, or you might need to adjust instructions around mask wearing when guests aren’t actively eating or drinking. Whatever the case, keep guests in the know about all safety precautions, so they know what to expect.
Just as your area has ever-changing safety protocols, each guest has fluctuating personal standards depending on their situation. Some may decide they’d prefer outdoor dining, so if you offer dinner alfresco, be sure to add those coveted outdoor tables to your floor plan. (And depending on the weather, describe any amenities you offer to keep outdoor diners cool or cozy, such as fans and air-conditioned areas and heaters or blankets.
Guests may also decide that they’d rather get their meal to-go, even at the last minute. So be sure to review your OpenTable profile and update it to reflect the current menu, as well as takeaway and delivery options. Double-check that the right cuisine types have been selected, and be sure to upload your best recent photos.
Over communicate to avoid surprises
Use customised booking confirmations to be in touch with guests in advance of their visit. This way, you can ensure they’re up-to-date on any safety regulations or policy changes they’ll need to follow.
An effective yet often overlooked way to communicate with guests is to pick up the phone. If you aren’t already doing it, calling guests a few days before their reservation is a highly personal way to confirm with them. It has the bonus of nudging them to cancel if that’s what they’re going to do. This frees up space sooner for those inevitable last-minute reservations.
Don’t forget about direct messaging. Just as some guests may respond well to a phone call and others an email, some people pay more attention to direct messages. Use them to confirm all reservations and safety regulations details ahead of their visit.
Don’t let seats go empty
In the best of times, a certain amount of last-minute cancellations or no-shows are to be expected. In pandemic times, this is even more of a factor as some guests second-guess the decision to dine out at all.
At the same time, there are those who second-guess the decision to stay home and find themselves on the hunt for tables in the days or even hours beforehand. This churn makes availability alerts even more important than usual. Remind people with a note on your profile or website to set an availability alert even if their desired day and time isn’t currently open because tables are likely to open up. When that happens, they’ll be notified with the option to book on the spot.
Get ready for walk-ins
This one might feel a bit unexpected, but thanks to all the question marks around COVID, there may be more walk-ins than you’d think. You can prepare for a possible crowd by making your floor plan more flexible in advance. Be sure to allow for a variety of table sizes. It’s also a good idea to offer an online waitlist, even if you don’t think you’ll need it.
While you’re at it, decide where to seat each party on the books. Making these decisions in advance can save precious minutes at the door. Keep in mind this plan should remain fluid to make changes based on real-time comings and goings through the shift.
It’s also a good idea to pay extra attention to the shift overview. Use that information to make an informed prediction about the night’s flow and a solid game plan. During the pre-shift meeting, go over any special requests. This can make service more nimble and efficient—a must if you do get surprised with plenty of walk-ins.
Finally, use QR codes for contact-free menus. This can help servers focus on offering hospitality, not handing out and retrieving menus. It’s also an efficient way to remind guests about safety precautions.
Attract at-home diners
Given the constantly shifting situations, some diners will decide to play it safe and dine at home. These diners can still be your guests if they choose you for takeaway or delivery. This could be even more appealing to some guests if you offer a no-touch or drive-through pickup option.
If possible, offer the same specials for in-house diners to those ordering takeaway. Also, consider adding options for cocktails or sparkling wine pairings. At home date nights are increasingly popular, and you’ll have the opportunity to make their night even more special.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst
Let’s be honest: there’s always the chance you’ll have to close temporarily. Even in the absence of mandates and regulations, many restaurants have been forced to close for a few days or longer because half of the team either has COVID or is isolating after exposure.
When you need to cancel existing reservations through OpenTable, you can close an entire date range and communicate with those guests at the same time. It could be a nice touch to follow up with a phone call to ensure they got the message. You can also prevent incoming reservations by using an online reservation block to close down bookings for a specific date.
The secret to success—and reducing stress—in these times is to think ahead and have a strategy for a range of possible outcomes. When you’ve got a plan for whatever happens, you can sail into your next special occasion (or simply the next weekend) with confidence.
Get tips to brainstorm ideas, refine your strategy, and stay on track for whatever might come.