So much was different before March 2020. Restaurant safety protocols were established “behind the scenes” and customers probably didn’t care about sanitizing high-touch surfaces or being seated less than six legs of other tables. For many brands, an annual audit was the norm, while employees may have focused on not “getting themselves into trouble” or “getting a good score” rather than creating a culture. Many operators have relied on their instincts, without having a full view of their data to inform their decisions. So much has changed in recent years.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest disruption the restaurant industry has ever faced. Restaurants were unable to operate “normally” during the height of the pandemic, and many wonder if things will ever return to “normal” for our industry. I believe these five things have changed permanently:
1. The demand for transparency
Before the pandemic, restaurateurs focused on maintaining safety standards “behind the scenes,” and customers didn’t think too much about restaurant practices. Now, customers demand transparency around safety and cleanliness, and expect to see employees wiping down surfaces, using hand sanitizer and following other post-COVID protocols. Employees also want reassurance that their restaurants are doing everything possible to keep them safe in our new normal, including masking and social distancing during COVID spikes.
In addition to increased security transparency, many organizations are increasing data transparency to improve many facets of their operations. Brands that use digital tools and software have better, more accurate and holistic views of data. They can use this information to increase efficiency, reduce costs, plan smarter, and make more informed operational decisions.
2. The culture has become more collaborative
Many restaurant workers used to dread annual or semi-annual inspections by third parties. They viewed independent auditors with concern, fearing punishment for any violations found during an inspection. Auditors looked for violations but did not help teams correct areas of non-compliance or educate them on how to mitigate risk. The exercise was punitive, leaving employees feeling devalued and disengaged.
During the pandemic, travel restrictions have forced restaurants to find new ways to inspect their facilities. As a result, employees had to cooperate and collaborate to identify (and resolve) issues and improve compliance. Employees began participating in new tasks, learning more about safety protocols. This has evolved into a new collaborative culture that empowers employees, making them feel responsible for their restaurants’ successes, rather than for mistakes. As an added benefit, having a culture of teamwork and collaboration drives employee satisfaction, loyalty, and retention, which is a real benefit in times of staff shortages and record quits.
3. More and more brands rely on technology
Restaurants have always been reluctant to embrace technological systems, instead relying on manual systems, paper checklists and Excel charts to track critical information. There are many significant issues with these outdated approaches. For one thing, it’s impossible to get an accurate, complete, real-time view when using paper records. Fortunately, a growing number of operators are now using technology tools and software to review and analyze data to make more informed decisions.
The technology can display historical sales patterns, which can help improve tasks from staffing to ordering. Digital inspections, inventory and line checks are much faster, easier and more accurate than manual processes. And tech tools can help traders spot trends and fix problems quickly. Digital solutions allow brands to streamline operations, improve safety and quality management, manage (or reduce) costs, and improve inventory, planning, and ordering.
4. Restaurants rate differently
It turns out that just performing traditional in-person audits wasn’t an ideal approach. As mentioned above, employees often dreaded these inspections. Another major problem: traditional audits only provide a snapshot of compliance at any given time.
Due to the pandemic, many restaurants have adopted regular self-inspections and remote audits, while traditional on-site audits have been discontinued. This combined approach offers significant benefits, including increased monitoring and data collection. More frequent inspections mean issues are spotted (and fixed) faster than they would have been with a single annual audit. Remote audits mean employees interact with auditors, allowing them to ask questions, get immediate feedback, and learn more about the process. As a result, employees feel more engaged, informed, and empowered to troubleshoot and seek out issues during self-assessments and their daily shifts. Giving employees greater ownership of safety and quality protocols is a permanent change that our industry should embrace.
5. How we work
Some restaurants survived the pandemic by adopting different business models. For example, many operators have started offering – or expanding – take-out and delivery options. Others offered curbside pickup and/or drive-thru. Some operators have transitioned from on-site full-service restaurants to shadow kitchens, focusing more space, attention and staff on back-end operations for more robust takeout and delivery offerings. As COVID cases continue to climb and new variants emerge, operators must remain nimble. We’ll probably never go back exclusively to on-site dining options, so it’s wise to expand your offerings. This flexibility, innovation and creativity will be essential to your continued success.
COVID has thrown us curve after curve, with quarantines, new protocols, supply chain disruptions, inflation and continued staff shortages. But some of the changes – like those described above – are positive. The restaurant industry has shown continued resilience in the face of many challenges, moving towards new business models, adopting new auditing methods, investing in breakthrough technology solutions, becoming more collaborative and reinforcing the necessary transparency. Finally, we have wonderful changes to celebrate.