As the conversation gradually shifts toward reentry and what that could potentially look like, the foodservice industry may have gotten a glimpse of what’s to come last week when Georgia allowed restaurants to open their dining rooms.
So, how’d it go? “I went out to eat Sunday night in what felt like the first time in a year. There were three other people in my party and there were two other people in the restaurant,” says Wayne Jones, managing partner for The Hansen Group, an independent manufacturers’ rep firm in Georgia. “I felt perfectly safe and there was plenty of sanitation and cleaning on display. And the restaurant was doing a healthy takeout business, too. Everyone in this industry practices ServSafe [food safety protocols]. Washing our hands and sanitizing everything is nothing new to this industry. Our company teaches ServSafe classes, too. So, the restaurant industry should be pretty safe. What worries me is the people who come to restaurants that are not practicing social distancing, etc.”
The restaurant, Jones adds, did make some adjustments to be ready to open. For example, the restroom now features no-touch faucets and paper towel dispensers, and it took an approach to seating that embraced the state’s social distancing guidelines. “You could only sit in every third booth or every third table,” Jones noted. “Where you used to pay for your meal at the register, they took care of it for you. They did not want you moving around.”
The restaurant’s patio was open for business, too. While in normal times that space could accommodate up to 30 patrons, it had roughly half as many sitting there during Jones’ visit. “That seemed to be the preferred seating area for that restaurant,” he adds.
In addition, the staff at this restaurant made some adjustments. “They had a much smaller waitstaff crew than usual,” Jones says. “Everyone in the place was wearing masks. Anytime they touched anything they used hand sanitizer and gave you plenty to use, too.”
While restaurants in Georgia were given the green light to open their dining rooms, it appears the majority chose not to reopen, per a published report from the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “It’s been interesting to watch the slow-go acceptance of this by the restaurants and the consumers. I would say the majority of restaurants are still to-go only and have not chosen to open their dining rooms,” Jones says. “A majority of those will wait at least another week before opening their dining rooms. They wanted to see if there was any type of spike that happened once things were allowed to open. “Testing is increasing so the number of confirmed cases will go up, but they want to make sure there’s no hot spots, etc.”
When those Georgia restaurants do decide to open their dining rooms, they will need to adhere to 39 guidelines as set forth by the state. This includes allowing the restaurants to serve only 10 patrons per every 500 square feet, as well as the anticipated requirements for personal protection equipment, cleaning and sanitization of spaces, and more. To help restaurants prepare to reopen, the Georgia Restaurant Association developed a toolkit that includes best practices and lists of other resources.
As operators continue to come back online, there’s an opportunity for dealers and other members of the supply chain to really embrace the role of trusted advisor in helping their customers understand the new business parameters they will face, which will take the form of government requirements and consumer expectations. “That’s what I am training my people on,” says Chuck Day, president of Manning Brothers, an Athens, Georgia-based dealership. “We are going to get to a new normal. I am not sure what that is going to be, but we best be ready for it,” he says. “These things are going to be very important for us as professionals to understand. You have to be able to find other avenues so when it does pick up, you are ready to go.”
As they come back online, some restaurants are starting to turn to their service agents to help get their equipment safely running. “Some are saying my equipment has been shut down, what should I do to restart it?” says Joe Pierce of Clark Service Group, doing business as Pierce Parts and Service. Clark Service Group acquired Pierce Parts and Service earlier this year. We’ve been handling some phone-fix scenarios and if that does not work, we will dispatch a technician.”
During the time when Georgia dining rooms were closed and restaurants were naturally slower, Pierce and other service agents encouraged operators to take a proactive stance, knowing this day would eventually come. “We told them now is the ideal time to have us come in to perform a deep maintenance program for them so they are ready to reopen,” Pierce says. “While they appreciated the intention and effort, they felt they were trying to weather the storm and did not know when it would end. So, they decided to hold off. Business after the dining rooms reopened was definitely slower than we anticipated at first because so many people had reservations. But this week it’s up another 4% or 5%. Everyone is approaching things very cautiously and measuring their numbers very carefully.
“It’s really a mixed bag because everyone is unsure,” Pierce adds. “They are trying to figure out how to make the revenue side of the business work when you have significant cuts in the number of people you can serve.”
When technicians do visit operators, they must practice social distancing and take extra care to make sure they are operating as safely as possible. “We go in wearing masks and gloves,” Pierce says. “And we go in with sanitation wipes to wipe down everything we touch. This is a very visual practice for us because we want them to know we are practicing the best protocols possible. The feedback we get is the customers appreciate we are trying to be proactive and safety oriented.”
How contagious this virus remains hit close to home for Pierce and his team. One technician was exposed to a person at a senior facility who tested positive for COVID-19. The technician was quarantined for 14 days and is now back to work. “The administrator has called and thanked us for our continued support and professionalism we displayed without going into panic mode,” Pierce says.
While there’s been lots of focus on how reopening will impact the dining room, other areas of the restaurant could change, too. For example, many industry observers predict off-premises sales will continue to grow and how operators handle this aspect of their business could shape the back of the house. “Dining rooms are going to shrink but you may need two cooklines to accommodate off-premises without compromising the experience of the customers in the dining room,” Day says. “We are going to see more apps facilitating ordering, payment, pickup of food and more. We have to be ready as an with combi ovens, cook and hold ovens and more.”
More than the reopening of some restaurants in his home state, Jones sees other signs the foodservice industry is starting to rebound from the mandated closures aimed at slowing the spread of novel coronavirus. “Dealers in the area report an increase in customers looking for smallwares over the past week or so,” he says. And this coincides with data from AutoQuotes that shows the numbers of foodservice equipment and supplies-related quotes and other activity on its platform steadily increasing since April 6.
Key products that Jones’ customers are showing interest in include anything related to handwashing and handwashing stations, including the aforementioned touchless faucets; hot food holding equipment; items with antimicrobial coatings, including shelving; plus plexiglass and other barriers to help provide a buffer between foodservice staff and guests without completely disrupting service. “Anything that has those buzzwords to it people are interested in and those products will attract immediate attention,” Jones adds.
Another segment growing in popularity are items that show food packaging has not been tampered with prior to guests receiving their orders. “It’s another touch point people are very interested in right now,” Jones says.
This is similar to product requests Manning Brothers continues to field, according to Day. The dealer’s customers continue to ask for sprays, bleaches and anything else that can help an operator, or any other business for that matter, keep their facility clean and sterile, he says. “Germs are one thing, but viruses are another. So, soaps and other solutions that kill viruses is what we are pushing. The more you can do that, whether it’s COVID-19 or H1N1, the better. These products are going out box after box, day after day, and I am thankful for that. We are doing everything we can humanly do to right the ship, as it were.”
The supply chain continues to play a prominent role in dealers’ ability to support their customers in these challenging times. “The factories have really stepped up their game and it’s helped us remain viable,” Day says. “It’s helped us be a part of the solution instead of simply sitting around and crying about the virus. During a time of national crisis, customers are showing a strong interest in supporting American made products, too.”
As for the future, Day’s view pretty much applies to the entire industry: “We have to adapt. We will not able to survive if we don’t. And we really have to help push our customers forward.”