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Moving back a phase: Suggestions for how to cope with lower indoor capacity

Apr 12, 2021 | Reopening 2021, Restaurant Reopening Guide

Just as Washington hospitality businesses have settled into Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, higher rates of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are pushing some counties back to Phase 2. Under the Healthy Washington—Roadmap to Recovery plan, counties are to be evaluated every three weeks for their coronavirus status, and counties that fail to meet reopening criteria will be moved back a phase.

The entire state moved into Phase 3 on March 22, and the first evaluation on Monday, April 12, found three counties (Pierce, Whitman and Cowlitz) are failing to meet the governor’s criteria in two or more metrics. They will have to return to Phase 2 requirements on Friday, April 16, which limits, among other things, indoor capacity at eating and drinking establishments to 25%. The next three-week evaluation will be on May 3 with implementation on May 7, followed by another evaluation on May 24 (May 28).

What can restaurant and hospitality business operators do to ride out the uncertainty of the reopening rollercoaster? What steps should you take if your business is faced with returning to 25% indoor capacity as soon as Friday, April 16?

We spoke to several restaurant consultants and operators who all had sage advice for how to survive in these rocky times. Here’s what they had to share.

Do more with less staff. No one needs to tell you that making do with less labor is a defining feature of operating a restaurant during the pandemic. Unfortunately, uncertainty and the increasing challenge of finding employees means that this hyper less-is-more approach to staff levels needs to continue. If you’re able to maintain staffing for 25% indoor capacity while serving 50%, you’ll be better positioned if you have to switch back to lower capacity says Rick Braa, restaurant expert and CEO of AMP Services, Inc.\

But don’t let anybody go! Hiring is one of the biggest challenges for the hospitality industry and it is unlikely to improve any time soon. “Be very careful with turnover because individuals won’t come back,” says Braa. Because hiring is so difficult right now, he and others say you shouldn’t assume you’ll be able to easily find new workers when you need them.

If you need to reduce hours, look into SharedWork through Washington’s Employment Security Department. This program allows employees to remain on your payroll while drawing unemployment benefits that make up for up reduced wages. You’re able to keep them engaged and on your team despite up to a 50% cut in hours. Importantly, ESD recently announced that SharedWork will not impact your employment experience factor through Sept. 4, 2021.

Be open to more changes. “Be Gumby-like and stay flexible,” says Jeff Morgan, CEO of Hops n Drops which has 21 restaurants in Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Because you don’t know when conditions will require you to pivot, he recommends developing plans and thinking through contingencies.

A possible return to lower indoor capacity means you need to keep a very close eye on inventory and to continue to run lean. You may also want to look for more labor-efficient options. Andy Cook, a restaurant consultant with Harbor Foodservice, is a big advocate of speed scratch, pre-prepped produce and pre-portioned proteins that can save significantly on worker hours.

“It can still be very local,” he says. “A lot of local growers will work with you to create the mix you want.” Consistency is another benefit of speed-scratch options, and in some cases pre-prepped produce that comes in vacuum packs will have a longer shelf life.

Another change to consider is an adjustment in hours of operation. Braa suggests looking at stretching your hours to balance demand and lower capacity, or possibly reduce them to get a handle on costs. “Adjust your business hours to work for you,” he says. And look carefully at the opportunities and requirements for outdoor and open-air dining.

It may also be a good time to raise prices. Third-party delivery services now allow different menu prices on their platforms, and Cook recommends taking advantage of this opportunity to help defray costs. In contrast, Braa recommends his clients look at increasing their regular menu. He recognizes there is a hesitancy to raise prices, yet people are now used to paying more. The minimum wage increase and the pandemic have helped customers understand that restaurants need to catch up on pricing.

Stay positive and communicate! “Delighting our guests and developing our teams always has to be our focus,” Morgan reminds us, even in these challenging times. Communicating well with your team, and your customers, is an important part of this, and staying positive will benefit everyone.

Messaging may be more important than ever. “Everyone needs to know the talking points so they don’t say whatever comes to mind,” says Cook. Your guests will surely be forgiving when your team member explains a challenge with a friendly “Thank you for understanding. The coronavirus and changing regulations are making it especially difficult for us right now.” 

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Be sure to review the state’s requirements for operating in Phase 2 and 3. Find them here: