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Dining Room Management Post COVID-19

Jun 5, 2020
min read
Written by
In a snapshot—we answer:
How can restaurants still bring the magic of eating out to the re-imagined guest experience?
What are best practices for complete control of guest flow? Reservations? Waitlist? Both?
Where can ops be streamlined to also tackle managing curbside orders and an increasingly busy parking lot-turned-waiting area?

he best operators in the business are those who manage their brand like something more than just a restaurant. There’s a palpable difference between visiting a fast-casual or full-service spot that treats guests like people rather than just a transaction. In the wake of COVID-19, taking care of others through even the basic gestures so familiar to hospitality pros will look a lot different. It has to.

But let’s set aside the temptation to jump to imagining the ‘new normal’ of a dining room with roped off chairs, partitions between diners, and the smell of bleach permeating the air....just for a few minutes. Early consumer surveys shared in the NRN Data essentials webinar show 45% of guests (58% of Boomers) are eager to return to dine-in just to feel normal again. Why? Because inside the four walls of restaurants is where so much of life happens—birthdays, date night, engagements, anniversaries, reunions, Mother’s & Father’s Day, New Year’s Eve...and the list goes on and on.

So where should concepts even begin in thinking through how to approach re-opening their dining room while working to rebuild consumer trust AND juggling ever-changing regulations?

There’s no magic wand or fully-baked master playbook, but with a little reconfiguration and a lot of resilience, brands big and small can still bring some of the magic of eating out to the re-imagined guest experience. 

Rebuilding Consumer Trust: How to Approach Dining Room Management Post COVID-19

1. The Floor

Before any re-opening promotion begins or staffing plans are put in motion—start with getting your house in order, as they say. Be sure to check local regulations first, but the assumption is a vast majority of states will require limited seating (in some cases 25% capacity, others 50%).

Using your previous floor plan and removing seating is the best place to start. Don’t delete old dining room layouts from your system as you may want them in the future or to use them as a tool to compare capacity over time.

Many guests will have likely seen simulations of why the recommended distance between people in public is set at six (6) feet, so plan accordingly. To inspire consumer confidence, make it known through signage or floor decals that you’ve done the literal leg work in ensuring there are six (6) feet between the chairs of one table and that of an adjacent seat.

Questions to consider:

  • How can you weave elements of your brand (or something silly) into the experience by using fun elements to make safety signage more whimsical and welcoming? (e.g. your table is # tortillas apart from your neighbor)
  • How can communal tables be repurposed within your restaurant space (e.g. for a curbside pick-up station)? 
  • Will you continue to leverage the bar for seating or strike the barstools from your layout? (Note: most states are requiring bar customers to have a seat.)
  • Will you delineate a zone where servers will stand at a safe distance from tables (when they aren’t serving food/drinks, that is) to eliminate any awkwardness from server/guest interactions?

Example Before/After Floorplan

2. The Door 

Your host stand is now, more than ever, mission control for your entire restaurant. There’s a lot to consider for how to optimize the flow in/out of your space but one undeniable truth is that it’s impossible to manage chaos on a  clipboard. Having a system that is setup to show a list of reservations “arriving later,” guests “here now” who’ve joined your waitlist remotely or as a walk-in, plus your curbside orders—all through one app—will keep your operations running smoothly no matter what the shift brings. An organized approach will also ensure your focus can be greeting guests, answering their questions, and making sure they feel comfortable and welcome.

Questions to consider:

  • Reservations: For complete control of guest flow will you offer seating by reservation only? Does your restaurant reservation system recognize repeats guests you’ve likely not seen in a while so you can welcome them back, personally (even if you don’t recognize them in their mask, maybe?)
  • Waitlist: Given capacity restrictions, to maximize revenue opportunities will you provide the ability for guests to join the restaurant waitlist—ideally from their mobile device, from home, or from your parking lot? Does your system allow you to communicate with guests via two-way text (vs. pagers)? Can you customize those messages with new prompts/instructions that reflect how you’re managing your dining room now (and with your brand voice)?
  • Curbside: With orders to the kitchen from dine-in guests tapered by limited seating, will you continue to offer take-out? How will you differentiate guests with a reservation, those on the wait, or others arriving to pick-up their order?

3. The Parking Lot is Now a Server Section

Even when dining rooms reopen, consumer surveys and industry executives are predicting that curbside is here to stay. Depending on demand, this new reality of juggling a line for take-out and dine-in could present an opportunity to manage your parking lot just like a server section in the dining room. 

Questions to consider:

  • Will you have designated areas of your parking lot for curbside pick-up vs. dine-in? What about third-party delivery pick-ups? 
  • Do you have the ability to two-way text with guests to keep them informed when their table or order is ready? 
  • For take-out orders will you collect license plates/make/model of cars during the online transaction or use designated parking spot numbers like table numbers?

4. Get Some Air

A topic that certainly requires more research is how air circulation contributes or decreases the likelihood of viruses spreading. But, there’s enough information out there that guests will likely be wondering if your ventilation in the dining room is up to snuff. 

Questions to consider:

  • Is your HVAC in proper working condition and was it recently cleaned and inspected? If so, let guests know as part of your reopening communication (they’ll certainly literally breathe easier knowing you’ve taken this extra safety precaution.) 
  • Are the hoods and ventilation in your kitchen also working well and keeping overwhelming food smells and smoke from lingering in the dining room?

5. The Final Countdown

For the foreseeable future, guests wanting to linger a little longer after their last course or following dessert isn’t likely to happen. But part of your dining room management policy should take into account how you’ll handle any ‘house rules’ for how long a party can remain seated before they need to pay and leave. This type of policy will be a critical element of managing turn times but should also be included in your reopening communication to guests. 

Questions to consider:

  • Does your table management system have a table timer that starts when guests are seated? 
  • Does your waitlist or reservation system have a smart algorithm that learns the dining room and the average time it takes to turn tables? 
  • How will you communicate with guests about these procedures in a way that is still friendly and courteous given the policies are in place for everyone’s benefit?

Final Thoughts on Dining Room Management Post Pandemic

Switching gears from crisis management to focus on a re-opening strategy won’t be easy but there are new resources being released every day to help: Q&As from the National Restaurant Association, guidance from the CDC, and even lessons to be learned from restaurants in China.

But in defining the re-opening playbook for your brand, don’t get stuck in news article analysis paralysis. What matters most of all in how you manage your dining room is that it makes your guests and staff feel comfortable and safe while still serving as a place for gathering together to have a good time...and great food. 

Photo credit Shawn Ang