Warmer weather returns, along with cautious enthusiasm for going back to favorite places.
By Zagat Editorial as told to Zagat Stories
The state of Florida has been one of the earliest areas for restaurants to begin resuming something like normal operations. Though rules about reopening differ from county to city, the South Florida region illustrates the many different ways restaurants are adjusting to new styles of delivery, menu options, safety, and customer service.
Partner, Tap 42
We’ve been one of the big Uber Eats partners for a long time. We were as well positioned as you could be to move into delivery and takeout only. It was always a focus point of ours to make sure that our food travels as well as it possibly can. Customers have realized that we take that seriously and they can get as close to the same dining experience as you ever could. Delivery is going to be a big part of the business for a long time, probably forever.
We’re actually in the middle of reopening all of our stores right now. We’re really excited to be back open, but obviously it’s very difficult to gauge how business is going to be, as well as following all of the new government-mandated restrictions. Not so much the capacity restrictions, although that’s a moving target as well, but complying with all the new regulations. The restaurant business is tough enough as it is, so having to manage a whole new set of items and things and people, it definitely adds a new wrinkle.
Our outside areas are set up for six-foot distancing, which at some locations is pretty easy because we have big patios with movable furniture. And we have a couple other locations that have smaller patios and outdoor booths. That becomes a little bit more difficult to navigate. Some places are easier than others. Different markets, I think, are going to react differently. Everybody keeps asking me, “How is it different between the different counties and stuff?” We’ve really only been open two days, and it’s been a Monday and a Tuesday, so it’s hard to tell. What we’re seeing so far is that there’s definitely a segment of the population that is excited to get back out and get into restaurants and bars and socialize within the new parameters. And then there’s a segment of the population that isn’t ready yet. We understand that, and when they’re ready to come back, we’re going to be waiting for them with open arms—six feet away.
Marketing Specialist, Raw Jūce
We actually never had to close. We were really fortunate. We’re pretty much a grab-and-go kind of concept already. We serve raw vegetables, salads, oatmeal, whole fresh juices. We’re already in that health-and-wellness category. To keep serving our guests, we’ve updated all of our delivery menus with categories for immunity boosters. COVID made everyone realize how big delivery is going to be in the future. We definitely will continue focusing on our delivery. Meanwhile, we have implemented hand sanitizing stations, so when you walk in right next to the kiosk you have a hand sanitizer. And to promote social distancing, we’ve added floor decals that are six feet away from each other. They have different sayings that are branded to Raw Jūce. Now we have our own branded masks, and all guests and team members are required to wear them.
President & CEO, Sergio’s Restaurant
We’ve had delivery and takeout for over 35 years. We’re really working on increasing that now. We’re going to have to diversify not only in terms of online delivery, but also in how to diversify our product line in the future to make it convenient for the guest. for example, we’re doing pre-planned, pre-prepared meals. Unlike fast-casual restaurants that can run their operations with five or six people, full-service restaurants are a little bit difficult. It’s a bigger space. You’ve got to pay higher rents. There also are advantages, too. You have a better-qualified kitchen. You can diversify into different product lines that maybe you wouldn’t have before. Like low-sodium products that maybe we didn’t have in our store.
As we look at reopening, your servers still have to create a connection. If we do any hygiene practices and the customer doesn’t know what we’re doing, then it’s not happening, because perception is reality right now. Every 30 minutes we wash our hands, and we have a buzzer, a little timer in our kitchen, by the exit. Every 30 minutes it buzzes. We tell our staff to go ahead and tell your customers that you’re going to wash your hands and that it’s part of our procedures.
Right now for phase one, there’s no better way to communicate to the guests. You could put things on the door, but the front doors of all our restaurants are already full of local ordinances and regulations. Will the guests feel comfortable that you’re just posting a sign? I don’t think so. It’s got to be the operator who actually says, “Hey guys, I’ve got to do this now because this is part of our procedure.” If they see you communicating that issue or that practice, they’re going to feel comfortable enough to come back.
You’re still going to find people not going out to restaurants as much as it was in the past. Those who can focus on the delivery, but still make it fun, still make it unique, will have an opportunity to get those sales.
Manager, Naomi’s Garden Restaurant and Lounge</strong>
Before the changes, we were already primarily a takeout and delivery restaurant. We have a beautiful garden seating area, but it’s quick-serve, so people get food and then they go sit down. We’re also sort of like a sidewalk cafe, where people walk up to the restaurant from the sidewalk and view items in the steam table through a glass window. We were amazingly, magically set up for this kind of operation. Structure-wise, I closed the windows a little bit and made a few physical changes. Staff-wise, we changed some of the cleaning procedures to make them more often. Then we reduced the amount of staff that we would have in the building at any given time, and all the staff is wearing masks.
We have a lot of older people that work for us. We have one lady who’s 80 years old! She’s worked for us for 35 years. She doesn’t want to stop working. I’ve got to make sure she’s paid. We have five people or six people in their 60s. I was very concerned with having them leave their houses during all this, so I reduced some of their days to two days a week or three days a week instead of five or six. Those are mostly the prep people. I split up the days in a different way and reduced the number of dishes that we were making just to make the prep process have less steps. I removed some of the more expensive, prep-intensive items.
On the delivery side, there absolutely was a big uptick. And happily, a lot more pickup orders from our existing customer base. It’s something I’ve been trying to get them to do for a long time. Our sales are probably at about 70 to 80 percent of what they normally are. So that means an uptick in delivery and pickup orders, and probably more locals are coming to our restaurant more often. We already have a loyal clientele, but even more loyal now. When people get stressed or things are uncertain, you go toward what’s comfortable. You’re not going to go to a fancy restaurant expecting takeout. It’s just not what you normally do.
We have reopened our garden now, just two days ago. That is a very positive thing. I have the cleaning people still cleaning the tables much more often than normally. Before it was like every two hours we’d go out and wipe down the tables. Now, it’s like every half hour. But the garden’s such a beautiful, natural calm space, which is the whole intention. And there’s so much space. It’s a 7,500 square foot garden, and we’ve got about 100 seats spread out. So there’s a lot of space, and we did that intentionally. We could cram in another hundred seats easily, but we keep it spread out on purpose because that’s the vibe that we want. It’s really magical, because a lot of places when there’s not a lot of people they feel empty, and when there’s too many people it feels full. But for us, because we’ve got trees and plants and bushes and flowers all over the place, those already break up the space in a way that there can be five people there and it’s fine, and there could be 100, and you still feel like you have space.
We have a full-service restaurant in downtown Miami. The city of Miami is actually being more stringent with reopening than any of the cities or counties in the local area. For that one we came up with an express menu—not necessarily what we had been offering before on our traditional menu—but things that were readily accessible, because a lot of vendors were having issues maintaining items in stock, whether it be fresh produce or proteins. So we’re offering things that we would be able to source, but that would also still be on brand with an American-Cuban modern twist type of a company. As time has gone on, we’ve expanded out from there.
Along with doing a market, we do special family-style meals for four people that come with a protein, a side, rice, beans, salad, and a piece of Cuban bread. It has been successful for us thus far. Families staying at home, not wanting to cook, or maybe can’t find the items in Publix or wherever—they are buying family meals from us. We used to have one person working in the front whose job was to handle online delivery orders on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Now we have one or two people specifically for that task seven days a week.
One of the most important aspects of hospitality is comfort. I don’t think that a guest could truly be comfortable if they don’t feel safe. Unless they feel safe, they’re not going to fully enjoy their experience with us. So how do we make them feel safe? They have to see it. So we have a timer in the bakery and in our stores that goes off every few minutes. When that goes off, somebody goes around and cleans everything from the bathrooms to every table, every chair, every door, any touchpoint of the guests. That’s something that the guest hears and sees. And we’re maintaining our face masks at all times. We have to do it, and they have to know that we’re doing it in order for them to fully be comfortable and fully enjoy the hospitality we’re trying to serve them with.