As coronavirus restrictions lift in a growing number of states, restaurant operators ready to re-open their dining rooms are having to reinvent the hospitality playbook in order to safely and effectively put employees back to work.
“It’s a relief, but still a little stressful,” said restaurateur Austin Smith of re-opening Party Fowl, a full-service hot chicken concept in Nashville, Tenn. “It’s a totally different model of service.”
While restrictions on dine-in service we lifted in late April in select counties in Tennessee, Smith opted to wait until the first weekend in May to open two of his four locations in order to ensure adequate time for full team training. Two locations are in or near downtown Nashville, which is still closed for dine-in.
“It wasn’t just about getting open, sales through the door,” Smith said. “It was about getting open correctly.”
With new dine-in capacity restrictions and the likelihood of far fewer customers at the outset, a big part of re-opening right is figuring out whom to bring back first.
For Mutiny Wine Room in Houston, Texas, the answer was simple.
“We have a small team so we are allowing all of our employees to come back,” owner Emily Trout said.
When Mutiny closed on March 16, it had 33 employees. Following three days of training, most went back to work in Mutiny’s Farmhouse, Cellar Room and its two patios, which reopened on May 5 for wines by the glass or bottle and a menu of wine-country inspired food pairings.
“We do have a couple of team members who have decided to continue to stay home,” Trout said. “We let them know that we respect their decision and their job will be here when they decide to come back.”
While some operators can immediately invite their entire staff to return, restaurant groups such as Charleston, S.C.-based All Good Industries — which employed more than 300 people at 4 concepts at 6 locations pre-COVID — have had to bring staff back in waves.
“We had no idea they would put us in a position to open back up this soon,” said co-owner Karalee Fallert, who on May 5 opened for patio dining services at two of its Taco Boy locations.
About 100 staffers are back to work so far. Directors and managers were brought back first, followed by key line staff. Those chosen to return first were people in senior positions for a year or more and who were top performers.
“It was generally who our best employees are,” Fallert said.
The Taco Boy staff returned at the same pay rates as before the dine-in closure, but Fallert said she limited hours to 20 per week, to ensure people were eligible to collect unemployment if they wanted.
Mutiny took a different approach, increasing the rate of returning tipped staff to $10 per hour to off-set the reduction in hours that was inevitable in the current situation. Additional hours were offered to staff willing to take on new projects, such as planting an herb garden and specialized cleaning and disinfecting.
Similarly, all who worked at the two re-opening locations of Party Fowl, were invited to return. However, before committing, Smith said many hourly workers questioned the financial feasibility of returning, especially given the new restrictions on restaurant capacity.
“Some are doing better with the stimulus money the government has given folks,” Smith said. “It made them double think, am I going to make as much as staying at home?”
Ultimately, all employees at the two currently open Party Fowl locations returned, underwent team training and committed to wearing Party Fowl branded masks and gloves in order to execute on a new and very different type of social distanced service.
Despite a multitude of guidelines for re-opening, many operators say the information still leaves open to interpretation how to successfully execute it all. As a result, some operators are aiming to go above and beyond.
Among them, Houston-based Goode Company Restaurants, which partnered with Hamilton Health Box, a provider of on-site healthcare to self-insured employers, to conduct voluntary coronavirus testing and ongoing health monitoring for its 157 employees.
“It was an opportunity for me and our company to take extraordinary measures … to provide an additional layer of health and safety,” said Levi Goode, owner of Goode Company Restaurants.
Goode said all existing employees have been tested with no positive results.
Going forward, Goode Company employees must participate in temperature checks and answer a short CDC-created questionnaire before logging in for a shift. Employees who do not pass muster would be sent home and referred to Hamilton Health experts for further guidance before returning to work.
Below, a masked employee at Goode Co. Seafood in Houston, Texas. Photo by Allison Moorman
Though Texas lifted dine-in restrictions beginning May 1, Goode opted to wait another week to reopen seven restaurants to accommodate the extra measures the company is taking.
Goode Company is footing the bill for the additional health services.
“I just felt a commitment to our staff who are putting themselves in harm’s way,” Goode said.
Yet, all the extra effort and added costs to re-open in these still uncertain times appear to be yielding unexpected benefits for some operators.
“Right now we have free labor because of [a Payment Protection Program loan],” Fallert said. “We have this time to throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. That’s a luxury.”