The restaurant industry was one of the first to suffer as a result of the pandemic. But with things now moving in a more positive direction, it’s time for restaurant owners and leaders to shift their focus on the restaurant customer experience.
Many new hobbies took off as a result of spending so much time at home during 2020. The allure of learning how to cook and eat at home grew exponentially during the pandemic, but people are growing tired of the same routine and are now ready to get back out to their favorite restaurants — and in fact, many already have.
Thanks to the ongoing vaccination effort, loosened sit-down dining restrictions, and the continued prevalence of drive-thru ordering and mobile order pickup, restaurant brands are finally seeing an increase in traffic. However, many are now struggling to meet this increased demand with smaller staff sizes (here’s just one example of many making headlines nationwide) and a talent pool that’s smaller than ever due to people moving on to other industries or remote work opportunities.
Personnel difficulties aren’t the only roadblock, however. The restaurant industry must determine how to make patrons feel safe and comfortable while dining in their spaces. With warmer weather approaching, outdoor dining will undoubtedly increase dramatically. But restaurants must still make use of their interior spaces to maximize revenue, provide seating options during hot or inclement weather, and serve as many patrons as possible.
Early efforts to make patrons feel safe with sit-down dining were abundant and obvious. Reconfigured floor plans spaced tables appropriately apart or sat patrons at every other table. Sturdy partitions, shields, and guards were installed on seatbacks, between tables, and between spaces at bars. Menus were replaced with one-time use versions or digital versions that could be easily recreated and recycled. Hand sanitizer dispensers were placed at entryways for consumers, and containers of sanitizer were made available in multiple areas for servers and other workers. Signage indicating face mask requirements was implemented.
After a year of experience with these solutions, what should the industry do now to focus on delivering a positive, memorable restaurant customer experience? In particular, delivering an experience that not only makes people feel safe but also creates an environment that builds lasting connections that keep people coming back for more despite ongoing uncertainty.
Recommendations for Improving the Restaurant Customer Experience
Optimize Your Interior and Exterior Spaces
For many restaurants, updating the layout was just one of the first steps toward meeting local or state social distancing requirements. Multiple reports cite this as patrons’ primary concern, but optimizing your floor plan plays an important role not only in safety but also in creating a positive experience with your brand.
At some point, you’ve probably walked into a restaurant where the use of space was noticeably off. Maybe the foyer was massive. Maybe there was a back corner that could’ve had tables but didn’t. Maybe tables were awkwardly spaced, or aisleways between built-in tables or set-up tables required a dozen left and right turns just to get to the restrooms.
While these are sometimes unavoidable, these kinds of spaces create awkward moments and memories for patrons that detract from the overall experience. If your space isn’t providing a streamlined, comfortable, and logical experience, it might be time for a change.
The same applies to outdoor spaces, too. These areas are particularly important because, according to a survey by Buyer’s Edge Platform (a digital foodservice procurement network), 46% of consumers said they ordered more carryout over the past year, and 33% said they plan to continue ordering in this fashion for the next 12 months. This will of course include drive-thru ordering.
Over the past year, drive-thrus grew not only in popularity but also in importance for brand leaders who sought ways to optimize them to maximize traffic and ultimately revenue. Updating elements like outdoor menu boards, installing canopies or even second drive-thru lanes, updating exterior appearances and parking lots, and other aspects of drive-thrus are all worthwhile efforts to ensure your patrons have a seamless restaurant customer experience.
See the difference: Learn how we implemented outdoor digital menu boards and supporting elements at more than 800 locations for fast-food leader McDonald’s.
Make Your Commitment to Safety Visible — and Permanent
It’s safe to assume the sanitation practices that arose as a result of the pandemic aren’t going anywhere soon — perhaps ever again. Restaurant owners and leaders should consider ways to effectively and permanently implement sanitation solutions in a helpful and visible manner. That’s because according to that same Buyer’s Edge Platform survey, 68% of consumers said they appreciate visual proof that sanitation and cleaning procedures have improved and are in use in a restaurant.
While hand sanitizer stations are a great start, it’s time to look at solutions that take things to the next level. Permanent stations located in easy-to-access spots for both patrons and employees will be essential. Placing sanitizing solutions at tables was also a highly requested solution — in fact, it was the second-most requested solution from consumers in Technomic’s report How COVID-19 is Transforming Consumer Foodservice Behavior.
Additional solutions include implementing antimicrobial fixtures and surfaces in dining areas and particularly in restrooms where the opportunity for infection to spread is significantly higher. To achieve these improvements, you may need an interior refresh — a quick-turn, high-volume solution for updating interior spaces across multiple sites. Once complete, your patrons will enjoy a restaurant customer experience that meets their expectations and will continue to do so for years to come.
A new experience: Learn how the Stratus team efficiently and rapidly executed remodels for Starbucks, covering everything from store interiors and bathrooms to drive-thrus.
Ensure You Never Miss the Chance to Serve Up a Great Experience
Last, but certainly not least, is the importance of maintaining your restaurant environment at all times. This goes beyond cleaning and disinfecting or ensuring that appropriate social distancing guidelines are being met. It extends to the appearance and functionality of systems within your restaurant. Combined, these elements contribute to — and in many cases control — just how positive your patrons’ experiences with your establishment are.
Take lighting, for example. You know how awful it can be going into a restaurant that’s having a lighting issue, whether with its actual interior lighting, with illuminated signage, or with exterior parking lot lighting. Things happen, but if those malfunctions or issues are permitted to carry on, it lessens the appearance of your establishment and diminishes the value patrons associate with it, and eliminates the desire to come back any time soon. Ensuring that your lighting systems are up-to-date, performing well, and providing ample (and comfortable) illumination is essential.
The appearance of your facilities is also important. Over time, it’s natural for the physical aspects of a facility to become worn down. Tiles on the floor might break, or the grout might become irreversibly stained. Walls and other surfaces might show years of wear. Counters, benches, and restrooms might start to look a little dingy. Eventually, these elements will need to be replaced or revitalized. Signage systems may also start to wear down, and the lamps or panels that comprise their construction might need to be cleaned or replaced. An efficient preventive maintenance program goes a long way in keeping these physical aspects of your restaurant brand alive and well rather than being the first thing patrons see when they arrive for what they’d hoped would be a pleasant meal.
Proactive performance: Learn how our team has supported one of the largest brands in the country with preventive maintenance on signage and more.
Great Restaurant Customer Experiences Start with Stratus
Built on a 100-year foundation in brand implementation for multiple industries, we understand the impact that signage, lighting, interior and exterior appearance, and more have on restaurants and their patrons. As your brand implementation partner, we’ll stand by your side at all times — providing you with recommendations, expertise, metrics, and more that help you deepen your connections with patrons so they continue to support your restaurant for years to come.
Whether we’re assisting you with a multi-site signage upgrade or repair program, a complete remodel of your interiors, the installation of social distancing solutions, a retrofit for your exterior lighting to make it more luminous and efficient, or optimizations to your drive-thru flow, our team brings with them decades of restaurant industry experience. That knowledge is backed by in-house signage manufacturing capabilities, advanced project management, technology and reporting tools, a vast network of field partners with proven performance, and a relentless focus on the success of your brand.
Now more than ever, it’s critical to not only provide an unmatched restaurant customer experience but also work with a partner that can help you deliver it consistently across your entire footprint. If you’re ready to experience ideal solutions from the infinite possibilities available to your restaurant brand, our team is ready to work with you.