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How Restaurants Should Communicate With Team Members During the Coronavirus Outbreak

In response to COVID-19, restaurant concepts and franchisors need to emphasize transparency when communicating with their staff and franchisees in order to promote safety and success.

CapitalSpring is a restaurant investment firm that has completed investments in over 4,000 restaurants across multiple brands and segments. Jim Balis, the former CEO of numerous restaurant companies, heads the Strategic Operations Group and is closely involved in all investments. Given the state-ordered dining-room closures across the U.S, the restaurant industry is poised to be hit especially hard during the COVID-19 crisis, and Balis has led the deployment of coronavirus mitigation strategies across the CapitalSpring portfolio.

“With exposure to approximately 100,000 of our network’s employees, we are taking this issue very seriously,” said Balis. “We are seeing the impact of COVID-19 in every segment of the restaurant industry.”

At CapitalSpring, Balis and the Strategic Operations Group point to three main actions that restaurants need to take during the coming weeks: monitor the situation and governmental agency messages very closely, communicate clearly and concisely with franchisees, staff and customers and do everything they can to reinforce prevention to protect both employees and guests.

How the Food Service Industry is Responding

To best respond to the outbreak, restaurant owners need to understand how the crisis is affecting the food service industry. When it comes to changes in guest behavior across CapitalSpring’s portfolio, Balis notes first and foremost the move toward off-premise service, including drive-thru, delivery and pick-up orders. Because of this shift in consumer demand, franchisors should communicate plans to increase visibility on multiple delivery apps and introduce special delivery options – including launching your own delivery service where possible.

“Market concerns seem to be driving consumers to trade down into lower-priced or QSR brands,” said Balis. “We are seeing better performance in these segments, specifically those locations with a drive-thru. Other concepts that have a buffet or salad bar model are experiencing greater declines. Casual dining is getting hit a little harder, especially concepts where the food doesn't travel well for delivery or where the brand has not attracted an off-premise customer historically.”

Consumers’ confidence in restaurant food remains stable. Balis attributes this to the strict standards of safety and sanitation around cooking that customers seem to understand and rely on in times like this. Now, team members and franchisees need to have an amplified awareness of protective actions to keep these standards met.

How Restaurants Should Communicate

Communication to the restaurant’s network is more important than ever, as staff and franchisees need directives and educational materials to survive this crisis. Franchisors must communicate effectively to their franchisees and staff to make sure they understand that the team’s safety and economic well-being is top priority.

“At CapitalSpring, we are communicating with our portfolio through intercompany channels, whether that be email, intranet or other platforms,” said Balis. “We are also setting up conference calls, conducting webinars and have created a hotline for team members to call into with questions, business or health-related.”

It is also important to assure employees understand what is being done to protect them, what support will be given during a furlough and what the business plans are for when the crisis ends. On the financial side, franchisors should be available to discuss royalty abatement or deferment, interest-free loans and other deferrals, as well as financial support for employees, including paid sick leave. In addition, it should be clear that public health and safety, as well as the well-being of employees, is what comes first. 

In order to create the safest environment possible, team members need to be educated first and foremost on COVID-19, including what experts know about transmission, incubation and symptoms. Restaurants also need to create a clear communication channel to report if team members show signs of infection, prioritizing extreme efforts to protect the privacy of individuals. Owners should share the information from respected, credible third-party public health experts (CDC and local departments of health, for example) in shaping communications. Also, restaurants need to keep communicating about what is being done to prevent the spread of the virus, to protect the team and to disinfect restaurant spaces.

“We have laid out clear instructions on what we expect from team members to protect their environment to the highest extent possible,” said Balis. “Our efforts to inform teams of risks and mitigants extends beyond the four walls of the restaurants—we’re also reaching out to our supply chain to make sure they are equally abiding by strict safety standards. We regularly distribute a list of recommendations and updated hygiene protocols, as well as provide training to our staff and health recommendations to our vendors.”

Mitigation Actions to Curb Infection

CapitalSpring has created a list of tactics for restaurant companies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses.

“The first tactic may be obvious, but it is incredibly important—educate team members on proper hand washing instruction,” said Balis. “There should be clear guidelines on how long and often to wash, as well as instructions on single towel use for drying hands and turning off the faucet. We have also implemented the practice of using timers in the restaurants to ensure that employees are hand-washing regularly.”

Restaurant owners need to be sanitizing the front of the house, including counters, soda areas, door handles, tables and chairs. Since some territories are experiencing a shortage of sanitizer, franchisors or brand owners should work to solve these distribution issues. In the back of house, utensils need to be cleaned more frequently, with immediate action taken if a team member sneezes or coughs. 

“In terms of the actions each individual staff member can take, make sure that gloves, hats and other protective wear are readily available,” said Balis. “Since health officials say that sneezing and coughing are the primary methods of transmission, covering the nose and mouth is extremely important and cannot be taken lightly. For guests, restaurant owners should be sealing delivery bags and boxes to avoid potential tampering. It is recommended that customers use contactless payment instead of paying with cash or credit cards.” 

By prioritizing open and transparent communication, cooperation and collaboration among all in the restaurant community, franchisees, staff and customers will be safer during this unprecedented crisis.