By Niko Frangos, Rascal House

Some states are starting to ease restrictions on dining rooms, but before reopening for in-restaurant dining, pizzeria operators should create a plan for what the “new normal” will look like in their restaurant. Even if your state hasn’t announced a reopening date, create a plan now so you are ready to hit the ground running. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you get started:

1. Think about your customers. Business will not return to what it was before COVID-19 right away. Plan on a multi-tiered approach for reopening and for customers to return in waves instead of all at once. Events like concerts, sporting events or parties that previously drove sales for your restaurant may not happen for a while. Make sure you are prepared for those changes, and don’t set your expectations too high.

Your customers’ lifestyles have also changed, so you must adjust your business to suit those changes. Think about their new pain points and how you can solve them, both operationally and with the right marketing offers.

Related: How to best use social media for your pizza restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic

Many pizza restaurants don’t do a lot of sit-down business anyway, but even those that do should be prepared to continue to serve most customers through carryout and delivery. At Rascal House, we already had an online ordering platform, but if your restaurant does not have one, it’s not too late to add it. Customers may not want to sign papers or interact with restaurant employees, so online ordering allows you to offer contactless delivery and pickup.

 2. Set plans for new operations. Once your local government allows restaurants to reopen for dine-in, make sure your store is ready before rushing to do so. Most cities and states have requirements like lower capacity, social distancing between tables, smaller dining groups and employees wearing masks. Many state and local governments are releasing their own plans for reopening, which will give you a heads-up on what restrictions will be mandated for reopening. Stay on top of those guidelines so you will be ready when the time comes.

You will likely have to make physical changes in your restaurant. This may include moving the condiment bins behind the counter, discontinuing refills on drinks or putting tape or premade decals on the floor to promote social distancing while customers wait in line. Think about removing tables and chairs as well to ensure social distancing. If you allow people to pack in tightly, many will continue to do exactly that, so it is best to simply remove the option.

Rascal House has served more than 2.1 million pizzas since its first store opened in 1980, according to the company’s website.

Create policies on sanitation, making sure your employees are healthy and wearing necessary protective gear. If you are going to start temperature-logging your staff, order contact-free thermometers. If your staff will be required to wear masks, start sourcing those now because it will probably take time for your orders to arrive. If you plan ahead, you may even be able to get masks made with your logo. Consider ordering masks in multiple sizes as well. You want your employees to be as safe and comfortable as possible while serving guests.

Related: This famous Arizona pizzeria has a 19-page plan for reopening during the pandemic

Sanitation and health standards have always been important for restaurants, but the industry has been forced to amplify its cleaning policies. Most pizza restaurants have stayed open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for carryout and delivery, so you’ve likely already increased your sanitation procedures. When customers start coming into your doors again, think about how you will clean tables and common touchpoints with more people in the restaurant. Many customers will want to see you sanitizing for their own peace of mind.

If your state hasn’t announced a reopening plan, stay on top of the news. Be aware of what is being talked about and planned, so that you are ready to adapt quickly. Also, think about things you can do beyond government mandates to further protect your employees and customers. If you keep ahead of the situation by responding quickly and taking the right steps, you’ll be ready to jump in and increase sales as soon as you are allowed to reopen.

3. Be ready to market aggressively. Even when restaurants reopen, it is very likely fewer people will be eating out. Make sure consumers are thinking about your restaurant first as opposed to other brands by marketing aggressively. Create a plan now with strategic checkpoints that you can use to determine which campaigns are the most successful.

Pizza restaurants typically rely on coupons, but don’t get bogged down in deciding on the perfect offer. The thought process is more important than the offer. If you fundamentally acknowledge what your customers will be doing and what they will need, then you can create the right offer and let them know how you can support them.

Don’t overthink your coupon deals. Just focus on what your customers need right now and craft an offer that will support them.

Don’t forget to think about all of the stages that other businesses will go through when reopening. Many will be constructing plexiglass barriers or moving furniture around to spread out desks and chairs and allow for social distancing. During this phase, pizza delivery may be a great option for the workers executing those changes. Once offices are open again, people likely won’t be thinking about where to get lunch, but instead will be focused on their “new normal” and making it through the day. Aggressively marketing your restaurant, including how you offer social distancing, can separate you from the competition.

Related: How to reopen your restaurant’s dine-in service during the pandemic

Also, be ready to adjust your marketing plans from your usual approach. For example, we at Rascal House normally visit local businesses and drop off samples to market our catering options, but we expect this will not be allowed for some time even once offices are open for workers. Instead, we have called a lot of our customers to check on them and let them know we are still open to serve them via carryout and delivery. This is something pizza restaurants can do that a lot of other restaurants can’t because they already have their customers’ contact information from delivery orders. Take advantage of it!

Once you finally reopen your dine-in service, you will want to reach out to customers about that, too. Use your email, phone lists and social media pages to spread the word. It is OK to update customers often as things change in your restaurant—new hours and special offers can be good reasons to reach out right now.

Again, the most important step is to plan ahead for reopening. Even if your business is mostly carryout and delivery, you will face increased competition when other restaurants reopen their dining rooms. Know what is happening in your community and put a plan in place now so you will be ready.

Niko Frangos is president of Rascal House, a Cleveland-based, elevated quick-serve restaurant franchise serving pizza, burgers, wings and more.

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