September 2, 2021

How Short-Staffed Restaurants Can Keep Customers Happy

Faced with changing Covid mandates and labor shortages, many restaurants are struggling to keep returning customers satisfied. One key: Be honest.

It’s no secret that the service industry has taken a hit from the pandemic, with restaurants in particular bearing the brunt of Covid-related shutdowns. After a short-lived return to normalcy this summer, restaurants once again are navigating a moving target of mandates as new Covid variants emerge. They also are struggling with labor shortages at a time when many people are eager to dine out after not being able to for more than a year.

With socially distanced table configurations, limited capacities and QR-code menus, how can restaurants keep their customers satisfied and stay afloat?

Here are some ideas:

Manage Expectations: Many people are looking for a reprieve from the pandemic when they dine out, a way to time-travel back to a simpler time. Unfortunately, that isn’t the experience they are going to get right now. To reduce disappointment, restaurants need to manage expectations from the moment customers make their reservations until they leave the restaurant.

Whether it’s a strict reservation policy, masking rules or an increase in prices, customers need to know what the new normal looks like. Restaurants should clearly communicate any changes in service or dining-room rules on the restaurant’s website or on the landing page of a third-party reservation system. In addition, the restaurants need to have clear signage about Covid-related rules and social-distancing restrictions, as well as time limits on table service. And they should present all that information in a way that makes clear the changes are designed to keep people safe.

Educate Staff: The restaurant’s staff needs to reinforce and expand on those initial instructions as they guide customers through their visit. Information should be presented in a way that feels organic to the dining experience, and not an additional restriction. For example, if a restaurant decides to forgo serving food in courses to reduce dining times, servers can tell customers that to have the best experience, they recommend letting dishes come out when they are ready. Guests will be more amenable to new rules if they don’t seem arbitrary.

Gauge How Much To Reveal: Running a restaurant is a delicate and complicated choreography—unseen by guests, who aren’t supposed to see the inevitable, proverbial fires in the kitchen. However, when a customer enters a seemingly empty dining room and is still asked to wait a half-hour for a table, there is a disconnect. The staff understands that this is because there is only one server on the floor, the kitchen is doing double duty with dine-in and takeout orders, and that spacing tables will ensure everyone is able to do their job.

If customers knew all this, would it make them more understanding? Maybe, depending on how upscale the restaurant is, who its customers are and the experience it seeks to provide. Each restaurant has to decide how much to reveal without risking losing the “magic” that keeps customers coming.

Decrease Capacity And Increase Prices: It can be tempting for restaurants to try to recoup early pandemic-related losses by moving full steam ahead. But if a restaurant is short-staffed, maxing out the dining room every night will just leave employees unable to handle the volume and guests dissatisfied.

It also may be a good time for restaurants to start thinking about what they need to do to find and keep good employees. Perhaps it’s time for them to re-evaluate their compensation structure and accommodate by increasing prices. A pay increase across the board could result in better, happier talent, and satisfied guests who are willing to pay for a good dining experience.