Restaurant Herd Immunity: How Good Hospitality Breeds Resilient Eateries

April 26, 2020 Jay Skowron
6 min read

The normalcy of dining out seems like forever ago. I sit, contemplating my warm and somewhat soggy dinner eaten out of a condensation-weakened takeout container. The inside is optimistically layered with a piece of food-grade paper liner, which more often than not serves to accidentally add a little extra roughage to the edible part of the contents. This particular restaurant has chosen to slice a small corner off the top of the container, intending, I know, to mitigate the sweating inside the box. The desired result, in this case, has not occurred.

Still, I know that they are doing their best during these unprecedented times. Many restaurants have adapted and fought on. They’re following the guidelines. The take-out station is no longer at the bar or hostess stand, but rather set up at a table wedged between the front doors, manned by masked and gloved employees that present the credit card reader to you rather than swiping your card themselves. I always hope I detect a smile behind the mask.

Restaurants are there for the customer. The customer pays the bills. But this has all proven that there won’t always be more customers.

As I inspect the lukewarm drops of condensation on the table, I wistfully long for the time, now just shy of two months ago, when sitting down to eat in a restaurant was taken for granted. I remember checking Yelp or Google for a highly rated or new and exciting place to try. Or the old standbys that I love going to and anxiously await the great food and service that keeps a full lobby and makes reservations all but impossible. We sit around the fire and sing songs and tell tales of the old days where take-out, drive-thrus, and soggy packaging were seldom more than afterthoughts – the “I guess we’ll just go here” option.

You know what I also miss? Believe it or not – the occasional bad service. The slow greet. The slow drinks. The overcooked steak. The cold mashed potatoes. The inattentive service. All the things that manage to make their way into the experience. Yes, I miss that once in a while. Sometimes I’ll say something. Sometimes they’ll just know and take preemptive action. Sometimes, nothing is done. But at least it all contributes to… normalcy.

Make no mistake – how you fix the problems is now, more than ever, a matter of your business surviving or going under. What are you doing, or should you have been doing, to ensure that you’re still able to survive when you fully open your doors again? We’ve been consulting with restaurants for the better part of 10 years. I myself have been in the hospitality industry for almost 25. One thing that has never wavered for me is the commitment to top-notch hospitality and customer service.

Think back to all the complaints you’ve had. Some really stick with you, don’t they? Some were ridiculous. Some completely justified. Most could have been prevented. But all of them stemmed from the perception of your customer that something just wasn’t right. Like it or not, perception is reality.

You see, sometimes there are patterns in nature… and in the restaurant business. Sure, everyone gets an occasional complaint, or has a bad day and service suffers. Maybe the chef is out, or the kitchen is understaffed. Maybe your service staff just isn’t “gelling” well that night. But that should be the (rare) exception and not the rule. Constant complaints, consistent loss of control over the kitchen or dining room, or that solid 2-star rating on Yelp or Google is an indication that something really is wrong.

These are unprecedented times. It’s been estimated that 20% of restaurants will permanently close because of COVID-19. In 2019 it was predicted that restaurant sales would be $863 BILLION. 51% of families’ food dollars went to restaurants – double that of 1955. 45% of diners eat out multiple times a week. And an uncomfortable 60% of restaurants actually fail.

So, about those complaints. How have you handled it in the past? Did you take the stance of “the customer is always wrong”? (Spoiler alert: they’re not.) Did you ensure a manager went to the table, or just blow it off? Was your staff afraid to tell management if there was a problem? Did you refuse to comp a burger or a steak, or give a free appetizer, to help make a customer feel better? Or did you go over the top to make sure the problem was truly fixed?

Restaurants are there for the customer. The customer pays the bills. Sometimes we tend to forget that. Sometimes we want to take a stand and say it doesn’t matter – there will always be more customers. But guess what? This has all proven that there won’t always be more customers. And which restaurants do you think they’ll want to return to when things slowly get back to normal?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Problems are opportunities. An upset customer can usually be turned into a raving fan. Bad reviews can be prevented and turned into good ones.

Some of the best restaurants in the US are continuing their top-notch service and great hospitality. The great Michael Mina’s restaurants, for example, are staying open for take-out and delivery, and presenting Instagram stories on health and wellness. Gabriel Rucker, executive chef of Le Pigeon and Canard, arguably the two best restaurants in Portland, OR, has been teaching cooking classes online. Even more than that, before all this began, these high-end restaurants made great customer service – not just great food – the backbone of their business. But you don’t have to be a high-end restaurant to make a memorable impact with your customers and make them want to return. You don’t have to wait until there’s a problem to show that you care about your customers.

Many restaurants are being kept afloat right now by their loyal customers. Take, for example, Bud’s Seafood Grille in Stockton, CA, the Yardley Inn in Yardley, PA, and El Taco Loco or Red Onion Café in Joplin, MO. It’s a heartwarming thing to see customers support their local favorites during tough times. Take care of the guest, and the guest will take care of you. Take the time to get to know them. Be proactive, not just reactive. It shows you have your act together. Visit every table, every time. Ask how you can make their experience even better. New guest in the restaurant? Go over the top. Give them a free appetizer, or a free dessert, or maybe even a couple glasses of wine on the house. Would you come back after getting that kind of service? I sure would.

A close friend told me a story about how he was out to dinner at a favorite high-end spot, and brought along a first-time guest. They stayed past closing, raving about the food. The owner was there and came to the table. Was he there to kick them out? Nope – he dropped off half a bottle of wine, and said “take your time, we’ll close when you’re finished!” Would you come back after getting that kind of service? Of course you would. That’s a little effort and caring that goes a very long way. Compare that story to some places that will start cleaning the floor, putting the chairs up around the occupied table, or even flat-out asking the guest to leave so the place can close up.

Are there customers that you don’t want back? Sure. But those aren’t the ones we’re talking about here.

I urge you to look inside yourself and be eternally grateful for the customers you had – and the ones that you’re holding onto now. The simple act of listening to feedback, comping something for their trouble and making sure they leave happy, is so much less expensive than losing their business forever. Would you rather have them tell ten friends about their horrible experience, or three friends about their great one? That’s the statistic. So many restaurants right now are barely surviving by the loyalty of the customers they’ve made a good impact on. Those are the truly great restaurants, and those guests are their raving fans that don’t want to see them fail.

I’ve asked you a lot of questions here. Take the time to really think about them and answer them for yourself. I want you to survive! But you should want it more.

Be safe out there!

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Jay Skowron

Jay Skowron is the Founder and Principal of Hospitality Defender, specializing in social media marketing, online review management, websites, and process consulting. Jay has worked in the hospitality industry for almost 25 years and is passionate about helping restaurants and other hospitality businesses with guest satisfaction. He can be reached at jay@hospitalitydefender.com.

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