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How to eat, drink and be merry: the survival of restaurants in a post-pandemic world

Welcome to McCook, Nebraska. Picture a rural town of just 7,500 people, 70 miles from anything resembling a city. There's an old brick street running through downtown where you can wander by the old-timey storefronts.

For the past 23 years, McCook has been the center for the Buffalo Commons Storytelling and Music Festival, which brings revelers from around the state and beyond. McCook neighbors all know each other, and Sehnert's Bakery is where they come for their pastries, lunches, and bottomless cups of coffee.

Sehnert's is a small business that made big news when it won the prestigious James Beard America's Classic Award last year, but no accolades could have prepared owner Matthew Sehnert for the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He notes that life changed in nearly every way imaginable, but his crew was caring and innovative and stepped in where needed. For example, new regulations required employees to wear masks, but none were available. One employee and her mother took on the task and soon, every single one of Sehnert's 30 or so employees had three masks.

“People had to do jobs they weren't used to doing, and, for the most part, people have been very gracious about that, and have just pitched in," Senert says. "I'm really proud of my crew because they want to work. Working's more than a job; working's important for humans."

As with any major disruption, COVID-19 has produced a few winners—think companies that make personal protective equipment or hand sanitizer—but for the most part, the pandemic will require new processes to protect the health of staff and customers. Though people will always want to dine out, the restaurant industry, which took a loss of 5.5 million jobs during the crisis, will emerge as a better, smarter version of its former self.

“Many businesses will not survive from this. However, those that can, whether through resources or quick thinking or creativity, are rising up to the challenge," says Homa Moheimani, manager of Media and Communications for the Ohio Restaurant Association.

Sehnert, for example, had to quickly pivot to offer curbside pickup and delivery. “This has really propelled us. This is a small town, and we have a website, but we don't do any sales from our website, and that is going to have to change. I can see with my kids pestering me to do online ordering for lunches, and pizza night, and concert tickets, and that's just the way the world's going." He also has identified an opportunity to ship some popular items year-round, instead of just holidays.

Meanwhile, Jess Kittrell is co-owner of 101 Beer Kitchen, with four locations around Indiana. She and her team had to turn on a dime from running a full-service, sit-down operation to add two additional ordering-and-delivery services and integration software that sends orders directly to the kitchen. She streamlined the menu and adjusted countless internal procedures to meet the new demands of a 100 percent take-out business.

“Sometimes it can feel frustrating to be a smaller restaurant group without as many resources as the larger groups, but during this time we are thankful for our small size," Kittrell says. “We can be nimble, make decisions quickly, and be 'all hands-on deck,' which this altered set-up required, was something our team embraced."

Planning for a New and Uncertain Future

Regulations vary by city, county and state—and will remain fluid depending on a multitude of factors as the pandemic rages on. Moheimani of the Ohio Restaurant Association predicts more stringent operating procedures, for starters. “The restaurant industry is used to regulations and safety standards, based upon what they have to do for the health department, to comply. But this is several additional layers to make sure that they're safe, not only for their own employees, but for guests, as well," she says.

The association is providing resources for its members—in addition to other state organizations with similar missions—to help its members navigate the new world. The Ohio Restaurant Promise, for example, has information on best practices, health and ways to keep staff and customers safe, as well as an agreement to watch for signs of illness and keep a safe distance if they suspect they can transmit or catch COVID-19.

One critical component is to keep an open dialogue going with the local health department and regulators. “Ask, rather than find out later by trial and error. And there will be trial and error," Moheimani says.

Moheimani believes this disruption will usher in a new way of doing business and accelerate changes that had already begun to creep in pre-pandemic, especially when it comes to technology, delivery systems and payment. “Some of it may be temporary; some of it permanent. It just depends on how this all shakes out. I don't know if it's because I'm personally an optimist—I know that people are creative and resilient."

Solvency will also get a well-deserved new focus. Most restaurants in the United States also lost their biggest revenue days that often carry them through the slow times—St. Patrick's and Mother's Day. Kittrell's advice to restaurateurs is to first and foremost trim every expense possible and conserve cash, and “plan and plan some more."

"Know where every dollar is going and track it diligently," she adds. "Then, be nimble and know when to pivot. Business owners have to be in the details right now and manage them aggressively."

Senhert considers himself lucky to have the support of regional business development groups, as well as a fiscally conservative mindset—but he was unable to draw a paycheck in March. “We do save here, for the most part, and I feel really blessed that we're a mature business," he says. “I hope people will understand that they need to have a nest egg, and why that's so important. This is a real-world example. It's hard when it's hypothetical."

But Will It Still Be Fun?

Kittrell anticipates that the restaurant experience will be different from what we've been used to. “Bartenders shaking hands with guests and hosts sharing phones are a thing of the past," she says, adding that waiting diners will no longer crowd into common areas—they'll wait in their cars or go elsewhere.

Sehnert hopes people will continue to support small businesses. “I hope that this time shows the importance of local shopping. I hope that people realize that locally made products with local workers (friends and neighbors) who use locally grown and milled wheat is not only cool but important," he says.

The other half of Sehnert's business is the café next door, which features live music, a tradition he aims to continue. “I hope that people will raise their understanding of why art is important now and all the time. Art is more than entertainment. Art builds us humans from the inside out. Art heals."

“I think ultimately we're always going to recognize restaurants," Moheimai says. I mean, they've been around for so long—for centuries, a place to go eat and celebrate life. Food is a part of humanity; celebrating is a part of humanity. That's from the beginning of time, so that's never going to go away."