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This isn’t the first time restaurants have been in a difficult place. And it won't be the last.

10 leadership lessons for a post-coronavirus world

Better communication, smarter training and an innovative approach to operations are essential for restaurants looking to navigate the new normal

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

Everything is the same until it is not.

The novel coronavirus global pandemic hit our industry hard, devastating the restaurant business and leaving our bottom lines smaller than the period that ends this sentence. This isn’t the first time we've been in a difficult place. And it won't be the last. But I’ve never before seen such a pervasive, devastating and invisible enemy create a crisis with no discernable end.

The assumption among many that there will be a “return-to-normal” post-COVID-19 foodservice industry is in itself presumptuous, but in the midst of this crisis there are fresh lessons to be learned from the operators who have stumbled, bumbled or innovated their way to something resembling forward motion in this yet-to-be-defined new normal.

Here are ten key learnings to help you and your teams manage and lead your way through these uncharted waters.


Ask the right questions. It’s important to ask the right questions first in order to effectively guide your team, brand and business successfully through to the other side of this crisis. Align your 2.0 company with a focus on resilience rather than stability. A stable organization tries to keep things as they are, a resilient one readies its team for what is yet to come. Don’t ask: How do we get our business back to normal? Instead, ask: Given what has just occurred what will our customers and crew want and need in the New Normal? How can we best reconnect with our guests, employees, and vendors? What do we need more of/less of? Which specific elements of our design, throughput, process, facilities, communication and procedures failed or were the weakest as the virus expanded and the shutdown occurred? Don’t assume that what came before will be preferred again.

Connect with customers. Strive to make employee and customer relationships transformative and not just transactional. Reach out regularly to your customers and let them know what you’re doing to help support your crew and community and how much you appreciate their continued support. Don’t ask customers for their feedback, we’re all dealing with way too much right now. Design and deploy an effective, robust, and secure customer loyalty program that maximizes communication with your patrons.  Many pundits assume that the end of the mandated self-quarantining this summer will result in a groundswell of guests rushing back to restaurants and bars. More likely it will be an initial trickle, with cautious diners warily observing the health of the pioneers who ventured back first before returning with their family and friends.

Support your staff. Communicate regularly with furloughed team members. Where there is a void in communication, negativity fills it. Explain your plan to work through the crisis. The best operators have communicated quickly, consistently, honestly and collaboratively with their managers and hourly team members. They helped them register for unemployment benefits if laid-off or furloughed, provided meals and funded employee assistance resources. Define a plan for how you can best re-recruit and reintegrate crew back into your restaurant after the crisis. Rethink and question your job roles and responsibilities. Do they still make sense? What could be consolidated/eliminated? After 9-11, the US saw a surge in military enlistments as young Americans parlayed newfound patriotism into a more meaningful service career. Will we see a similar surge in health care ambitions as young Americans watch these frontline heroes risk their lives daily for the common good? How might a shift like that affect recruitment and retention efforts by restaurants?

Prepare for a changed workplace. How will America’s workforce and workplace change post-coronavirus? Will businesses trim employees and will office space shrink if distance working proves long-term viable and productive? How will this affect office-catering, business lunches, and client dinners? Are business conferences dead?

Look for learnings from other markets. As we see foodservice distributors like Sysco and US Foods pivot their services to supplement the strained capacity of traditional retail (grocery) distributors, we should all pay close attention to what retail has done to attract, build and retain their customer base and team members, while keeping them safe. Will these New Times radically change restaurant food and beverage delivery? Is the regional food show history?

Improve the pickup experience. It wasn’t that long ago that takeout from a full-service restaurant meant you had to call a busy hostess and pickup from a testy bartender upset by the interruption and additional task. Granted, we’ve come a long way with curbside/to-go in the last half-decade for full-service operators, but those gains were almost exclusively within the chain restaurant realm. We need to see improvements in the curbside/to-go process for independent operators too. Shortlist: touchless payment, dedicated pickup area/window, contactless delivery and latex gloves.

Invest in safe, secure tech. Touchless is everything. I believe that Americans will learn to be wary and avoid touchscreen ordering kiosks, gas pumps, ATMs and anything that isn’t their personal phone or tablet. If you haven’t yet invested in creating effective, safe and secure third party ordering apps, this pandemic should have revealed the absolute necessity of doing so. Baby Boomers learned to be comfortable with third party app ordering and delivery, a behavior that until recently was the exclusive bailiwick of younger generations.  Independent operators need to partner with third party delivery vendors. Pick one that allows you to access your customer ordering database.

Update cleaning protocols. Re-assess all of your processes for cleaning, disinfecting and sterilizing your facilities, work environment and customer contact points. Gloves for waitstaff and cashiers, disposable or digital menus, and sneeze guards at the drive-through window are but a few of the new adaptations needed for a post-COVID-19 world.

Reconsider your packaging. We’ve made great strides in to-go and delivery packaging recently but even greater innovation is needed to keep hot food hot, cold fold cold and the containers tamper-safe from delivery drivers.

Modernize training tools. Some question whether the traditional university will survive post-virus given the preponderance of distance learning. Why go to a classroom when the classroom can come to you? So maybe the foodservice industry will now more fully accept, expand and invest in our distance learning/e-learning process and programs. Keep detailed notes on what you did/didn’t do relative to leadership during coronavirus. Training will have to evolve. Every leadership course prior to COVID-19 is somewhat dated now without crisis management sections that include pandemics.

As you consider strategies for getting the ten basics above in place, don’t forget that love and empathy and gratefulness and compassion are fundamentals, too. Like Grandma Sullivan always said: “Give without remembering and receive without forgetting.”  

Jim Sullivan is the author of the bestselling books Fundamentals and Multiunit Leadership and the CEO of Companies using his products or services include The Walt Disney Company, Panera, Texas Roadhouse, Chick-fil-A, Starbucks and McDonald’s. Join the daily conversation with Jim’s 400,000 social media followers at LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.

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