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Cleanliness will help build customers' trust in a post-COVID-19 world. (Credit: SeventyFour/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

7 business opportunities revealed by the coronavirus pandemic

Restaurateurs have a chance reset and come back stronger than before by focusing on trust, training and technology, according to leadership expert Jim Sullivan

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.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  — L.P. Hartley

The economic devastation and health uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic has tendered on our nation will be long-felt by its citizens, government and industries. At this early stage, there’s still no way to foretell exactly what the future holds for the restaurant business but what's for sure is that the other side of this pandemic will look very different.

And for those readers who are anxious to know when we’ll collectively return to normal, that’s wishful thinking at best and irrational hoping at worst. Lest we forget: “hope” is not a strategy.

But it’s not all bad news. There are bright spots to uncover and lessons to be learned from this crisis that will make us better, stronger, more resilient. We’ve fought big odds before, and I believe that the future is determined by optimists. Here are seven opportunities that COVID-19 exposed and we can leverage to our benefit.


Uncovering the new critical metric. Every single foodservice operator in the country is now dealing exclusively in a consumer confidence metric called trust. It supersedes the importance of your menu, brand, design and culture. Now more than ever customers will scrutinize sanitation and the cleanliness of your operations and people from the drive-thru window to the tabletop to the bathroom door handle.  If customers lose trust, you lose customers. Re-assess all your processes for cleaning, disinfecting and sterilizing your facilities, work environment and customer contact points. Let your customers know the daily steps you’ve taken to ensure their safety; like temperature checks of all team members, masks, gloves, routine sanitizing, constant inspection and training.

Coalescing customer communities.  The pandemic really demonstrated the advantage that operators with robust and active customer loyalty programs had over companies whose attempts at gathering customer data was haphazard and scattered. Operators with vigorous loyalty programs were able to communicate quickly, clearly and consistently with their customers through the crisis. This allowed them to inform, excite and energize their customer base directly around the availability of curbside/takeout/to-go options and drive business in that direction. Operators without this kind data and connection were left with two options: handwritten signs on their doors or scattershot social media posts. The results were impactful for many. In the week ending March 1, 2020, for instance, Olive Garden was doing $16,191 per restaurant in to-go sales. Six weeks later, in the week ending April 19, that figure rose to $52,936.

Talent pool expansion. Another silver lining of the pandemic is the expansion of a talented labor pool. There are now many more talented hourly team members and gifted manager and multiunit managers available industry-wide due to operator furloughs or failures. This might be the best time in a decade to seek out and hire fresh talent and experienced people seeking new opportunities.

Question and improve everything. Volume hides a multitude of operational sins.  But now we have a rare reset opportunity to assess and improve all the inefficiencies (and missed opportunities) of scale, process and people development that were antiquated and previously hard-wired into our brand and systems. Who says a full-service restaurant can only offer dine-in opportunities? Who says third-party app delivery is the only option when direct delivery may be just as viable (ask Domino’s and Panera)?

Most importantly, we have a rare opportunity to rethink and reset the ways we treat our most-appreciating assets: our team members. This pause will hopefully spur leadership teams to adopt a new mindset of treating team members with more dignity, care, respect, empathy and equity. And that goes double for our exhausted unit managers. High employee turnover is not the result of enlightened leadership and engaged teams.

Train for crises. If you try to manage a crisis without a strategy in place you’ll constantly be in defensive mode: exactly where you don’t want to be. Develop strategies right now for the other side of the pandemic. COVID-19’s onset has taught us that we must now continually train for crises, and do it the way airline pilots do at Flight School: consider every future possibility and develop response scenarios for the worst that can happen. Create checklists of actions to take. Review and assess your actions from March 15 to now.  

Leveraging technology. Ordering apps and third-party delivery apps, long on the back burner for many operators, have now become a priority. That’s a good thing in an industry predominantly made up of digital immigrants and technophobes. Artificial intelligence is also gaining ground post-pandemic as the industry resets and looks for ways that tech can improve its endemic procedural inefficiencies. AI can share recipes in the kitchen in any language (“Alexa how do I prepare the Veracuz pico de gallo?”). AI can also offer reminders to kitchen crew to routinely wash hands and sanitize work areas, replace masks or gloves and maintain safe distancing. AI can help managers alleviate their HR workload by scanning and vetting applications, managing vacation requests, schedule requests, onboarding tasks and benefits questions.

Bet on speed and ease. Not to put a smiley face on a bad situation, but you have to be impressed by how quickly so many foodservice operators adapted to the crisis: pivoting, innovating and sometimes creating brand new businesses. They thought big, tried small, adjusted on what they learned and got going. The operators who stalled in place suffered from paralysis by analysis. Victory may not always go to the swift, but that’s the way to bet.

And finally, if you're struggling to define exactly how customer behavior will change post-virus, consider this truism: People will choose whatever behavior is easiest. End of story. My suggestion is to make a detailed list of all the things customers might do and then choose which behavior(s) would be easiest for them to do. Bet your future strategies on that one.

We now have an incredible opportunity to create a better version of our former company — a bolder, more agile organization that will be stronger than the previous version was. The best place to start — as it always has been — is by developing and deploying a better and smarter customer care program and team member talent strategy now.

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

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