A Guide To Reopening Your Casual Dining Restaurant: How To Keep Customers Safe & Satisfied

It’s been over two months since COVID-19 closed the dining rooms of America, and only now are restaurants being allowed to begin the process of reopening.

Of the wide variety of establishments serving our country’s dining needs, perhaps the hardest hit has been the casual dining restaurants. While fast food and fast casual eateries may have had some experience with the delivery/curbside pickup business model, most casual dining establishments found themselves thrust into a strange new world with a new set of rules.

Now, finally, all 50 states have begun the gradual process of reopening their economies. Restaurants are preparing to reopen their dining rooms, and as they do, they’ll need to pay attention to a variety of guidelines and regulations aimed at keeping workers and customers safe from COVID-19 infection.

Specific guidelines for reopening will vary depending on your location, but the National Restaurant Association has released a detailed report offering general guidance for restaurants as they work toward getting back to business.

Below are some highlights of what the Association recommends for post-COVID restaurant openings. They encourage combining these guidelines with existing corporate policies, the FDA Food Code, ServSafe training, and recommendations from local health officials.

Food safety

When it comes to food safety, all the old rules and precautions of the FDA’s “food code” still apply. The new guidelines reiterate things like discarding out-of-date food items, the implementation of sneeze guards, etc. Procedures emphasized by the new guidelines in response to COVID include:

  • Prohibiting sick employees in the workplace
  • Strict handwashing practices that include how and when to wash hands
  • Strong procedures and practices to clean and sanitize surfaces
  • Ensuring the person in charge of a food service facility is a certified food safety manager
  • Ensuring the person in charge is on-site at all times during operating hours
  • Stocking coolers to no more than minimum levels if providing “grab-and-go” service

Facility cleaning and sanitizing

In regards to the cleaning and sanitation of the facility in general, the guidelines make a variety of specific recommendations, including:

  • Focus on high-contact areas touched by both employees and guests.
  • Do not overlook seldom-touched surfaces.
  • Follow sanitizing material guidance to ensure it is at effective strength to sanitize and protect surfaces.
  • Between seatings, clean and sanitize table condiments, digital-ordering devices, self-service areas, tabletops, and common-touch areas.
  • Avoid all food contact surfaces when using disinfectants.
  • Discard all single-use items. Consider using pre-rolled silverware.
  • Clean and sanitize reusable menus. If you use paper menus, discard them after each customer use.
  • Implement procedures to increase how often you clean and sanitize surfaces in the back-of-house.
  • Avoid all food contact surfaces when using disinfectants.
  • Check restrooms regularly and ensure the adequate availability of hand soap. Clean and sanitize restrooms based on the frequency of use.
  • Make hand sanitizer readily available to guests. Consider touchless hand sanitizing solutions.

Employee health and hygiene

Of course one of the most important ways to prevent the spread of the virus to staff and customers is to eliminate interaction between those who are (or may be) infected from those who aren’t. The guidelines mandate pre-work screening for all employees. Employees who become ill or present signs of illness should be immediately sent home.

Follow CDC guidelines as to when ill employees may return to work. At a minimum, the employee should self-isolate for seven days from the onset of symptoms, and be symptom-free for three days without medication. The CDC has not mandated taking an employee’s temperature; any operator who chooses to do so should engage health officials first and adopt policies aligned with proper procedures.

Social distancing

In addition to all of the above, customers and staff should continue to observe the social distancing principles that we’ve all become familiar with since the onset of the virus. Some specific guidelines and suggestions in the Association’s report include:

  • Post signage at the entrance stating no one with a fever or symptoms of COVID-19 can enter the restaurant.
  • Update floor plans for common dining areas, redesigning seating arrangements to ensure at least six feet of separation between table setups.
  • Design a process so guests stay separated while waiting for seating. Don’t allow them to congregate in waiting or bar areas. This process can include floor markings, outdoor distancing, waiting in cars, etc.
  • Limit party size at tables to no more than the established “maximums approved” as recommended by the CDC or approved by local and state governments.
  • Install physical barriers where practical, especially in booth seating sections.
  • Consider a reservations-only or call-ahead-seating business model to more effectively space diners.
  • Remind third-party delivery drivers and any suppliers that you have internal distancing requirements.
  • Limit contact between wait staff and guests.
  • Use technology where possible to reduce person-to-person interaction, including mobile ordering, digital menus, texts on arrival for seating, and contactless payment.
  • Determine ingress/egress to and from restrooms to establish paths that mitigate proximity for guests and staff.
  • Consider an exit from the facility separate from the entrance.

Cases in point

Here are some examples of measures being taken by two specific chains as they reopen across the country:

TGI Fridays

At TGI Fridays, returning diners will notice many COVID adjustments, like:

  • Patrons encouraged to wait in their car for a table
  • Prominent social distancing signs
  • 25% capacity in dining room with diners socially distanced
  • Single-use, disposable menus
  • Masks must be worn by all employees
  • Bar areas remain closed, and barstools unusable

First Watch

Here’s how First Watch is handling matters:

  • Pre-Screening of Team Members
  • Single-use menus, or diners can view the menu on their mobile device
  • Single-use condiments are available upon request
  • Continuous disinfecting of door handles, restroom surfaces, host area, and more
  • Hand Sanitizer available up front
  • Personal protective equipment, including face coverings and gloves, available to all team members.
  • No-Contact Pickup – order and pay online and grab your order just inside the front door.

Reopening your casual dining restaurant will require flexibility and attention to detail, but by sticking to the guidelines and putting your employees’ and customers’ health first, you’ll be ready to welcome diners as soon as they return.