April 5, 2020

How to Reopen a Restaurant after COVID-19 Shut Down

Restaurants nationwide are experiencing severe trauma right now due to the national shut down of restaurants and bars. What happens when restaurants re-open? What is the best plan to reopen a restaurant after COVID-19 finally relents? Will we get a hard push from all our customers who have a nasty case cabin fever? Or will it be a slow steady climb with minimal business when we reopen? Restaurateurs nationwide are contemplating these questions, among many others.

reopen a restaurant after COVID-19

I’m going to sketch-out my suggested plan for reopening a restaurant. Its basic premise is the Chef’s standard ethos of “hope for the best but plan for the worst”.

Priorities: the highest priority for restaurants when they reopen is to not lose more money! I fear that many restaurants will go out of business this year and will not be able to re-open after COVID-19 has packed its black bags and left. For those that do re-open, losing more money will be a necessity for the others to survive.

To that end here are some suggestions.

Consider Continuing to Promote Social Distancing

Life is different now, at least for a while, perhaps for a long while. People are used to social distancing now and it makes them feel safer. When you reopen a restaurant, consider removing some tables  to promote social distancing for a period of time until your customers are comfortable interacting socially again.

Give them that sense of social distance safety which has been hammered into for the past few months. Reevaluate this need after life seems “back to normal” and then add those missing tables back to the floor.

This will both give your guests an added sense of safety/security while at the same time helping to control the possible onslaught of being overwhelmed by returning guests.

Run with Limited Hours

Maybe business will go back to normal on day one. But that’s pretty difficult to predict so I would plan that things will be slow when you reopen. Scale back your hours of service to eliminate your slowest business times for each meal period. If you used to be open until midnight then consider closing at 10:00 or 11:00 instead until business levels warrant staying open later.

Same thing with the time that you open… Consider opening later if it makes sense for your operation. If dinner service was usually slow between 5:00 – 6:00 then reopen with hours starting at 6:00 for a trial period. If you are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner then consider a down time between service periods to save on staff and expenses.

Restaurants across the nation have been closed for about a month, so now is the time to try new things. People are used to change right now, so implementing a change to your business model, your menu, and/or your hours of operation makes sense to implement immediately upon re-opening. Now is the time to reopen a restaurant with new concepts, new hours, new productivity models, etc!

Open for Limited Days

Perhaps the first week or two you could open only 4 to 6 days a week rather than 7 days. This will give you an indication of guest participation in eating out again. We don’t know if they are still afraid to meet in groups, or perhaps too broke to afford eating out until their bills are caught up.

Limit your Menu

restaurant reopening with menu changesThere are a number of ways in which you might want to change your menu upon reopening a restaurant after COVID-19 runs its course.
First, if you have a large menu, or even a medium sized menu, remove some items from it. This will minimize the chance of loss if you are unusually slow upon reopening. And a smaller menu may make it possible to run the restaurant with less staff if necessary. Here are some things to consider for menu downsizing:

  • Run a Sales Mix from your POS to determine previous best/worst sellers
  • Remove any items that were dogs (low sales)
  • Consider removing expensive items (they may not sell until people feel confident in the economy again)
  • If you have a large menu, remove items which have an ingredient which is only used in one or two menu items (unless those are either VERY popular menu items, or high MARGIN menu items which are also best sellers)
  • Minimize items with multiple selections. For instance, on my menu instead of carrying 6 types of raw oysters I’ll probably only carry 3 or 4 until service levels return. Also, if you offer a lot of different side options (for burgers, veggies, starches, steak, etc) scale those back so that you have fewer options and therefore can mitigate the possibility of loss of product
  • Use your sales mix analysis to know your highest margin items. If these items are also medium to high sellers then you want to promote them on your menu because they will drive the highest amount of revenue to your bottom line. It’s not about food cost %, its about dollars to the bottom line. Read our article for important Sales Mix/Margin info
  • Many restaurants will offer an “obligatory” item such one chicken dish in a seafood or steak house to accommodate people who don’t want steaks or seafood. Consider removing such items if they were poor sellers during “normal times” because they will probably sell even less now until things “become normal” again.


Staffing will be a challenge! After coronavirus, to reopen a restaurant will be one of the biggest challenges the hospitality industry has ever experienced. You will either have too much staff on hand, or not enough. At this point in time under-staffing is probably better than over-staffing. Consider scheduling a skeleton crew (minimal crew) for weekdays and weekends (obviously the weekend crew is probably going to be more people than the weekday skeleton crew).

To off-set this, put some staff On-Call. If normal prep for service starts 3 hours before you open then maybe have an On-Call person/s 1 to 2 hours before service, with the expectation that they call 1 hour before their On-Call shift begins to see if they will be working. This will give you the opportunity to evaluate the reservation list (if you have one), the last shift’s business levels, what you are hearing from other restaurants regarding business, etc.

Alternately, schedule some On-Call staff for an hour after you open. If you get railed as soon as you open then at least you have the ability to have extra staff show up before the shift gets too far gone.

Show consideration for On-Call crew! Give them at least a 4 hour shift and let them know 1 hour ahead of time whether or not they are needed. Make them contact you (that way it’s their responsibility to find out if they are working). And do not leave them hanging! You MUST notify them before their shift starts that you either want them to work or they have the day off. You must decide. You cannot keep them On-Call throughout the entire shift. If you do that then you must pay them for sitting by the phone waiting for you to tell them if they work or not.

Have conversations between the kitchen and the front of the house to manage seating in accordance with the capacity your servers AND your cooks can handle. Set a specific number of people which you will seat every 15 minutes and make the rest wait. They have waited for a month so waiting a little longer isn’t going to kill them.

Don’t be greedy. If you get fantastic business right off the get go, don’t bury your servers or cooks. CONTROL THE SEATING! I’ll say it again… CONTROL THE DAMN SEATING! If your guest’s first experience upon returning to your establishment is a horrible dining experience because either the servers or the kitchen was decimated, then you gain money in your pocket from that guest once…they won’t be back.

Guest Expectations Have Changed

The expectations of restaurant guests have changed significantly since COVID hit. Social distancing is important to people so tables need to be spaced for guests to feel safe. And frequent, visible sanitation of tables, chairs, and everything people come in contact with are also things which customers are now aware of. For a detailed dive into this aspect of customer service, check-out this Guide to the Restaurant Guest.


People need to know when you plan to open! No one knows when restaurants that have been closed will reopen, so if you just open without any marketing then good luck getting people in the door. Hopefully you have an email list, a Facebook or Instagram page, or some other social media channel which you can use to get the word out. If possible, give people about a week’s notice, and remind them several times of when you will be reopening.

Create a Plan!

Collect all your data/ideas/concerns/challenges and put them into an Excel sheet for easy reference. Here is a very basic sheet I designed which you can use to help organize your plan. Feel free to use and change it as needed. (You will need to have Excel on your computer in order to use it.)
Reopen Restaurant – Excel Sheet

Regional Health Code Restrictions

Some areas are implementing mandatory and/or highly recommended rules or guidelines for restaurants to be able to reopen. Be sure to know if there are any specific mandates in your region.

Tell me your thoughts! What ideas/suggestions/considerations would you add to a “reopen a restaurant plan”?

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Robert Osogo

Good ideas

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