As worries about the COVID-19 pandemic ease a bit and states reopen, you might wonder how you’ll draw customers back in for dining. Most establishments adjusted quickly to statewide shutdowns, offering delivery and carryout options. However, opening your restaurant back up is a different challenge. You have to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and make your patrons feel safe.

The U.S. Commerce Department reported a rise in spending across every category in May. Retail sales spiked 17.7% higher, which broke records for a one-month gain. The rebound seems promising for many retailers, but restaurants may have to work harder to regain consumers, with workers testing positive in some states and fears lingering about a new wave of the virus. 

Different areas are in various phases of reopening, and you may have seen a drop in the number of people dining in. Not only does this situation harm your bottom line, but your best staff may struggle to make ends meet with fewer people tipping. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to bring customers back, keep your business thriving and ensure employees get paid.

10 tips to bring customers back to your restaurant

1. Update Your business plan

Things have changed drastically in the United States between February and today. The food industry was one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 because many restaurants already operate on incredibly thin margins. Your cash flow has likely taken a hit and may continue to suffer in the months ahead as you work to rebuild your business to what it once was. 

Now is an excellent time to sit down and rework your business plan. During this revision, you’ll want to give your financial plan and forecasts the most attention. Going through them forces you to look at your business model, how much revenue you generate, where you need to cut spending, and how to spur growth moving forward. 

2. Follow CDC guidelines

The CDC has released strict guidelines for how restaurants should reopen to in-person dining. Most states have additional regulations and encourage limited seating capacity and better spacing. Familiarize yourself with the rules for running a food establishment in the midst of a pandemic. 

Once you understand the recommendations, implement them. These practices bring peace of mind to people wanting to eat at your place. 

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3. Send welcome back emails

People may feel uncertain about what to expect as things open back up. One way to reassure them you’re taking the appropriate steps for safety, and let them know what to expect on their return, is with an email. Explain your policies for them, your cleaning procedures, and any methods in place to make their lives easier.

For example, you might take reservations. When the table is ready, send an SMS message to the person. Perhaps you don’t want them to have to touch the door handle and let them know they can call when they arrive. A masked staff member can meet them at the door, holding it open. 

Think about any concern people have post-pandemic, such as someone touching their credit card or handling a menu others have used. How can you eliminate unnecessary worry in simple ways? Single-use paper menus, disposable silverware, and masked servers are a great start. 

4. Revamp your website

If you haven’t updated your website to reflect your new policies, now is a great time to let patrons know about how you’ll ensure everyone’s safety. Include a COVID-19 response section that includes a message for your customers, an outline of safety precautions, and updated hours. This is also a great place to include alternative dining options such as delivery or no-touch pickup.

While you’re adding in COVID specific information, it may be wise to update the rest of your site alongside it. Look to embed online ordering, update your menu, and refresh any imagery to remind customers why they enjoy eating at your restaurant. 

5. Send out coupons

The traditional marketing methods that worked pre-pandemic may work just as well after. People are more budget-conscious than ever before. Consumers have turned to more frugal living and building their emergency funds during the shutdown. 

They want to save money. Offering a discount shows them where they can get the best value. It also displays that you’re sympathetic to their financial situations and looking to support them as they support you. Plus, coupons may bring in new patrons you didn’t have pre-virus, and growing your clientele is always beneficial. 

6. Place outdoor signage

Invest in a vinyl sign or put out a sidewalk sign letting people know that you’re open again or have new hours of operation. If you have special steps in place to deal with lingering COVID-19 concerns, advertise them. A vinyl banner reading, “We offer contactless carryout,” may encourage people to take a chance on ordering from you. Be sure to indicate if you’re open inside for seating or if you have outside tables. 

7. Leverage check-in apps

People love checking in and sharing photos of a special dish they’ve ordered. Make sure your restaurant connects to sites such as Yelp! or Uber Eats. You can also offer special discounts to those using the platform. At the same time, pay attention to reviews on dining-related sites. If your reviews turn poor, act immediately to rectify the situation, and respond in a customer-centered way. 

Remember to use Facebook, too. Here you can post frequent updates and offer discounts to those who check-in. You can also post signs inside your business to remind diners to look you up online.

Offer your regulars a free appetizer or dessert if they check-in via one of the apps. Loyal patrons already love your food, so reviews tend to be positive. Their friends and others will see where they’re eating and may be inspired to dine with you.

8. Team Up With Other Businesses

Everyone is struggling to regain their footing after a lengthy shutdown. You can help complementary businesses, and they can help you. Team up with a movie theater for a movie and dinner package. Find a florist who will work with you. There is no limit to how many organizations you can team up with. Seek out companies making sense for your business model. 

How the dual business discount works will depend on what works best for both of you. You can keep it simple, such as they take or bring the receipt for a discount. For example, if someone sees a movie, they can bring the ticket stubs within a few days and get 20% off their meal. If someone dines with you, they take their receipt to the theater and get a similar discount.

9. Reach Out to Local Influencers

Who in your area is known for their great taste in food? These are people who dine out frequently and post reviews on sites such as Yelp! or Google. It may not be anyone particularly famous, but they have thousands of followers. 

Spend time tracking down those who are active on social media and post positive reviews. Reach out to them with an offer to eat a complimentary meal in exchange for an honest review. You’ll gain access to everyone who reads their feedback. 

10. Create a safe environment but focus on quality service

As you implement any of these tips, remember to always circle back on the safety of your customers first and foremost. Regularly check-in on CDC guidelines in your area, make expectations clear to your customers and go above and beyond to provide separation and alternative dining arrangements. Now, all that being said, the best thing you can do is make all of that work for you in the background.

When a customer walks in, rather than having them focus on all the precautions, make your service, food, and other elements associated with dining out front and center. Make the dining experience what they remember by making them so comfortable with the environment, that the safety precautions are simply a given. 

Additionally, continue to build out your carryout and delivery services for customers that don’t feel comfortable dining in. You want to show that you care about all of their needs and are willing to take steps to help them enjoy your fine-cuisine, wherever, and whenever they’d like.

Prepare and plan but implement cautiously

There is the possibility of COVID-19 circling back around in the fall. People are tired of being stuck at home, though, and whether things will shut down again remains to be seen. 

Prepare for the possibility of another closure but hope for the best. In the meantime, have a plan in place to expand delivery and outdoor dining options. Brainstorm with employees about best practices to keep staff and customers safe. Use every tool in your arsenal to bring new business to your establishment. With hard work and creativity, you can thrive in even the most difficult of circumstances.

AvatarLexie Lu

Lexie is a digital nomad and graphic designer. When she's not traveling to various parts of the country, you can find her at the local flea markets or hiking with her Goldendoodle. Check out her design blog, Design Roast, or follow her on Twitter @lexieludesigner.