Dining out is coming back slowly but surely as authorities nationwide lift lockdowns. The question is whether U.S. consumers are ready to get back out there — particularly when there’s no vaccine or known treatment for COVID-19. Ryan Dion, co-founder and COO of the Evviva Trattoria and 110 Grill chains in New York and New England, told Karen Webster recently that what he’s seen to date falls into the “so far, so good” category.
“Everyone's being [very] supportive of us growing our patios, and we are very pleased,” he said. Dion said his restaurants’ first night in Massachusetts recently “was very, very busy, and we had waits at all of our locations.”
Consumers genuinely have a hunger to dine out again, but they don’t just want to go anywhere, Dion said. They want to go somewhere local where they truly feel safe from COVID-19.
So, the executive’s goal has been making his restaurants a bastion of safety while hitting the right balance. Consumers want to feel safe dining out, but don’t want to feel like they’re eating in an OR.
He said customers still want a fun experience, and it’s his restaurants’ job to deliver that. “The focus will remain on being the great restaurant that we were before this mess,” Dion said. “The goal is going right back to where we were while taking whatever safety precautions we need to take. We’re not overthinking things.”
The Rapid Reset
Dion noted that like most restaurateurs, he was caught largely flat-footed when the government shutdown closed his chains’ doors on March 16. That left the company trying to formulate a quick response to the new world the chains found themselves. He said that was “very, very tough,” as he imagines it was for almost everyone in the restaurant industry.
“We had to lay off 2,000 people and I had to do that in 48 hours,” he said. “We were shut down completely for six weeks.”
But Dion said that when the U.S. government made Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans available, “we took full advantage of that to begin the process of bringing people back to work [and] start slowly easing our way into everything.” He said the company reopened all locations and brought workers back a week early to deep-clean everything.
And for all of the criticism the PPP has faced, in Dion’s case, it seemed to do exactly what it was designed to. The money allowed him to bring staff back and reopen for carryout.
Thanks to PPP, the chains enjoyed strengthening takeout sales and had time to reconfigure their patios for outdoor seating and inside dining rooms for social distancing. And the restaurateur said he was lucky in that he managed to bring back roughly 75 percent of his staff without issue. The remaining 25 percent stayed away for reasons like having an elderly or immunocompromised relative in their households or an inability to find childcare.
More challenging has been reformatting the restaurants around social-distancing guidelines that will see tables spread six feet apart and capacity capped at somewhere around 50 percent. Luckily, warmer weather means the chains can use patio seating for the next several months to balance out the loss of interior dining spots.
“People are going to continue to dine outside and we can continue to keep our patios expanded through the summer,” Dion said. “And [in] Massachusetts, we’ve barely had any rain. We’ve been very, very lucky while we’ve been just getting everybody back in the mindset that we’re going to work safer.”
Safety That Reassures Customers Without Annoying Them
Dion told Webster that his staff will follow all recommended safety protocols. Staff will wear black face masks to match their black work uniforms, the eateries will have sanitation stations and consumers will remain spaced apart. But he said there are ways to do all of that without making customers feel like they’re eating in a hospital or prison.
“We’re not going to ‘Defcon 5’ and installing scanning hardware and taping off closed tables with police caution tape. We’re just not doing that,” he said. “We're certainly going to follow the guidelines, but at the end of the day, people are very good judges of their own taste for risk. If feel they’ve been seated too close to someone else, they will ask us to move them. We don’t need to try to control every moment and motion in our restaurants. People’s common sense is our ally.”
But Dion plans to make sanitation efforts visible. For example, staffers will very clearly wipe down a customer’s table, menu and chairs with disinfectant wipe right before seating someone. He said small signal like that will help boost customer feelings of safety without being jarring or disruptive.
No COVID-19 Surcharges
The chains are also skipping the price increases that many restaurateurs say they’re considering to offset the costs of post-pandemic operations. After all, Dion said, price hikes can damage the relationship that his chain is trying to rebuild with customers.
“We’ve of course talked about it, but we’re not going to do that,” he said. “Our focus is on building our sales, providing great hospitality as we offered before and getting back to normal. [But] anything like a COVID-19 surcharge in place — we’re just not interested.”
No Uber Eats, Either
Offering a product that’s tailored to the customer has always central to 110 Grill’s business, Dion said. For instance, he said a full quarter of the business comes from guests with food allergies who trust the chain to prepare dishes correctly.
And because allergy-sensitive and gluten-free food is such a major part of the business, the chains have never signed on with third-party delivery aggregators and have no interest in trying them out now. Dion said he needs to make guarantees about the food he offers, and the risks of getting someone sick outweigh any rewards that using the Uber Eats of the world can offer.
The Future Looks Bright
The restaurateur said the chains’ longstanding relationship of trust is paying off now as the ability to feel safe has become a top priority value to consumers. That’s why said that as hard as the past several weeks have been and as large the challenges that lie ahead, he sees a light at the end of the tunnel coming before 2020’s end.
“I absolutely think that we will be back to full capacity, probably by late fall,” Dion said. “I think that the public is interested, and what I'm seeing around here is that people are looking for places to go out to eat.”