“Service with a smile” has long been a mantra for waitstaff and bartenders. But in reopened restaurants across the country, service with safety is the new directive.
As restaurant owners restart dining rooms shut down during coronavirus outbreaks, they are rejiggering operations to maximize public health while still making diners feel welcomed. Much of that juggle falls to servers, who must spark customers’ confidence in health procedures, build rapport and generate tips at a time when the staple of hospitality—a simple smile—is obscured behind a mask.
Andrew Martinez, 20 years old, says he has always loved the social nature of the hospitality industry. Since the pizza restaurant where he works in Broken Arrow, Okla., reopened for dine-in customers last month, he says the atmosphere is still convivial—he and co-workers wear tie-dye shirts for uniforms—but the feeling has shifted.
“I feel like someone’s monitoring me when I’m at work now. There’s always eyes on me,” he says, citing the example of one customer who questioned him, thinking he didn’t plan to change his gloves before taking their table’s check. (He assured her that he did.)
“It’s my duty to make sure people are safe, and I feel this overwhelming pressure,” he says, though he has been gratified to see tips from some grateful patrons go up. On one occasion, a person whose bill totaled $38 tipped him $42. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” he says.
Across the country, workers are being retrained to limit contact with diners, from uncorking a bottle of wine and setting it on the table instead of filling diners’ glasses themselves, to having to wear a mask for the entire shift. Another change: Tables are now spread farther apart to ensure social distancing. Mr. Martinez says he walks 8 miles a shift now, up from five before the pandemic.
Restaurants are trying to find ways to make their sanitized surroundings less glum. In Minnesota, Taco John’s franchisee Tamra Kennedy says she used festive flags to close off portions of her dining room and maintain social distancing.
has suggested masked crew greet customers with a thumbs-up in lieu of a smile.
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Servers are also being urged to empathize with customers coming back to a changed environment.
employees who returned to cafes last month were led through a guided meditation during one training, with instructions to think of their own loved ones and then project that feeling toward their customers, workers say.
As communities continue to reopen, 38 states now allow for limited, dine-in restaurant service statewide, according to Gordon Haskett, an investor research firm. Nearly 70% of U.S. restaurant locations were able to reopen their dine-in service based on local and state rules as of last week, says consumer research firm NPD Group Inc. Still, restaurant traffic has been slow to rebound, with most jurisdictions mandating capacity limits to ensure social distancing.
OpenTable estimated last month that 25% of restaurants that closed because of the pandemic won’t reopen, and many jobs lost won’t return. The new jobs being created, meanwhile, have a markedly Covid-era feel: Applebee’s is having franchisees hire “sanitation specialists” for all locations to amp up cleaning and disinfection. McDonald’s is also asking owners to designate an employee as a “sanitation lead.”
“We’re entertainers, this is hospitality,” says restaurateur Sergio Brasesco, who stocked up on purple gloves to try to create a nonmedical look for when the restaurant he owns resumed outdoor dining last week. “You don’t want everybody on pins and needles.”
He has instructed waitstaff at his Harrison, N.Y., restaurant, Emilio’s, to rip up the disposable menus in front of customers after taking their orders to assure them they aren’t being reused.
Wolfgang Puck, the celebrity chef behind fine-dining restaurants Spago and CUT, says he plans to counter the sterile-feeling new accommodations with complimentary treats for guests at certain restaurants, such as welcome Champagne or take-home goodies such as chocolate or cookies. “It’s about how you make the people feel,” he says.
Meanwhile, new restrictions are reshaping restaurants in ways large—such as seating limits—and small. At
carafes of syrup have been banished from tabletops. Servers bring syrup packets instead.
“These were all signature things for us and they are gone for the foreseeable future,” says Steve Joyce, chief executive of
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Jeff Eastman, 40, bartends at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Menifee, Calif., that resumed dine-in service last week. He expects social-distancing requirements to change not only the culture, but his bottom line. With seating capacity capped at around 50%, he anticipates tips will fall, too.
Mr. Eastman says he knows that certain changes will be hard for some patrons to accept. Parties must arrive jointly at his bar, rather than meeting up, and with capacity limits, customers are being asked to order food, and not just drinks.
“People who go to bars are creatures of habit,” he says.
Other changes will be more subtle. Though he was used to chatting with people about more carefree topics—lawn care, children’s baseball teams—he expects to hear many more sad stories as regulars trickle back, particularly about people suffering difficult economic times.
“I’m going to have to empathize with them on a much higher level than I ever had to,” he says.
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