The spread of the novel coronavirus may spark some unease among consumers about dining out. Between fears of public gatherings and uncertainties around restaurant cleanliness, patrons may choose to eat at home instead.
The foodservice industry has quickly taken notice. Many restaurants are ramping up their safety and sanitation measures to protect workers and diners. Restaurant industry associations are providing information and guidance to help ensure food is safe — from production to plating.
But with fears rising and the food industry often haunted by the ghosts of foodborne illness outbreaks, consumers still may be inclined toward doubt or suspicion about safety.
Here are three ways everyone in the foodservice industry can ease fears and communicate how they’re working to keep customers safe.
Make cleaning conspicuous
When I worked in a QSR during my teenage years, cleaning was something we did after hours. Part of that was because we were busy making and serving food during the day and part was because it wasn’t the most visually pleasing work of our day.
In the wake of coronavirus fears, though, start putting that work front and center. Let diners see you wiping down door handles and countertops and drink machines (with the appropriately labeled sanitizing equipment — no one trusts a grubby old kitchen towel). Don’t be afraid to ask a customer to wait briefly while you wash your hands before taking an order or serving food. Now is not the time to hide the cleaning supplies and processes.
Talk about it
Besides doing the work of regularly cleaning and sanitizing, ensure your customers know you’ve got a system in place. And that system should include ensuring workers who are ill are not at work.
Use both straightforward indicators, like new signage about your sanitation processes, and passive ones, like a cleaning checklist that’s posted in a visible location. These messages both state and imply your commitment to keeping customers safe.
Other members of the food industry who aren’t customer-facing, like food suppliers or transporters, can help bolster the safety message through social media messaging or by providing customers with talking points about their own safety processes.
But don’t overreact
When fears are bubbling up, it’s easy for a natural anxiety to turn to an overreaction. Resist the temptation to go overboard in the name of safety, like one California Chinese restaurant that’s checking diners for fever before admitting them. This kind of move runs the risk of stigmatizing and alienating customers.
Health officials have repeatedly advised the public to maintain common sense measures — cover coughs with your elbow, thoroughly wash your hands for 20 seconds, avoid touching your face and clean commonly touched surfaces.
Being smart, careful and open — still the best prescription for keeping customers happy.