Coronavirus fears force restaurants to pivot

From boosting cleaning efforts to seeking out ways to bolster delivery sales, restaurants are adapting to a fast-moving global crisis.
Starbucks store
Photograph: Shutterstock

As more coronavirus cases are identified each day and fears of the respiratory illness spread, restaurants from big chains to independents are changing course to adapt to the rapidly changing situation.

As of Wednesday, there were 80 total cases of COVID-19, the virus’s scientific name, in the U.S., with nine deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus has so far spread to 13 states.

Seattle-based coffee giant Starbucks, whose home state has so far been the hardest hit in the U.S. by COVID-19, sent a memo to employees this week directing them to regularly sanitize all door handles, coffee bars, tables, chairs, bathrooms and other items, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

The rigorous cleaning program should take 30 minutes a day and be done during the chain's peak hours, the chain said. The company is recommending store managers boost their scheduled employee hours by up to 1% accommodate the added workload, according to the report. 

Starbucks customers will no longer be able to bring in their own cups for refills, though they will still get a 10-cent discount for their effort, the chain said. 

Starbucks, which has restricted business travel and large meetings for the month after previously closing more than 2,000 of its Chinese units, also announced Wednesday that its March 18 annual shareholders meeting would instead be a “virtual” gathering due to the coronavirus outbreak. Starbucks’ annual meeting is traditionally an interactive event. Last year’s in-person gathering featured a performance by singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, product samples and a hands-on coffee bean-raking demonstration.

Also on Wednesday, Denny’s Corp. said it wouldn’t participate in the UBS Global and Consumer and Retail Conference in Boston, where the casual-dining chain was scheduled to present the following day. The decision, the company said in a statement, “was made out of an abundance of caution related to coronavirus concerns.”

In Portland, Ore., which recently reported its first coronavirus case, catering operations are scrambling after fielding a number of last-minute order cancellations and rescheduling requests due to scrapped plans for large meetings, according to local media reports.

One Portland operator tried to protect his doughnut shop, Donut Palace, by placing a sign on the door asking customers who’d recently visited China and a dozen other viral hot spots to wait 14 days before visiting his establishment, according to The Oregonian newspaper.

“We want to provide safety,” owner Safou Atwi told the publication. “We want people to come in and enjoy their doughnut without worrying about a virus.”

Since the novel coronavirus began in China, Chinese restaurants in the U.S. have reported a significant drop in business despite repeated messaging that they are not a source of the virus’ spread.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, the Bite of Asia restaurant has seen its sales fall by 50% in the past month, forcing the owner to lay off two employees, he told local media.

In New York, Chinese hot pot chain Haidilao has not only started delivering food, but is also offering an actual pot, portable stove and butane fuel with those orders in an attempt to make up for lost dine-in business, according to a report in Eater.

The owner of Mexican restaurant Tapatio in Seattle hung a bottle of hand sanitizer from its door, according to a post on Twitter, along with a note urging everyone to wash their hands.


And then there’s this marketing effort from a curry shop in Glasgow, Scotland: Shish Mahal has vowed to deliver curry every night for two weeks to anyone forced to self-quarantine because of coronavirus.

“It’s something to give back to our customers,” owner Asif Ali told the local news. “In Glasgow, we’re a hardy bunch, and we just get on with it.”


More coronavirus resources

How restaurants can prepare for a coronavirus pandemic.

The National Restaurant Association has guidelines for coronavirus and what restaurants can do.

The CDC has interim guidance for what employers can do to respond to coronavirus. It also has a checklist for employers to prepare for pandemic influenza.

The WHO has guidelines for workplaces to get ready for COVID-19.

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