How to Manage Customer Expectations at Your Restaurant Amid Pandemic Challenges

At Carolina Lowcountry Kitchen in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, you won’t find the restaurant trying to hide its struggle to staff up. 

“Please be patient. There’s like 3 of us,” reads the t-shirts of staff dropping plates of Southern-style fare around the room. The restaurant rolled out the t-shirts last summer, and employees have been wearing them ever since.

“With a smaller crew, servers are running all around, but guests don’t see that end of it,” says the restaurant’s co-owner Brienne Postema, who notes that despite spending money on job listings and raising wage rates, staffing continues to be a challenge. “The response [to the t-shirts] has been fantastic. We’re so happy we’ve been able to do something in a lighthearted way that still gets the point across.”

Postema adds, “In the world we live in right now, it’s important to remind people that there’s humanity behind what we do.”

From airplanes to supermarkets to restaurants, we’ve seen anger escalate seemingly everywhere across the past two years. Unfortunately, pandemic-induced stress, fear, and annoyance often gets funneled in places where it shouldn’t. 

Postema, along with many restaurant owners, say that the majority of customers arrive with empathy. But there are others who can’t help but express their annoyance when faced with slower service, higher prices, vaccination mandates, and other pandemic-centric problems. And it can easily make working conditions for staff miserable.

This is where a little transparency can help. Some guests simply need a reminder, or a quick education, on the problems restaurants are facing right now. “We’ve found that being upfront with people has been our best line of defense,” says Postema.

Sure, it’s not going to solve every sticky situation. But if your customers understand the current circumstances, and that staff are truly doing the best they can, you’re more likely to gain patience than lose business. There’s no universally prescribed method for communicating pandemic challenges, and you’ll want to adapt your tone and strategy to your individual brand. But below are some tips to help get you started.

Be transparent about menu price increases

Honesty matters to customers. It builds credibility and trust. And when you’re open about price increases, and explain the reasoning, customers are less likely to feel swindled or become critical when they see the actual numbers on the menu. 

Your explanation doesn’t need to be extensive. Provide a few key details, and try to include the customer experience into the narrative. For example, “We are forever thankful for our loyal customers. We know this has been a challenging time for everyone. While this wasn’t an easy decision, in order to keep our doors open, we will be raising menu prices on some items in the coming weeks. Our food costs have doubled, and staffing challenges have forced us to close on days we’d normally be operating. In this continuous pandemic struggle, we are operating at a loss and are unable to remain in business with our current prices. We appreciate your understanding. Please reach out with any questions or concerns.” 

If possible, incorporate personalized anecdotes that really tell your story and give insight into the specific challenges you’ve faced. “Now is not the time to be embarrassed. This is not due to mismanagement of a business,” says Katie Button, CEO and cofounder of Asheville-based restaurant group Katie Button Restaurants. “Even if you have a lot going for you, it’s really hard to even break even right now.” 

Customers can only empathize if they know the real story behind price increases. With a little transparency, you might find some customers actually wanting to show up more to give support.

Use signage to communicate that you’re tight-staffed

Maybe witty t-shirts don’t fit your restaurant’s brand. But there are plenty of ways to communicate that you're short on staff. The important part is to make sure customers are aware of the situation so that they can better understand why service may be impacted. Most guests’ lives only intersect with the restaurant industry when they sit down for a meal, which can make it easy to forget the challenges restaurants face.

Try to approach communications in a way that expresses gratitude towards your customers. This creates a sense of sympathy for both parties, each of which is impacted in the current environment. “We post signs on the doors if we’re short-staffed, with a ‘thank you for being patient’,” says Postema. Table tents and menu slips are options, too.

Some restaurants are also using signage to remind customers not to take their frustrations out on staff. “Be kind or leave,” reads a sign at The Brewerie at Union Station in Erie, Pennsylvania, which the owner says helped curb a mounting display of bad behavior by guests.

The Rhode Island Hospitality Association developed an entire ‘Please Be Kind’ toolkit, which includes signs restaurants can print. “Sometimes a simple, visual reminder can go a long way,” says Dale J. Venturini, the president and chief executive of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. 

Train staff to educate customers about supply chain disruptions

When regulars show up only to find their favorite menu item’s been taken off the menu, they’re going to want to know why. To curtail annoyance and ward off negative reviews, train waitstaff to be ready to communicate supply chain issues. You may even want to add a memo on your website and place onsite signage to give guests a heads up about the volatile market you’re dealing with. And you absolutely want to make sure to keep all delivery and online menus up-to-date so that guests don’t order something they won’t actually receive.

But be mindful. The goal is to manage, not lower, customer expectations. Let customers know that labor shortages and shipping bottlenecks are causing major supply chain disruptions, but that you hope to see many items eventually return. In the meantime, play to your strengths and have staff guide customers to other popular menu items, or highlight new items bred out of pandemic-spawned creativity.

Activate social media channels to announce closures in advance

With a tight staff, and COVID-19 still aggressively spreading, it can be hard to predict when you may have to temporarily shut down service. But the key is to communicate with customers as soon as you make that decision. This will decrease customer disappointment and prevent people from showing up to closed doors. 

The easiest way to get the word out fast? Dial up your social media. Here, you can not only make immediate announcements, but you’re also given a platform to share the challenges that have made closures necessary. (Find messaging examples here, here, and here). Plus, you can communicate alternative ways for customers to give support, including going to sister restaurants or ordering takeout/delivery, if those remain open. 

Many restaurants are choosing to be transparent about COVID-19 exposures in Instagram and Facebook posts, too. (Find examples here, here, and here). This can build trust, showcasing to customers that you’re taking COVID-19 precautions seriously. Tailor the messaging to fit your individual restaurant’s brand. As Chicago’s Lulu Cafe demonstrates, a simple note can get the point across: “Due to positive cases, we are closing to test all members of the team. We wish it were different but it’s not and here we are again — much love to everyone out there.”

Make it easy for customers to provide feedback

Collecting customer feedback is valuable on multiple levels. For one, it can help identify areas where you may need to bolster communications. For example, if 80-percent of your customer base is complaining about slow service, you may need to step up your explanations on staffing shortages and other challenges you’re facing.

Customer feedback can also show you which changes that you’re implementing are working, and which ones you may need to scale back. And perhaps most importantly, listening, and asking questions, makes customers feel involved and important, which builds brand loyalty.

There are plenty of ways to collect feedback, including tabletop surveys, questionnaires built into your website or QR code menu, and encouraging customers to send comments by email. You also shouldn’t discount one of the easiest and longest-running tools – simply talking to your customers after their meal.

“We talk to our guests a lot because not only can we get feedback, but it puts a face with our business, so when we say we can’t be open, or we’re short-staffed, people understand who we are, that there’s people behind the business,” says Postema.