Phase one of Governor Abbott’s reopening Texas includes restaurants, perhaps the hardest hit businesses by the COVID-19 crisis. Restaurants of all categories, from franchise-owned and operated, company-owned to independent saw dine-in customers come to an abrupt stop.
The crisis affected staffing levels and resulted in a significant loss of revenue – especially for independent owners in the industry who helplessly watch cash flow evaporate. Furthermore, when dining rooms open, there’ll be reduced seating capacity and increased safety guidelines for food service in place.
Westchase District boasts a diverse, robust array of dining establishments. One such popular eatery found a bright spot to turn a corner during the crisis. Outback Steakhouse has been firmly rooted in the District since 1993. As Outback Steakhouse at 10001 Westheimer reopened to a solid lunch rush (by limited standards), Lyle Hart, general manager of Outback, reflected on the past two months and his path forward.
How do you feel about reopening your dining room?
I am glad we are moving in this direction. There will be challenges, many new behaviors that our staff will have to learn, most of all just thinking about being safe and keeping other people safe (other Outbackers and our Guests).
What did you learn about your operations and business while you shifted to take-out, curbside and delivery?
I have been in the restaurant business for 40 years and have reopened after hurricanes and floods. This is a new challenge. My team has taken two online classes to help learn what steps to take to be safe and to keep out guests safe. Our leadership team has put a plan in place to educate and teach the behaviors needed to make this as smooth and safe as possible.
We have been solely operating takeaway and delivery only for the past seven weeks. We went from doubling sales to tripling sales within three weeks. This has been a learning process, but we have evolved adding more staff as sales have increased, changing systems and becoming quite good at this. I believe the paradigm shift of dining in versus dining at home has happened and will be with us for some time.
How do your team members feel about returning to work?
My Outbackers are excited and with a sense of the unknown, many changes in operations, many behavior changes, to keep them safe and to keep our guests safe. How many guests will show to eat in the dining room, time will tell. My role is to teach and coach my Outbackers to deliver great food and service, in the dining room and in takeaway and delivery. We now add a few new twists so we can make sure everyone is safe and continues to be safe and healthy.
What can customers expect after you reopen?
We have reduced our menu to optimize operations just like we have done after hurricanes, we go back to our core menu, the menu Outback started with some thirty plus years ago. Our seating capacity is 220 but the safety guidelines mean that we can only have 15 tables in use at a time. If guests arrive and we are at max, our team will encourage them to wait in their cars until we send a text alert to let them know when a table opens.
I know we will get through this. Our goal is to be our guests favorite place to eat, drink, relax, and be with friends, we will continue to make that our goal.
What advice do you have to weather this storm for smaller restaurants operated and run by the owners?
Stay authentic to your customers, communicate regularly with them, and don’t refrain from letting them know how much you appreciate their business.