Hospitality during coronavirus

Those of us in the hospitality industry are experiencing a new reality. Providing great hospitality means something very different from what it did before, but also it’s the same. Let’s get into it.

four different instagram posts of cafes with plexiglass screens for their window cafes

We’ve been getting messages and social media tags from cafes and bakeries around the country who have read my last article “We turned into a walk-up window cafe” and have taken similar measures inspired and informed by what we’ve done at Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters at our San Francisco and North Berkeley cafes. It’s been heartening and inspiring to see, particularly that folks are fighting to keep their small businesses going, staff employed, and community served.

This past week has also shown shocking and dismaying examples of poor management of certain food service spaces, a lack of training for employees, and the absence of adequate education for everyone involved regarding best practices and how to behave through this health crisis. Some of this has been overblown, some has been a result of the understandable but still unfortunate lack of information from public officials, but we can only control what WE can control, and so I wanted to help by adding to the conversation about what we as food, beverage, and hospitality businesses can and should do during this new context of what hospitality, service, and excellence means.

Obviously, these are mostly moot points if you’ve made the choice to close your business, whether temporary or not. However, I’m hearing a lot from business owners around the country who closed last week because they didn’t see a way they could stay open. For many locations that are dependent on the surrounding commercial or entertainment areas to provide foot traffic, there likely isn’t a way to stay open without months of operating capital available. I’m sorry if this has happened to you. I hate that my social media posts about what’s been happening at my cafes has been salt in the wound for many small business owners who had to close. However there are also many who either stayed open, could re-open, or are considering re-opening. For you, maybe some of this can help your thought processes.

What are our priorities?

I’ve learned how crucially important it is to put hospitality to work, first for the people who work for me and subsequently for all the other people and stakeholders who are in any way affected by our business — in descending order, our guests, community, suppliers, and investors. I call this way of setting priorities “enlightened hospitality.”
- Danny Meyer, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business

I have mixed feelings about the statement above, because it’s much easier said than done. Overall, that list, in descending order of priority, looks pretty good. My concern is that it’s too easy for business owners to say that their staff members are their priority, and we see too few examples of how you prove that they’re the priority. There’s a key element that I don’t see mentioned enough in his book: trust.

Trust is everything. Trust is difficult to build. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of time. Trust is fragile, and once it’s broken, even if work to rebuild trust, the best you can hope for is a glued-together version of what you had before, but it will never be the same as it was. The more power you have over another person, the more crucial trust is in your relationship. I am fanatical about earning trust, and that I don’t break others’ trust, especially those who look to me as responsible for them. I’m definitely not perfect, and I have broken trust. Still, trust is everything.

But too often, trust is only about telling the truth and not being revealed to have been a liar or a cheat. In our hospitality context, trust can be earned through non-verbal means, through how things are set up in a cafe, by posting signs that are clear and concise and perfectly appropriate, by teaching people how to behave through methods that communicate information in simple and elegant means. Trust is ultimately about safety. When you earn someone’s trust, they feel safe about, with, and near you. That means they don’t feel additional anxiety, fear, and insecurity about, with, and near you, or at least, less anxiety, fear, and insecurity than they do with others with whom they’ve had a comparable relationship dynamic with. Other employers, other cafes, other cisgender men, etc.

So when looking at our hospitality business environment during this COVID-19 crisis, every element that our employees and customers interact with are opportunities to either build trust or create anxiety, fear, and insecurity. Everything. So for our employees first, and also our customers, our priority must be to build trust through every little thing.

Safety first, employees first.

For our employees, we’ve been transparent and honest with everything over the past few weeks. We’ve let them know that if one of them were to get sick with COVID-19, the cafe they work at would have to close. So they’ve heard from us that while our absolute top priority is their health, there’s a secondary value to us all staying healthy: it allows us to keep our doors open.

In my previous article, I wrote about the four different vectors of possible infection: barista to barista (B2B), barista to customer (B2C), customer to barista (C2B), and customer to customer (C2C). Then I looked at how the vectors need to be prioritized and what measures we can take to address one vector while not simultaneously risking a higher priority vector.

It’s critical that we train our employees on each of these vectors and educate them on how each of our operational protocols relates to the four vectors, which in turn relate to our overall goals and objectives. Anything we set up or design is only going to be as successful as our employees are executing them.

The good news is that our employees have been enthusiastic about all of this. Obviously nobody’s happy about the virus, and everyone is nervous about getting sick. Getting to and from work is an especially challenging task, as it’s the most risky time for folks who are taking public transportation. But our employees have expressed that they’re thankful that they have jobs, as many of their friends have been laid off or furloughed, and they’re excited to uphold the safety protocols as we’ve designed them.

On top of that, there’s the customer feedback. Simply put, the feedback has been overwhelming as customer after customer has complimented our staff on not our only staying open but our innovative measures that they plainly see that we’ve taken that maximize safety and health. It feels good when someone tells us we’ve made them the best coffee they’ve ever had, but as the kids like to say, it hits different when folks tell us that our window cafe is the best setup they’ve seen at any retail establishment in the past week. I’m thankful for the compliments because it makes the baristas feel good, and it helps reinforce their trust in us and what we’re doing.

Setting the T̶a̶b̶l̶e̶ Window

Instagram post that indicates “protective shield” and “wax paper for signing” and “wrecking ball coffee setup is truly great
Instagram post that indicates “protective shield” and “wax paper for signing” and “wrecking ball coffee setup is truly great
From Janelle Bitker’s (reporter for the SF Chronicle) instagram stories yesterday.

Off the top of my head, my personal definition of “hospitality” is the collection of actions, words, and choices that comprise a guest’s or customer’s positive experience. That experience can be good or bad, hence you can have “good hospitality” or less-than-good. The triumvirate of actions, words, and choices is important, as the thing you see most often at places that fail at providing good hospitality is that they’re good at one or two of the three, but not the other(s).

The words can be the messaging, be it on social media, signage, or from your staff or from the owners themselves. The actions are how things happen, including the actual product you’re serving to the guests. I suppose that the thing that I find myself focused on right now, only because it’s so often and easily overlooked, are the choices. What, when, where, how, and why are you making these choices?

During this COVID-19 crisis, people’s understanding of what is acceptable, normal, safe, and healthy, are unfortunately all over the place. We rely on acculturation and socialization to set social and cultural norms that dictate desirable behaviors, but while automobile accident rates tend to remain statistically low because driving culture hasn’t changed very much over the past few decades (aside from incremental increases in ‘distracted driving’), mistakes and unfortunate occurrences abound on social media, a realm that has only existed practically-speaking for less than 20 years. Social media platforms come and go and each has its own culture and social norms and rules and the associated rates of rules violations and breaking norms, all at a speed and pace of change that is too rapid for many folks to comprehend. This virus is so new, and everything that’s happening in response to it represents a whole new world.

So in approaching the task of setting up our walk-up window cafe, I’m asking myself an additional set of questions, all being considered simultaneously:

  • What’s happening out there right now?
  • What are other businesses doing, or not doing? By “other businesses,” I mean both in our category and not.
  • What can we do that will capture people’s attention in the right ways?
  • What do people want to see or not see?
  • What can we do to help people learn desirable behaviors, both at our cafe window and even when they’re out elsewhere later?
  • What about our cafe experience is incompatible with maximum safety and health, and how can we overcome them?
  • How can we influence customers’ behavior without needing a sign or an explainer?
  • What attributes of our cafe experience can we sacrifice (and how much) in favor of other values that we need to prioritize right now?

At the end of all of that, I came up with a customer experience that I tweaked and tinkered with until I thought it was the best one we could offer right now.

The plan for our cafe during COVID-19:

Maybe someone’s going online to social media or our website to see if we’re open. I want them to see daily posts that show that we ARE open for take-out only (as the local and state governments have directed), and that we’ve set up the cafe for maximum safety.

Having customers come inside the cafe won’t work. Our San Francisco cafe is too small and narrow, with a 6 foot wide entrance corridor that won’t allow people to get in and out without violating the 6 foot social distancing directives. Also, and most importantly, our baristas would be faced with serving hundreds of customers that come up to them, face to face, with only a 24" wide countertop between them. So we moved service to the front doorway of the cafe, propping the door open and serving through a makeshift window. We were able to relocate the menu, the pastries, whole bean coffee bags, even our retail items like craft chocolates, to the cart.

We can’t have customers handling all of the things that were once self-service, like condiment milks, sweeteners, lids, straws, etc. So each of those is now handled by the barista, who will add the customer’s requested amount of milk. We’ll hand over sweetener packets, lids, napkins, and the rest. No more self-service.

A man is getting his coffee at the Wrecking Ball Coffee walk-up window cafe.
A man is getting his coffee at the Wrecking Ball Coffee walk-up window cafe.

I made the counter 36" high, which is 2-inches higher than ADA service counter height for accessibility, but we can swing the counter to the side or come around to serve any customers with access issues. Disability access is always a priority for us and so a reasonable and accessible solution is important.

I designed and installed a plexiglass “sneeze guard” to cover the entire area above the service counter except for a 10-inch high gap for pass-through. This is to reduce the spread of possible droplets from customers’ mouths when coughing, sneezing, or talking (even breathing), and to make a 24" linear distance between barista and customer a social distancing practicality.

A closeup of a small stack of wax papers labeled “wrap finger in a wax paper to use touch screen.”
I hate handwritten signs, but somehow it works better than a more professional-looking one here.

The patty paper is something that customers comment on most often. They’re 5.5" square wax papers that are made for stacking hamburger patties, but we’ve been offering them for customers to take one and wrap their fingers in before using the touchscreen of the point-of-sale computer for when they need to sign and indicate their tip amount*. This has proven to be an important innovation for us, especially in the context of hospitality. Many customers express delight when they see the wax papers, commenting out loud things like “That’s SUCH a great idea!” and “Thank you so much for these!” For anyone who’s gone out to a grocery store or other type of retail business during this COVID-19 crisis, while social distancing has been promoted as our weapon against the virus, we’re faced daily with situations that force us to touch objects that others have been touching, which violates the point of social distancing.

So while the application of patty papers for people to use like “finger condoms is a useful one and one that helps people stay safe, there’s another layer: how it makes people feel. The combination of the wax papers, the plexiglass barrier, and the move to serve through our window, all contribute to a customer experience that’s beyond the practicalities of each of the elements. Customers know what’s going on out there right now, they’ve experienced different retail settings and companies’ accommodations (or lack thereof) during this crisis, and with our cafe they see that every critical issue has been addressed. Make no mistake, it’s not a perfect, impenetrable setup, but you can get a coffee from us without standing within 6-feet of anyone (aside from with a solid barrier between you and the barista) and without directly touching anything that other customers directly touched.

All that comes together in a sum customer experience, and how it makes customers feel. They’ve been telling us that they feel taken care of in ways nobody else (retail business-wise) has, that they’re grateful for all of the measures we’ve taken, and, perhaps most poignantly, that they were worried about whether it would be safe to pick-up coffee drinks these days and that we made possible what seemed impossible.

As of the time of this writing, one full week after the “shelter in place” directive came from Bay Area officials, our sales at our Union Street San Francisco cafe have returned to 87% of pre-crisis levels.

I am a little nervous that any of this might sound like gloating. The fact is, many specialty coffee cafes are located in neighborhoods and blocks where staying open is not feasible, with no customers to serve, you can’t operate a business, even at a moderate loss. Still other cafes on more mixed commercial/residential blocks who have stayed open for take-out are suffering significant losses. Our Shattuck Avenue Berkeley cafe, for instance, only opened this past August, and has seen a bigger loss at 65% of pre-crisis levels, but we’re optimistic. What other businesses are or aren’t doing has helped inform what we need to do at our cafe, but it isn’t in the name of competition, it’s about differentiation.

It’s cheesy, but Trish and I have talked a lot over the years about how we want to make sure we’re putting the “specialty” in “specialty coffee,” and if specialty means a differentiated experience, it’s all the more important in a time like this.

an overhead photo of the sidewalk with yellow tape lines indicating where people should stand
The yellow tape arrangement.

There were still some improvements to be made. As they approach our cafe, people either going to see a line of people or no people. If there’s a line, I want that line to be literally 6 feet apart, so I planned to put stenciled spray-chalk on the sidewalk, but I couldn’t get the chalk so on Sunday I found some bright yellow duct tape at Home Depot and wrote “6 feet ↕️” on each. I had initially grabbed the red tape but realized red has certain emotional content that I didn’t want or need to convey. The fact is, we’ve been observing that people were already maintaining about 6 feet or more between each other, but in the name of hospitality, I wanted to relieve folks from having to figure out that six foot distance, and more importantly, relieve folks from more worrying about whether they’re making other people uncomfortable by not being 6-feet-enough away. I also made three “waiting area” spots for folks as well.

So much of this was in response to seeing so many retail establishments who are forcing decisions about proper distancing on their customers to figure out for themselves. “Social distancing” is too vague a directive, and our public officials should be more explicit in these communications. In the mean time, folks like us can at least manage our own environments and customer experiences by not forcing so much on our customers. It doesn’t take much to help alleviate these stresses, at least in part.

The trash can we had initially put out front for folks to use was of the swing-top variety, but right away we realized it wasn’t the best choice, because here’s yet another thing that folks might need to touch to use. You can see that swing-top trash can in the earlier pics above, but you’ll see in the overhead photo here that we switched to an open-top trash receptacle and folks don’t have to worry about it now.

There are still some additional improvements that I need to make. I will be posting a sign today on the plexiglass that asks customers not to speak to us under the plexiglass, to maintain the effectiveness of the barrier (people sometimes bend over to talk under the glass because they want to be heard). Also, something that says not to touch the barrier at all, since it may be potentially infected. I had already put a “order from behind this line” piece of yellow tape down about 12" in front of the ordering window, but on occasion when a barista wasn’t right at the window, a customer would tap on the plexiglass to try to get their attention. Eek.

I’ve always thought that our ultimate goal as businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, is about making people feel good. It’s the feeling-part that’s the key. In fact, sometimes it seems like feeling anything is what people seek out. Horror movies, stand-up comedy, even getting mad at political stuff on Twitter, are all experiences people seek out because it inspires feelings from them. But with good hospitality, we can help people feel good. Safe, secure, comfortable, settled, confident, trusting. Yeah, I think “trusting” is a feeling, albeit one of the more challenging ones to earn, especially for a business. But we cafes have a special relationship with our customers, especially those who we count as “regulars.”

Trust can’t be demanded or requested, it can only be earned. And every word, action, and choice, is going to build trust, not build trust, or break trust. I hope that my sharing what my thought process has been might inspire some thoughts for you and how you can build trust during this wild and unpredictable time in our history. Please do reach out if you have questions. I’d also love to hear your reflections on the subject, as well as if any of this resonated in a notable way. Good luck, best wishes, and we’ll see you out there in the safe ways.

*Footnote: The Square POS system allows business owners to choose whether signatures are needed for smaller transactions, and there’s some flexibility over the tip amounts presented as one-click options for the customer. I’ve always left signatures ON for all transactions, for one reason: to maximize tips for our baristas. When signatures are off, there’s a marked drop in tipping rates and total amounts. I could change our settings and eliminate the need for most customers to have to touch the touchscreen at all, but that would impact the take-home income for our staff, and that’s not an acceptable trade-off. Tipping is a hassle, and there’s been a lot out there for years about how American tipping culture is problematic and should go away. But it’s what we have now, and I’ve made it my job to maximize staff tip amounts (within reason) so the balance between customer convenience and tipping lands where it lands.

co-founder & co-CEO of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, San Francisco • proud immigrant from Korea • he/him • @nickcho on Twitter

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