This past terrible year could change the restaurant business for the better | Opinion – NJ.com

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This past terrible year could change the restaurant business for the better | Opinion – NJ.com

Before the pandemic, Peter Sedereas' Townsquare Diner in Wharton had a small take-out business. Today, customers have returned for in-person dining an

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Townsquare Diner op-ed

Before the pandemic, Peter Sedereas’ Townsquare Diner in Wharton had a small take-out business. Today, customers have returned for in-person dining and he says his takeout business is still strong, as well.

By Peter Sedereas

So much has been written about the challenges those of us in the restaurant business have faced in the last year. Like so many industries, the pandemic wreaked havoc on our customers and staff, making things we had taken for granted far more difficult.

And yet, in some ways, many of the changes restaurants were forced to make over the last year in order to stay in business have actually made those of us who were lucky enough to survive stronger and more resilient. Now that we’re back open — though not at 100% because we can’t hire all the staff we need — many of us are hoping to keep these changes in place. Here’s what the pandemic taught us about how to run our businesses better.

Prior to the pandemic, Townsquare Diner had a small take-out business. Delivery was never a major part of our business, even though we did already work with delivery platforms like DoorDash. The vast majority of our customers were for in-person dining in the restaurant or on our outdoor patio.

But when the pandemic first hit last year, all of our in-person customers stayed home. We spent a few weeks not knowing what we were going to do. Our most loyal customers were telling us they were eager to support our business and still wanted to enjoy our food at home.

We had looked into how to develop our own delivery systems, but the steps required — building the ordering technology, hiring the drivers and the rest — were too daunting and too expensive. So, after talking with a few other restaurant owners about their experience with delivery apps, we chose to turn to DoorDash even more. It allowed us to keep doing what we do best — making delicious food for our customers — while taking care of the parts of the delivery business that we couldn’t build, manage or afford. And fortunately, we had this service in place when the pandemic hit.

Within days, we were getting hundreds of orders, from both our loyal customers and new ones. Suddenly, getting meals to people’s homes became our entire business. It’s something we never imagined we would do and yet it became our lifeline.

Through our friends at the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association (NJRHA), we learned that DoorDash was also offering cash grants to family-owned restaurants in the Garden State to help us through the pandemic. We applied through the NJRHA and were thrilled to receive $2,500 that we used for our payroll. Over 120 New Jersey restaurants received grants through the nearly $500,000 DoorDash and NJRHA gave out at a time when we desperately needed it most.

Now that Gov. Phil Murphy has fully reopened New Jersey, and we’re back at serving indoors and, hopefully, soon at full capacity, we’re still making deliveries and we don’t anticipate stopping anytime soon especially because we haven’t been able to hire enough staff. It allows us to reach new customers and is a source of additional revenue that will help us grow our business.

But deliveries weren’t the only change that we hope will stick around.

The state allowed restaurants like ours to experiment with to-go and delivery alcohol service, which turned out to be a major source of additional revenue that we didn’t have before and allowed us to stay in business through the last year. Anyone who’s been in the restaurant business knows that alcohol is a high-margin service, so allowing us to sell more of it while indoor dining was restricted is a major boost to a business that was operating at low margins already during the pandemic. We hope the state will allow us to continue that service to help businesses like ours build back from the challenges over the last year.

Expanded outdoor dining, including onto sidewalks and streets, was another enormous lifeline to restaurants across the state. And though The Townsquare Diner is fortunate enough to have had our terraza patio before the pandemic, many of our fellow restaurant owners would not have survived without being able to expand their dining capacity onto sidewalks, parking lots and streets. Where possible — without causing too much disruption to transportation to, from and around our restaurants — our local and state governments should continue to allow us to expand our capacity into those additional outside areas. Larger, safer capacity means more revenue for us, which means more jobs and better wages.

Fortunately, as an industry and a nation, we are very close to making it to the other side of this crisis. Ultimately, restaurants will come out stronger than ever, with more understanding of the resources at their disposal to meet our customers’ changing expectations. These new tools and revenue opportunities — delivery, take-out and delivery alcohol service, and expanded outdoor dining — kept many of us afloat over the last year, and they should be long-term considerations for us to continue to grow our businesses and support our communities.

Peter Sedereas and his family are the owners of Townsquare Diner in Wharton.

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