Eateries Hope to Lure Wary Diners Back With New Task Forces and Covid Czars

Restaurant Associates just announced a new position, and others may soon follow

an empty restaurant
Only half of Americans say they'll go back out to eat, shifting the burden of reassuring them to the restaurants themselves. Jason Leung/Unsplash
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Key insights:

During the first eight weeks of the novel coronavirus crisis, casual dining and white tablecloth restaurants worried about when America would start to reopen. But now that most states are creeping in that direction, these companies have something new to wring their hands over: When will the public feel comfortable enough to come in for a meal?

As of now, that question is still up in the air. But one leading restaurant operator based in New York has decided not to wait around for the public’s mind to change, instead building confidence on its own. Restaurant Associates, operator of upscale restaurants in leading cultural centers and an assortment of corporate dining rooms in the financial and tech sectors, recently created a Covid-19 safety czar, elevating its senior director for strategic projects Anthony Capozzoli to the position.

And while the new czar will be focused principally on creating systems and procedures to allow for the safe return of diners, part of his role is, effectively, marketing by reassuring a skittish public that the company is aware of its concerns and is addressing them.

“I don’t claim to be an expert on all things Covid-19 but it’s my commitment to find the answers,” Capozzoli told Adweek.

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Covid czar Capozzoli is a 13-year RA veteran.
Restaurant Associates

Tasked with creating what he calls a “comprehensive reopening strategy,” Capozzoli is busying himself with everything from instituting new cleaning procedures in the restaurants to exploring contactless ordering technologies.

But RA’s properties will not be succeeded without proverbial butts in the seats, and Capozzoli acknowledged that an instrumental part of his job is communications. “We have to build that consumer and associate confidence,” he said. “That’s the first goal.”

And a lofty one, too. A survey released last week by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research revealed that 83% of Americans are “at least somewhat concerned” that reopening the country will result in a second wave of Covid-19 infections. And while consumers are warming to the idea of going back to stores or getting their hair cut, over half of respondents said they were not ready to return to restaurants. These results represent only a small ebbing of consumer fears compared to a couple of weeks ago.  An ABC News/Ipsos poll from mid-May, for example, found that only 44% of Americans said they were ready to return to restaurants.

RA first made a name for itself in the 1950s with the Newarker, which surprised the public by bringing fine dining to Newark Airport. To sample its famous New Jersey oysters and three-clawed lobsters, patrons flocked to the eatery even if they had no tickets for a flight.

Since then, RA has expanded nationally into a leading event caterer and corporate dining operator, while also building a large portfolio of upmarket restaurants in museums and other cultural centers including Café Serai at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art and L’Avenue Restaurant at Saks Fifth Avenue. Historically, these facilities supplied a steady stream of customers who happened to be on the property anyway. Once these institutions reopen, RA will find itself in the unfamiliar position of having to lure wary customers to come in and eat with them.

And while some of the measures that Capozzoli is instituting—more frequent and visible cleaning, prominent placement of hand sanitizer stations—will be in plain sight, his new title is itself a kind of calling card, which is why RA has gone public about its creation. The company has added a page about the post to its website and is also planning a social media campaign that will launch once reopening dates get firmed up.

“We definitely want the public to know about the position,” said Sam Souccar, RA’s svp of creative services. “It’s a way to prove we are serious about our commitments for everyone’s safety and well-being.”

And as restaurants across the country look at when and how to reopen their dining rooms, the creation of a decided Covid czar (or similar title) might become a practice that more brands choose to adopt, if they haven’t already.

“That safety czar concept is beginning to happen,” said John Gordon, founder and principal of the Pacific Management Consulting Group, a longtime strategy and operations advisor to the restaurant industry. Historically, Gordon said, companies managed food safety and sanitation issues as part of a broader quality assurance apparatus at headquarters or, on the unit level, made it a shared responsibility of managers and chefs.

“Now, with Covid-19,” he said, “I have no doubt that new corporate positions will be created with audit powers.”

Many restaurants now find themselves in a situation analogous to what fast-casual chain Chipotle faced in 2016, following a series of foodborne illness outbreaks. To help the company win back the trust of the dining public, Chipotle made several high-profile hires, among them Kansas State University meat science professor James Marsden, who came aboard as executive director of food safety, and former FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture heavy David Acheson, who joined the company in an advisory role.

While eateries across America do not bear responsibility for Covid-19 itself, of course, they do find themselves in the position of having to do damage control. And as RA is demonstrating, one way to do that is to create a visible executive to strategize it.

“For independent restaurants it might be a challenge to invest in such a position,” Souccar conceded, “but we think larger restaurant groups and food service companies will have a semblance of this role as they consider their reopening plans. Some most likely already do.”

Adweek reached out to several restaurant operators in the casual-dining space to see if they had created czar-type Covid posts. Most did not respond by press time, but two did.

Nicole Bott, communications director for Red Lobster, said “We have not hired anyone into a role like this,” but is instead “leveraging a cross-functional task force to work through this unprecedented and rapidly changing environment.”

For its part, however, Columbus, Ohio-based Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, operators of 16 eateries including the Guild House and Marcella’s, has created a Covid Task Force and placed svp of food and beverage Brian Hinshaw in charge of it.

“Obviously, there is nothing more important to our company than keeping our associates and guests safe,” Hinshaw said. “That is the biggest reason we put this together.”

Operations aside, CMR has also been public about the creation of its task force, noting on its website that “we intend to deploy the strongest measures across our restaurants so that … guests feel safe.” A similar message now appears on the company’s carryout bags.

Hinshaw continued, “We felt that it would be important to broadcast our safety and sanitation message to our associates and guests.”

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@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.