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Staying Personal in the Face of COVID


How can coffee shops stay personal despite Covid-19 restrictions?

It has been over a year since the Covid-19 pandemic first started to affect our lives. It has changed almost every aspect of society for billions of people around the world. It is no exaggeration to say that it has altered the way that we behave and how we interact with others.

While pandemic restrictions are starting to disappear in many parts of the country, local regulations do vary. Furthermore, some hospitality businesses may adopt their own policies to maximize staff and customer safety.

However, for coffee shops, restaurants, and other similar businesses, personal engagement is a key part of everyday life. Any kind of restriction, whether it’s wearing a mask or operating a limited menu or schedule, can affect it.

So, how can hospitality businesses ensure they provide a positive, personal experience as we move forward out of the pandemic? Read on to find out.

Grove Tea Lounge

The impact of Covid-19

When the pandemic first swept across the world in early 2020, many countries announced limitations and restrictions for “non-essential businesses.” These included coffee shops, restaurants, and other hospitality venues.

Furthermore, even when these businesses were permitted to reopen, it generally came with plenty of restrictions. These included additional hygiene measures, physical distancing, a requirement for personal protective equipment (i.e. face masks), and limited operating hours, to name just a few. 

In response, many restaurants and coffee shops adapted to focus on takeout, drive-thru, and collections.

Patrick McElgunn is co-owner at Grove Tea Lounge in Midland, Michigan. He explains that before the pandemic, some 80 to 90% of Grove’s sales were generated through classic indoor sales.

However, during the pandemic, Patrick says, their service transformed completely to drive-thru. Today, even though most restrictions are now lifted and there are no formal mask requirements in Michigan, Patrick explains that sales are still split between indoor customers and drive-thru.

Grove Tea Lounge

Challenges with customer interaction

Covid-19 didn’t just force hospitality businesses to adapt how they operate. It also changed how baristas and other hospitality staff interacted with customers.

For instance, in many cases, wearing masks and adhering to social distancing measures has made it harder to communicate and engage with customers.

Patrick says that although the option to switch to drive-thru was extremely helpful during the pandemic, it has also created a “barrier” between staff and customers.

“Everyone was wearing masks and interacting through a little drive-thru window, or we would just walk out and hand orders to them in their car,” he says.

Grove Tea Lounge

How do you keep these connections personal?

Despite these challenges with customer interaction, it’s still important for hospitality businesses to add that personal touch where possible. However, doing so behind a mask can be difficult.

Patrick says: “Coffee shops are a place that people use for personal interaction and connections.”

 He tells me about a few ways that hospitality staff can interact with customers to make sure they stay personal and connected.

Take a moment to engage

Whether or not there are restrictions in place in your business, human interaction should still be a priority for you and your team.

Take a moment to speak to any customer entering the premises. Ask how they are and how their day has been. Take the time to speak to them if you sense that they want a conversation.

Even though it might only last a few seconds, this small interaction will show that you care about your customers.

“Be really intentional when connecting in those ways,” Patrick says. “The body language, the eye contact, and the facial expressions… all that stuff went away.” He also notes that this can help to rebuild lost connections and recover those relationships.

Understand your customers

However, while considering the previous point, you should also keep in mind that not everyone who visits you is there for a meaningful experience.

For instance, Patrick says that although customers who come through the drive-thru might enjoy a quick chat, they will typically want to get out of there in a hurry.

He says: “That's one thing that our staff have had to just learn and adapt to, and they do it really well.

“It’s as simple as understanding what your customers want,” he explains. “Think about it this way: if customers are ordering online or at the drive-thru, they will want convenience more than anything else.”

Show off your expertise

Patrick also recommends taking pride in what you do, and in showing that expertise to your customers.

If you’re serving a range of different coffees, for instance, talk your customers through the options. Explain the different origins and what makes them special. Talk about which coffee suits which beverage best, and even offer tips for brewing at home.

At Grove, Patrick says that they really strive to highlight each and every one of their coffees, either through a drink recommendation or simply by discussing them on social media. 

On that note, he says that social media is another tool that can help you stay engaged with customers.

Patrick notes: “It makes conversation a little bit easier and more natural between customers and our baristas.”

He explains that Grove’s baristas all use the brand’s social media channels at different times, to help people form a relationship with the people behind the brand.

Be mindful

While things are certainly improving, the Covid-19 pandemic is not over yet.

As such, it’s important to evaluate how comfortable each customer is in your space. Be sensitive to everyone's safety and comfort, and respond accordingly.

Patrick says that you should learn to read customers’ body language and tone of voice. 

He says: “With Covid-19 being what it is, there are some people who are very nervous about coming out and visiting restaurants and going to the store… things like that.

“Try to understand their body language and make sure that you're trying to accommodate them as best as possible.”

Higher Grounds Coffee Bar

Although the pandemic has changed the global hospitality industry in a number of key ways, it’s still possible to engage with your customers and keep things personal.

 Be friendly, show that you care, and recognize how comfortable each customer is. In the end, this can help you connect with them and build brand loyalty.