Opening your cafe during a pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we, as an industry, have ever had to face. Below is a set of guidelines that we have observed as ‘best practices’ in order to run your business safely while remaining prepared for the worst case scenarios. Before anything else, be prepared for criticism. It will come, both from the public and internally. Even with the strictest protocols in place, you will be putting your team at risk and potentially being part of the problem. Many thanks to Black Sheep Restaurants for creating an incredible resource and helping to provide the basis for this guideline. Further thanks goes to the many cafes who allowed us to speak with them about their practices during this difficult time.



  • All staff should wash their hands every half hour for a minimum of 20 seconds.
  • Hand sanitizers, vinyl gloves, and disinfectant wipes should be made available and readily accessible.
  • Face masks should be made available and mandatory for all staff.
  • Create a schedule for the sanitization of all surfaces every half hour.
  • Schedule a deep sanitization every 10 days and consider hiring externally for this process.
  • Ban physical contact between staff members including handshakes, high fives, etc.
  • Install a ‘sneeze guard’ between guests and staff, especially in areas where communication will occur.
  • Go cashless to limit unnecessary contact. Credit and debit cards can be ‘tapped’ even through a glass door or ‘sneeze guard’.
  • Eliminate public seating by moving tables and chairs to the side or roping off seating areas. If seating is presently allowed at cafes in your area, be sure to leave a six foot space between adjacent guests and sanitize the seating area diligently when a guest vacates their seat.
  • Wherever possible, remove high contact surfaces. Keep doors propped open, keep the bathrooms out of service, take down the condiment stand and assist your guests by adding milk and sugar to their drinks for them.
  • Fill guest-facing self-serve stations, fridges, and pantries only to minimum levels.
  • Make sure there is full commitment to health protocols from all staff. Create signage to remind staff daily of health and hygiene expectations.  
  • At this time, guests will be exceptionally sensitive to hygiene discretions. Anything that so much as appears messy can potentially communicate a lack of health and safety standards. It is beneficial for your small business for staff’s appearance to be meticulously maintained and all surfaces to be kept clean and tidy.


  • Greatly limit guest entry to your cafe. Consider allowing one guest to access the cafe at a time or refraining from allowing more than one guest per party.
  • Within the cafe and outside the cafe, place markers to a minimum of 6 feet apart to indicate where guests should stand to maintain proper social distancing while they wait.
  • If possible, rearrange the space so that guests don’t have to enter the space at all. Use a window to serve takeout or take orders directly from the front entrance, never allowing a guest to enter.
  • If multiple guests will be entering the cafe, consider creating a health form for guests to sign. Include basic information such as Name, Date, and Email Address. If you are made aware of a positive COVID-19 case, whether on your staff or from a guest, it will be indispensable for public health for you to contact anybody that may have come in contact with the person.
  • Give your team a line to explain to guests why it is necessary. For example: “We are trying our best to keep our community safe and are asking everyone to complete this contact form.”
  • Note to guests that their information will not be used for anything other than to contact them if they are at risk of contracting the virus.
  • Make sure that there are many pens available and that they are sanitized between uses.
  • Courteously ask guests to vacate after picking up their order to discourage guests from congregating outside of your business.


  • Working during a pandemic is inherently associated with risk. If staff are uncomfortable about this, it is their prerogative. If possible, offer staff an option to take an indefinite leave of absence, with a promise that their job will be waiting for them when things return to normal.
  • Determine where there are hospitals or clinics testing for and treating the virus near you.
  • If you have team members that may struggle to communicate determine now who will be available to help them in a medical emergency.
  • Invest in contactless thermometers and enforce daily, mandatory temperature checks for the team upon arrival. Anyone with a fever or other COVID-19 symptoms, send home.
  • Have deliveries left outside wherever possible. If not possible, have delivery persons also sign a Contact Form.
  • If you are made aware of a guest testing positive for COVID-19, have any staff that may have been in contact with them self-isolate for a minimum of two weeks. Notify any other guests that may have come in contact with this individual.
  • If anybody on your staff tests positive for COVID-19, be prepared to close the business for two weeks and to encourage all staff to self-isolate to minimize potential transfer of the virus. Communicate with all guests that may have come in contact with this particular staff member.


  • If you are a multi-venue group, identify team members who travel between venues and find a way to greatly limit this. Minimize the need to share resources between venues. Move meetings to online venues such as Google Hangouts or Zoom.
  • For large teams, consider splitting in two and scheduling so that the two groups do not interact in person, in or outside of work. If somebody on one team tests positive for COVID-19, and staff are required to self-isolate, hopefully the other team can continue to work. Take into account any personal relationships on your team. If you know anybody dating, living together, etc., be sure they are in the same group.


  • If you are using a pick-up service, implement contactless pick-up from your restaurant. Do not have visitors come into the restaurants when unnecessary.
  • Consider not offering the entire menu for takeaway. Test which products travel well before marketing them for takeaway service. Pivot your menu to something more pick-up friendly.
  • Be creative. Try new offerings that can be sold outside of peak service times. e.g. roasted coffee bags, meal kits, equipment.


  • Run with reduced menus to help with food cost and wastage. Eliminate low selling menu items.
  • Run a cash flow analysis on a weekly and monthly basis to make sure you know where you stand
  • Put an immediate hold on non-essential expenses. Only critical expenses should be processed.
  • Suspend all travel indefinitely.
  • Freeze all non-essential hiring and recruitment efforts.
  • Review the expense approval process and have fewer people authorized to approve expenses so everything is funnelled to a limited number of scrutinizing individuals.
  • Have open conversations with suppliers, vendors, and landlords about discounts or pushing back payments. Do not ignore them or they will think you are going out of business.


  • This is never more important than in a crisis. Be open and transparent, both to the public and your staff.
  • Where possible, have your internal communications go out before your external communications. It’s never preferable for your staff to hear things from the public or the media.
  • Messaging across all platforms should be aligned and timely. Be prepared for a guest or a team member to test positive for the virus as if it is inevitable. It will always reflect well if you respond quickly, sincerely, and transparently.


  • Prepare templates for various scenarios that you can adapt quickly and use across all platforms. Be prepared to answer any press enquiry with at least a one-liner. ‘Declined to comment’ or ‘has not responded’ will read as if you are hiding something.
  • If you do find yourself dealing with a situation where someone who has been on your premises has tested positive for COVID-19, it is better to over-communicate. Share whatever information you have across all platforms.
  • If there are negative responses to your communication on public platforms, do not delete them. If the criticism is valid, take it offline. If it is not, ignore it.


  • Working at a cafe is associated with a risk of exposure. Ensure your team understands that risk.
  • Do whatever necessary to make your team understand that they will never be punished for communicating with you.
  • If you are forced to implement unpaid leave or pay cuts, consider team members who may struggle in the local language. Check in with them. See if they need help negotiating rent reductions with their landlords, filling out government aid forms, etc.
  • If you are able to, organize morale-boosting gestures. Bring safe food and drinks for staff, schedule online group chats, plan games and contests that do not involve personal contact.


  • If you are notified that a guest at your cafe has tested positive, reach out publicly on social media, as well as directly to the clients who are most at risk using the aforementioned contact list.
  • Guests will be frustrated, stressed, and scared. This will manifest itself as anger. Stay empathetic.
  • Ensure you have a team member on hand to answer all calls and emails, even when you are closed. Redirect phone numbers and emails.
  • Remember, you are not qualified to give medical advice. Direct guests to the appropriate government resource for up-to-date advice and protocol.


It will very likely be a long time before the food and beverage industry returns to any semblance of normalcy. When we get there, the industry will likely look very different. Many cafes will be closing permanently and, while reduced competition may be beneficial to some, many of our guests will have less disposable income.

It is important to remain optimistic but also realistic about the future. Stay safe, be smart.



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