The pandemic has put restaurant packaging under a magnifying glass. That will only increase this winter, with fewer (if any) dine-in guests in your restaurant. Your packaging is what ensures the experience of eating your food is as good at a distance as it is in your dining room. Is yours up to the task? The materials you’re using – as well as your to-go menu – should be adjusting to the times. If items your restaurant is known for don’t travel well – like burgers and fries – make new packaging a priority. While the pandemic has posed seemingly endless challenges for the restaurant industry, it has also sparked innovation – including the development of new packaging options (along with new uses for existing packaging, like paella being delivered in pizza boxes). Eco-friendly options are on the rise right now – and will likely again be more of a consumer demand as we emerge from the pandemic, which has caused many restaurants to return to plastic and Styrofoam packaging for the short term. If you’re making packaging changes right now, consider packaging made from biodegradable materials or easily renewable sources like bamboo, as this report from Stylus explains. As the distribution of the vaccine makes life feel safer, you may also be able to return to reusable containers that guests can return and refill. A recent McKinsey report said post-pandemic, packaging companies will need to think about three requirements going forward: sustainability, hygiene and effective direct-to-consumer design. Restaurants should have a growing number of packaging options available to help them perfect the off-premise experience.
In recent months, consumers have ordered restaurant meals via third-party delivery companies in increasing numbers: Marketwatch reports that throughout the course of the pandemic, food-delivery apps’ business has more than doubled. Restaurants have long regarded these apps warily, weighing the benefits of being able to serve convenience-loving customers against the risks of having a delivery app’s fees dissolve their profits. Those fees aren’t likely to come down anytime soon, but what if other restaurant operating expenses can? Ghost kitchens are helping to make that possible by removing expensive overhead – like décor, prime real estate and large dining rooms – and freeing up revenue for delivery expenses. To be sure, the experience of dining in a restaurant is appealing to consumers (and something they will want to return to post-pandemic), but your food is at the core of people’s desire to order from you. Stripping your business down to its key ingredients – quality food and people who enjoy it – is about having space to prepare it and a means of connecting customers to it. That means locating a professional kitchen (minus the pricey real estate), setting up a technology platform through which people can place orders smoothly, and having a partnership with a vendor who can ensure your food arrives promptly and safely. The pandemic has made ghost kitchens a key growth engine for the restaurant industry at a time when few others exist. Businesses that already have strong brand awareness and delivery customers may find that a ghost kitchen can help them turn a more stable profit. Consider a ghost kitchen an opportunity to test a new concept for minimal investment, or to shift an existing concept to a delivery-only mode for minimal investment (especially if the kitchen is shared by multiple businesses). These kitchens aren’t likely to go away after COVID-19 is behind us – consumers have had too much time to get used to their convenience – so they may be one of many lasting changes to emerge from it. There are many ways to approach them. If you want to discuss whether a ghost kitchen could be right for your operation, contact Team Four.
The winter weather will mean customers will be more apt to lean on restaurant delivery – and third-party delivery apps – to get the food they crave. But as a recent New York Times article reported, “restaurants have quickly found that the apps, with their high fees and strong-arm tactics, may be a temporary lifeline, but not a savior.” That’s especially true when an app can charge fees surpassing 30 percent per order and take customer data along with them. In 2021, how can you set yourself up to encourage your customers to come to you directly when they want to order from your restaurant? If you can’t divert waitstaff to delivery duty, use a third-party provider as a courier service only (which typically involves paying a payment processing fee and delivery fee but not losing any customer data), or make it more appealing for guests to collect their orders. In every bag to be collected by a third-party vendor, include a coupon good for a pickup discount – along with an explanation about how third-party fees are impacting restaurants right now. Offer rotating specials that are only available through orders placed via your website. Finally, use your social media and website to directly urge customers to come to you. Reinforce how much they will save on fees by simply collecting an order from you or (if possible) having you deliver it to them directly. Explain the difference side by side and tell them how much money your business makes or loses depending on how an order is placed – sometimes a consumer’s decision to use an app is not a conscious one and the person just needs to be reminded of how you’re feeling the difference. Your customers have surely seen some of their favorite restaurants close in recent months – and they want to see you survive and thrive. Tell them how to place orders that can best support you right now.
At the time of this writing, the National Restaurant Association had just announced that more than 110,000 restaurants around the country – representing one in six dining establishments – had closed either long term or permanently due to the pandemic. If you’re reading this, your business has likely already developed strong survival strategies, but the winter months are likely to test them yet again as the country manages winter illness spikes and more potential lockdowns. Is your restaurant as ready as it can be? In a recent Restaurant Dive article, several attorneys from the global law firm Goodwin’s financial restructuring group offered guidance to help restaurants weather the challenges of the next few months. Specifically, they said restaurants have two critical capabilities now: their ability to identify and implement practices to enhance revenue and reduce expenses, as well as their ability to connect with stakeholders and create a mutually agreed-upon restructuring plan that maximizes the value of the business and develops a business model that is sustainable in the current environment. As part of this, restaurant operators will need to conduct a thorough analysis of their operations, including calculating all assets and liabilities, and consider potential opportunities for getting concessions from landlords and suppliers, as well as securing external sources of funding. While there are sure to be more restaurant closures ahead before this crisis is over, there will also be opportunities available. Savvy businesses that have a precise understanding of their operation, as well as contingency plans in place to provide help in various scenarios, will be in the best position to seize those opportunities.
If you’ve been in business long enough, you likely have a strong idea of what your ideal customers look like, how they order from you and what they like to see from you. But COVID-19 has changed this in a couple of ways. For one, the pandemic has persisted long enough to have created lasting – or at least long-term – shifts in consumer habits and expectations. The times when people eat, what they eat, and who (and how many) they eat it with have all changed. Further, as we power through what we hope are the final months of the pandemic, recovery from it will be uneven across consumer segments. Older guests may hesitate to dine out. Families may sustain their level of takeout ordering or perhaps dine out more often, particularly if they have spent months at home managing home learning. Instability in the economy may dissuade younger consumers from using discretionary income for restaurant meals and beverages as often as they once did. Or you may not see clear demographic-specific sales patterns overall. All told, if you leaned on hunches or impressions to sustain your business before, you will now need to mine your data and be able to make actionable decisions about it every hour and every day. This will enable you to respond to small, frequent shifts in consumer behavior with promotions and menu items that connect with them – and avoid wasting food and money within your business in the meantime.
You may have decided by now that you don’t need to hire new hosts or waitstaff as you prepare your restaurant for post-pandemic service – but what about staff whose expertise is in technology? A recent report from Hospitality Tech references the southeastern U.S. restaurant brand Sonny’s BBQ, which relies on the skills of two full-time, highly skilled data analysts. These analysts synthesize industry data, sales and profits, marketing statistics and other data to develop and fine-tune strategies for data analytics, customer relationship management and personalized guest experiences. Strengthening your business and brand in these difficult times is about harnessing information – about elements ranging from your market and customers to each item and promotion on your menu. That may require you to rethink how you manage your business and what expertise you need most. Doing so can help prepare your business for future bumps – and bring some needed predictability to your business in 2021.
Do you remember what your marketing plan looked like from last year at this time? Chances are if you reviewed it today, it would look pretty quaint, considering the countless ways operators have had to reinvent business this year. While the development of a vaccine has provided signs of hope for 2021, the winter season will still require operators to rethink the ways they appeal to their customers. Your breakfast and lunch menus may hold some untapped potential here. For many people this winter, dining out in the evening could be a non-starter if eating outside is their only option. At the same time, the pandemic has also changed lunch from being a quick break in the day to a welcome chance to reconnect with colleagues and get out of the house – particularly for the large swaths of people who continue to work from home. How can you rethink your winter promotions to help capitalize on those changes in our habits? Can you draw people out for a hot lunch outside or entice loyal customers with a lunch delivery subscription? Could you offer a special menu of specialty coffees, breakfast burritos or grab-and-go breakfast items a person could collect following their morning run or school drop-off? Even snack times have new potential this year. The increased numbers of people working from home – and experiencing more blurred boundaries between work and life – may result in guests being more open to picking up a late lunch or meeting a friend for a late-afternoon appetizer. How have the habits of your most loyal guests changed this year? Keep them in mind as you plan for what could be another few unpredictable months ahead.
Your take-away menu is carrying a lot of weight these days. It needs to offer a sufficient range of items to satisfy guests (though not so many that you overwhelm them with choices or generate waste). It must communicate the experience of eating these items (but without too many words). And it must accomplish this all without the person ever having to walk through your doors to experience your brand. Chances are we’ll be looking at another several months of dining room restrictions and being limited to take-away and delivery – particular during the winter months, when it can be hard to get people to come out even in normal years. So give your menu a reality check now. Aside from organizing items by category, ensuring everything travels well, explaining options with a handful of carefully chosen words that help communicate the texture, freshness and aroma of an item, and including appealing photos, try to add some intrigue. Beyond your popular standbys, think about what regular tweaks you can make that will entice people to come back and see what creative menu items – or even new categories – you are offering. New research from Postmates, for example, found that sales of family meals had climbed 175 percent and alcohol sales 49 percent over last year. Special occasions have resulted in food and beverage spikes too: National Ice Cream Day in July led to a 118 percent increase in ice cream sales, and Election Day resulted in sharp increases of orders of pizza, alcohol, cupcakes and ice cream. Clearly this is a year when people crave comfort. What kind of comfort can you cook up for upcoming occasions this winter?
The math on third-party delivery has long been problematic. Operators have felt the need to offer it at the expense of profits just because of increasing consumer demand. But now that restrictions on dining rooms have made delivery more of a necessity than a nice-to-have extra, many operators are thinking even more critically about how to make it work. Common approaches include raising prices on menu items to help compensate for high third-party fees, finding a way to offer delivery in-house, or enticing guests to order via your online platform and then paying a third-party vendor a reduced fee for delivery (but retaining the valuable customer data). If delivering food yourself isn’t feasible, committing to making the third option work may be your best long-term bet for making ends meet and serving customers well. This Restaurant Business report ( https://bit.ly/3pqATav ) discusses how delivery may be evolving and how to drive people to your platform.
This year, consumers and restaurants alike could really use the morale boost that holiday gatherings and celebrations can offer – but those events will look a lot different this year (if they happen at all). But not so fast. Could you find a festive way to help people enjoy great company, food and drink in a new way? Could you still help them toast to a long-awaited 2021? Think about how you can bring the party to your guests individually or virtually. Are there businesses in your neighborhood who have always held their holiday lunches and happy hours with you but will miss them this year because their employees are working remotely right now? More than ever, they want to make their employees feel appreciated and connected to their work from afar, so promote some holiday bundles that can be delivered to individual employees as a special treat. Do your customers still feel the need for a party – even if it’s not a traditional one? If you don’t have access to a large outdoor space where you are allowed to plan a socially distanced gathering, don’t underestimate the appeal of a virtual party, cooking class, quiz night or wine tasting held via Zoom. It can come together with a menu of festive food, cocktails and party bags for delivery, a few festive or funny Zoom backgrounds and some music.