The pandemic has forced even well-established restaurant operators across the industry to think and act like scrappy, new entrepreneurs: flexing to new challenges, doing as much as possible with few resources, keeping overhead low, being willing to reinvent when the circumstances call for it, and even flexing work around other commitments at home. As a result, we’ve seen a rise in ghost kitchens, as well as more home-grown, chef-driven meal-delivery concepts springing up on Instagram. Much like how many employees who have spent the past year telecommuting from home are now resistant to working from an office building full-time, the restaurant industry may emerge differently from the pandemic too. Dining rooms may take time to fill and it may be even more difficult to keep people on staff than it was before. Can you find ways to take the best lessons learned in the past year and apply them in the new environment? At your foundation, minimize the resources you need, including ingredients, real estate and staff. Harness technology to monitor waste in areas as diverse as your inventory, ordering, energy use and labor. Take another look at your pre-pandemic service model and assess whether that is realistic now. Embrace multiple revenue streams and look for new ones that could help you adapt more easily to challenges going forward. Finally, think about how you can continue to act at a grassroots level to keep customers engaged with your menu and brand – from creating rotating dinner subscriptions that you promote on social media to offering meal bundles for delivery to different neighborhoods.
While COVID-19 has expedited a great number of advances for the restaurant industry, it has also forced a notable regression for many operators with regard to packaging. Pre-pandemic, reusable containers and recyclable or compostable packaging had been a key area of focus for restaurants. But concerns about safety, efficiency and cost in the past year have made many operators scale back on those efforts and even revert to the use of plastics and Styrofoam to accommodate off-premise orders. As we emerge from the pandemic, your packaging should be ready to carry some extra weight: It should minimize waste, demonstrate your brand values, steer customer behavior and uphold pandemic-era safety and sanitation precautions at a time when off-premise dining continues to comprise an outsize portion of overall restaurant sales. For example, as Nation’s Restaurant News reports, Just Salad has launched a “zero-waste” reusable bowl packaging option for customers who order online. (The reusable option had been offered for years but not for online orders.) Customers return their bowl to the store for sanitation and reuse. Not only does it save the business on the cost of disposable packaging, but it also elevates the brand’s environmental values: Many consumers want to support the environmentally friendly option when they order food online – if they have such an option and it also preserves safety. In a recent paper from McKinsey & Company about U.S. consumer attitudes towards sustainability in packaging, the company advised operators to keep three tenets in mind regarding packaging: Make sustainable packaging available and apparent to customers, adopt an experimental approach to options and communicate about them clearly, and also bear in mind COVID-19 protections for hygiene and food safety. Does your packaging meet those criteria?
The ghost kitchen segment has plenty of room to grow, with less than 5 percent of restaurants adding delivery from ghost kitchens as an option during the pandemic. These kitchens also boast a range of potential benefits, ranging from improved scalability to decreased overhead costs. After a year in which restaurant operators have been forced to pivot on a daily basis in order to survive, ghost kitchens have become the poster children of flexibility, allowing operators to churn out a rotating range of menu options – often items rarely seen together on a menu – in response to consumer whims. Operators are also uncovering new and often cost-effective places to open ghost kitchens, from college campuses to hotels to really any centrally located space that has a professional kitchen. But just as the pandemic has required the restaurant industry to be flexible in its accommodation of off-premise orders, coming out of the pandemic may require a different kind of flexibility. As this Grub Street report explains, a lot of the magic of eating in restaurants (and the improved quality of the food experienced on-site) just can’t be replicated by the ghosts. While consumers crave convenience, they also appreciate a special experience – communing with others and trying foods they wouldn’t have otherwise considered, which is generally more likely to occur onsite. That may be especially true as people look to make up for lost time after a year spent close to home and away from gatherings (according to a new report from Paytronix and PYMNTS, more than two-thirds of the restaurant food ordered last year was eaten at home). So going forward, whether you’re considering new real estate, kitchen equipment or ingredients, look for flexibility: As you shift your operations to support off-premise sales, consider the potential that you might want to shift back.
As the pandemic has called for people to work, learn, eat and shop from home, attitudes about the best places to live have shifted too. The suburbs and some rural areas have experienced a lift as people have left cramped urban quarters behind. A survey conducted by Zillow last spring found that the rise in remote working was generating a property-buying spike in suburbs and smaller cities. What’s less clear is how temporary that suburban shift will be. As a result, it’s become a bit more difficult for restaurant operators to know who their customers are – and how their preferences may differ from those in pre-pandemic times. Your in-store technology should be providing real-time updates to help you manage business day to day, but it’s important to keep an eye on the larger picture too. Datassential’s Firefly database is one new tool that lets users examine the restaurant landscape in any city or geographical region. It pulls from demographic data including average household income, median age and other factors to help operators get a better sense of how their community is changing – and how they will have to adjust as a result. Overall, the suburban shift has much to offer restaurant operators, including greater flexibility with space, lower costs, and less competition from other chef-driven concepts. A recent report from US Foods says succeeding with
current suburban diners is about offering value and variety, while accommodating their interest in being adventurous.
When you think of top-notch restaurant service, it probably doesn’t look like it did in early 2020. It’s yet another aspect of the restaurant experience that operators have had to reinvent. If you consider your menu alone, your ability to provide the kinds of options customers want is key to providing the kinds of memorable experiences that bring them back. Food trend specialists Innova Market Insights produces an annual report of top 10 trends for the year based on responses from consumers around the world. In their latest report, half of the trends listed are about the need to inform customers about the foods they are eating, explain what health-related benefits they can provide, and offer the option of customizing foods to particular dietary needs and preferences. The research found that 60 percent of global consumers care about where their foods come from – and if they meet key ethical, environmental and clean-label standards. They put their money toward the businesses that meet those standards: 64 percent of consumers surveyed said they have found more ways to tailor their life and products to their individual style, beliefs and needs. They support restaurants that can find ways to bring the restaurant experience home to them with restaurant-branded products, meal kits and sophisticated ingredients to go. And not so surprisingly in a pandemic, consumers are increasingly interested in their immune health and eating foods that meet their individual nutritional needs: 60 percent of respondents are increasingly seeking out food and beverage to support their immune health – with one in three saying their concerns about immune health increased in 2020 over 2019. When you consider your menu, look at it through the lens of consumer transparency and customization. What equipment and cooking processes will enhance not only the taste but also the nutritional value of the food you’re preparing? How can your technology help you proactively select suppliers you’re proud to promote to customers? How can your access to real-time inventory information help you prepare more dishes with fewer ingredients while also adapting to a range of nutritional needs? What special aspects of your menu are specific to your brand and can be packaged up and enjoyed at home?
We’re living in an era of personalization. A whopping 91 percent of consumers are more likely to support brands that provide offers and recommendations that are relevant to them, according to Accenture research. Before the pandemic, restaurant operators might have been able to identify their most loyal guests as they walked in the door. Technology – while important and helpful – wasn’t necessarily critical to keeping track of what loyal guests liked. Now, it’s clear that technology is needed to track customer preferences and deliver the promotions they want when they want them. This will be especially true as ghost kitchens become more common and guests have less face-to-face interaction with brands. But if brand personalization capabilities sound more feasible for the likes of Starbucks or Panera than for smaller independents, look for that to change soon. Brightloom, the new incarnation of Eatsa, the chain of popular fast-casual restaurants that used robots to prepare salads, is now focused on helping smaller businesses slice and dice their data into actionable information that can be used to build personalized marketing campaigns. (The company has some firepower behind it: Brightloom’s CEO came from Starbucks, where he helped develop the brand’s loyalty rewards program, and mobile order and pay capabilities, among other resources.) Competing businesses are developing similar capabilities, so look for tech-driven personalization to become more accessible for all.
Some aspects of restaurant dining have seemed to become ancient history in the pandemic era. Case in point: It’s hard to imagine when the salad bar or buffet line will make a widespread comeback. But the equipment that made those kinds of services possible remains. So, like so many other areas of restaurant service right now, it’s time to reinvent it. Campbell’s has done just that by updating its self-service soup stations: In the current environment, they suggest placing a warming plate over soup wells and then lining up pre-packaged containers of soup for customers to collect, or (as a space-saving solution that also accommodates longer hold times) using a multi-tiered warming cabinet that can also be placed over existing soup wells and holds containers of soup to-go in various sizes. Both options enable easy soup collection by customers. They also allow easy replenishment of product from the back of the house – either by filling the cabinet with additional pre-poured containers of soup stored in a larger enclosed warming cabinet in the back, or by pouring more servings as needed from tureens behind the counter and adding them to the containers awaiting collection by customers. These new solutions from Campbell’s weave in some other benefits related to food safety, waste management and customer satisfaction too. Each soup container can be sealed with a sticker to boost customer confidence in the security of the soup they are about to consume. Further, the containers allow for precise pouring of soup in various sizes to help prevent accidental overpouring. Finally, serving from pre-portioned containers allows you to offer size options beyond the traditional two. Selling a few size options not only appeals to customers, but it can also help you craft new combo promotions to elevate check totals. Check out Foodservice CEO to find out about all the Cambpell’s self serve solutions at https://www.foodserviceceo.com/self-serve-solutions.html
To be sure, the vast majority of restaurant operators wouldn’t want to relive the challenges of the pandemic. But it hasn’t been all bad: The past year has also stripped away the clutter and forced operators to focus on making the kinds of improvements and adaptations that kept business running. As times improve, those changes should become permanent – while other possibilities should be considered with a more wary eye. Here are five key pandemic-era changes to embed in your operation (if they aren’t already permanent): Be transparent with your guests – about the origins of the food you serve and how you protect consumer safety – and make those elements central to your brand. Keep your menu simple to enable you to more flexibly manage your inventory and waste. Harness data to help you stay current about customer preferences, supply-chain challenges and areas of your business that are generating excess costs. Find ways to offer a personal touch while allowing guests to minimize physical contact with surfaces and other people – whether they are using your restroom or paying for their order. Finally, embrace structures that will allow you to be more nimble in the future. That could mean having a real estate footprint that can easily adapt to different service models, or adopting technology that allows you to more easily scale up and scale down your staffing based on changes in the weather.
Throughout the past year, takeout and delivery have occupied a larger part of many consumers’ lives than they did before. Even as we emerge from the pandemic and people return to restaurant dining rooms, expect your customers’ off-premise food habits to persist. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Industry Report, 68 percent of consumers say they are more likely to purchase takeout from a restaurant than before and 53 percent say takeout and delivery have become essential to the way they live. How authentically do your restaurant’s values translate to an off-premise experience? If your business prides itself on treating customers like family and remembering their favorite dishes, are you including a personal note in their to-go bag and using tech to track their orders and feed that data into your loyalty program? If your brand is focused on protecting the environment, are you providing recyclable, compostable or reusable packaging? As restaurants have transitioned to greater tech adoption in the past year, some operators may feel they are losing the personal touch – or the more experiential brand elements that once helped consumers connect with them. But that doesn’t have to be true. While you may be losing face-to-face connections with your customers, you can lean on supporting elements of your brand – like your business background story, staff personalities, service mindset, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, food selection and packaging – and rethink how you communicate them. If a delivery driver dropped off a bag of food from your restaurant to someone who had never visited your restaurant before, what would the person’s impressions of your business be?