In 2020, even Daniel Boulud has needed to be creative about finding new sources of financial support. Bloomberg reports that Boulud, who just opened a temporary restaurant in New York City, accepted luxury-product sponsors ranging from a coffee company to a vineyard to help fund the renovation of his new Mediterranean-style dining room and staff uniforms. Granted, Boulud has strong name recognition and a high-end clientele to his benefit. But his story is an example of how a community – whether that be neighborhood patrons, businesses serving a similar demographic, or large corporations that rely on a strong local economy – can come together to support restaurant businesses in recovery. This year has forced restaurant operators to think beyond conventional boundaries. As businesses look to find a sustainable path to recovery, there may be opportunities to partner with others to help pave the way. Could you solicit sponsorships from local companies to help make needed improvements at your business – and look for ways to credit them (and promote their products) both within your restaurant and on your online platforms? Could you contact organizations your restaurant has donated to in the past to encourage them to place orders with you? Are there any opportunities to partner with other restaurants who lack suitable outdoor space and open a winter-time outdoor dining area offsite? Communities need local businesses to thrive. What people and organizations can help you stay the course?
At a time when operators have been struggling to make delivery profitable, curb-side pickup has solved some problems. Consumers like it too: Recent Technomic research found that about 40 percent of Americans who have purchased takeout from a restaurant during the pandemic have chosen curb-side pickup and two-thirds of those respondents say they will continue to use curb-side pickup service even after indoor dining restrictions are lifted. The challenge is that many restaurants offering curb-side pickup created the structure on the fly as the pandemic created the need for it. As a result, the service may not be as seamless as it could be. A recent Restaurant Dive report describes operator challenges such as difficulty managing the high volume of calls from customers placing orders and arriving to pick them up. Busy periods have also made it difficult for operators to notice when a particular make and model of car arrives to pick up food. A mixture of new technology and more conventional reconfigurations can help streamline the process. For example, some online ordering platforms – Olo is one – offer alerts that let restaurant staff know when a curb-side customer has arrived. QR codes or textable numbers can also be posted on signs in designated parking spots outside the restaurant to alert staff inside to the arrival of a customer. Other operators are making new use of interior space once needed for guests dining inside – by redesigning waiting areas as places where curb-side orders can be held at the right temperature and ready to be handed off quickly to an arriving customer.
No question, the restaurant landscape will look a lot different once we emerge from the pandemic. Technomic estimates that 20 to 25 percent of independent restaurants won’t reopen. It’s easy to dwell on the sad realities of losing these businesses, but what if this period is what is required to usher in an industry transformation that many restaurant operators and employees would argue is long-needed? In a recent Eater report, two dozen restaurant leaders were asked to predict what the industry might look like in five years. Many of them see reasons for optimism – but first, they say some broken systems need to be overhauled when it comes to employee compensation, food transparency, consumer education about the true cost of food, management of the supply chain, and changes to the ownership structure of restaurant businesses. In the meantime, what’s clear is that consumers’ demand for restaurant meals won’t diminish – and as the Washington Post reports, new service formats like ghost kitchens are actually experiencing significant growth right now to meet that demand. While the experience of dining on restaurant food may well change in the coming months in years, perhaps the range of new restaurant businesses that emerge from this period will serve as incubators for fresh ideas on making the industry work more sustainably for all.
Fall is the season of preparation. What can you do now to keep business steady through the winter? In Chicago, no stranger to frigid winters, IDEO, BMO Harris Bank and the Illinois Restaurant Association partnered to launch the Winter Dining Challenge, which invites Chicagoans to suggest creative ways that the city’s restaurants can transform their on-premise dining areas to comfortably serve guests through the winter. (The selected ideas will be announced in late September and each winner receives $5,000 and the opportunity to develop their idea at a restaurant or bar.) If your menu and service model are a fit for takeout, double down on your efforts to offer seamless curbside pickup and, ideally, in-house delivery this winter. That includes ensuring your menu travels well, is profitable, is easy for customers to order via your website or app, can be prepared quickly and efficiently in your kitchen, and is packaged in a way that protects both the safety and quality of the food. Or…you might step back altogether. Some operators are considering closing their doors during the winter months. This option may suit operators that are not only financially able to hibernate for a few months but are also used to doing a robust business for holiday parties and groups that won’t be gathering in large numbers this winter. While the loss may be too large for some operators to manage, taking a break may provide a rare opportunity to renovate dining rooms for a new way of operating, make overdue repairs and upgrades, and revamp menus, technology, staffing plans and promotions for a grand reopening in the spring.