Your off-premise business no doubt looks a lot different than it did just a couple of years ago. According to research from NPD Group, off-premise restaurant orders were up 20 percent in September compared to where they were in 2019. But what happens when you’re not only struggling to source key ingredients but also the cups and containers you need to enable your food to get out the door? Ongoing global supply chain challenges have resulted in increased costs and scarcity of these items, with key suppliers having to limit the number of cases restaurant customers can purchase from them. Some major brands are finding alternatives that have fringe benefits. Sara Burnett, who leads sustainability efforts for Panera Bread, told CNBC that the brand had switched to a compostable thermal wrap for their sandwiches – and it happens to use 60 percent less material, is easier to transport and has a smaller carbon footprint. But as the pandemic ebbs, there may be less consumer concern about the need for single-use items – and perhaps an opportunity for restaurant brands to revive the pre-pandemic programs they had in place for reusable containers. As Nation’s Restaurant News reported recently, Tupperware has created reusable packaging for Tim Hortons as part of the brands’ partnership with the zero-waste platform Loop.
Even before the pandemic, the shift from on-premise to off-premise dining was happening. But the pandemic truly accelerated it, and even as people return to restaurant dining rooms now, there is still a way to go before things look the way they did a couple of years ago. To be sure, the trend is especially stark for full-service restaurants – new data from FSR Magazine indicates that in September of 2019, 80 percent of traffic at full-service restaurants was on-premise (compared to 20 percent for carryout), whereas the mix in September of 2021 was 56 percent on-premise, 44 percent carryout. Still, across restaurant categories, an operator needs to make a clear-eyed assessment of their business model in light of current market conditions, then take steps to protect the business for the long term. That means expanding, not limiting, opportunities to serve guests – and resisting the urge to revert back to how you were operating pre-pandemic. Consider new opportunities for catering, particularly as businesses are looking for ways to maintain connections between hybrid workers and clients. Keep communication open with neighboring restaurants and complementary businesses that may be able to pool resources, share staff, or collaborate with you on promotions. Think about how to make it easier and faster for your food to reach guests who want to eat it off-premise, whether that means assessing third-party delivery providers to find the best-possible arrangement, starting an in-house delivery service or using a ghost kitchen.
As much as we all hoped and expected this summer would represent a return to pre-pandemic gathering and eating out, the delta variant has had other plans in store for many parts of the country. Restaurant operators, again, have been put in the challenging position of having to be enforcers of ever-fluctuating state and local regulations – all while continuing to juggle ongoing labor and supply shortages. If you haven’t already, it’s a good time to take a look back at your early-pandemic playbook and identify income streams that might help you weather the current challenges. That could mean posting new products for sale on your website, offering cocktails to-go if allowed in your state, and promoting family-style meal packages for guests who crave your food but aren’t yet comfortable eating out. Consider how your restaurant might adapt to the current situation of local consumers – whether that be a continuation of working from home or the beginning of hybrid work. Try to create stability, wherever possible, for both guests and staff. That could involve sticking with delivery and takeout service only (at least for the time being) or operating on a limited but set schedule. While it may feel like you’re missing opportunities to generate sales, guests and employees alike are likely to value predictability. Your loyalty program may help you here too. Do you want to boost visits on particular days and times? Increase your carry-out business while dine-in business is uncertain? Consider how you can incentivize your most loyal guests to help you keep business humming.
As the pandemic continues, hybrid work arrangements look like they may be here to stay for many – if not most – companies around the country. Global research indicates that 72 percent of corporate leaders plan to offer hybrid models of working. How might your restaurant meet the moment? If your dine-in business lunch traffic continues to be low, could your business find a new way to attract the guests who used to come to you? Panera, for one, has been acting on a new strategy aimed specifically at remote workers. They are offering scheduled group ordering, as well as catering for companies with workers in different places. At a time when companies are trying to navigate how to maintain camaraderie across employee teams that may only see each other for a few days each week in satellite offices, offering a regularly scheduled catered lunch might be an appealing way to make the most of the time employees spend face to face. Or, you could target the large population of consumers working from home. The World Economic Forum said recently that up to 20 percent of the U.S. entire workforce will continue to work from home permanently, up from 5 percent pre-pandemic. If you’re located in an area with condominium complexes where people are apt to be continuing to work from home, offering a scheduled building-wide delivery might enable you to attract lunchtime traffic – even if it’s not in your dining room
Seemingly all restaurant operators have had to adjust how they operate during the course of the pandemic, whether by enabling curbside pickup, designing delivery-friendly menus, redesigning a strip of sidewalk to accommodate tables in any weather, or otherwise. But even as we ease back into more normal conditions, it will likely benefit you to retain many of the changes you have made. For one, make your outdoor dining areas usable year-round with the help of solid structures, sturdy weather-resistant canopies, heat lamps and even those dining bubbles used widely last winter. This is simply about scrutinizing your entire real estate footprint so you are making money from each square foot. Along those lines, try flexing your space to better accommodate carryout and delivery orders during lunch, or offering promotions to remote workers looking for a temporary workspace or snack break during your quiet periods. Your takeout menu is another area that needs to hold strong with foods that travel well, coordinated cocktails and special touches like notes or candies included in the bag. Continue to seek out technology that will help you streamline ordering and payment, minimize lines and turn tables faster. Finally, maintain your efforts to show your commitment to cleanliness. Hand sanitizers should be ready for guests as they walk in your doors – and asking guests to sanitize their hands before they sit can help you show them you care about safety.
According to a recent poll from global data intelligence firm Morning Consult, 59 percent of Americans now say they feel comfortable eating at a restaurant. So as pandemic-related dining restrictions are lifted and consumers look for more in-person dining experiences, where does this leave ghost kitchens? In the near future, some ghost kitchen operators that didn’t start as brick-and-mortar locations may have greater challenges in getting the word out about their brand. Others like C3 are even considering reverse-engineering into small physical locations – how quickly times change. But delivery isn’t going away, and though we can hope there won’t be another pandemic any time soon, business disruptions happen and restaurants need to have plans in place to manage both large and small challenges that arise. Regardless of what portion of sales you generate from off-premise business, the big lesson of the pandemic may be to build a business model that can flex as much as possible – and to adopt the tools that enable quick pivots. For restaurants, that could mean having some kind of customer-facing physical presence (even just a small brick-and-mortar location or food truck) to keep the brand interesting and front-of-mind for consumers, ensuring that every square foot of your real estate footprint is paying for itself, leaning on delivery to scale business up or down in response to a range of conditions, and adopting technology that can help you adjust staffing, inventory and menus on short notice.
Takeout is here to stay (and even if you’re eager to serve a full dining room again, you have reason to be happy about the takeout part). The proof is in the numbers. According to a new survey of more than 2,000 U.S. consumers by Paytronix Systems, 63 percent of the money that U.S. consumers spent on food orders last year was on food eaten at home. Digital channels supported those orders by a large margin: Of the money consumers spent online on food orders, 89 percent was spent on orders placed via desktop websites, mobile apps and aggregator apps. What’s more, the research found that consumers spent 50 percent more on average when they placed orders online for takeout. Paytronix CEO Andrew Robbins says that in 2021, a consumer’s ability to order online, collect orders via a drive-thru or curbside pickup, and earn rewards through loyalty programs will create the most opportunities for restaurants. This makes it all the more critical to be able to use your POS to quickly summon information about what your recipes cost, which menu items deliver the most profitability, and what items a guest has ordered in the past. If your restaurant receives a grant from the American Rescue Plan, consider using it to fine-tune your tech to streamline your takeout so you can suggest the profitable items and combinations that a guest is most likely to crave time and again.
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?
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
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?