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.
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?
By now, you likely know the approved COVID-recovery playbook for restaurants: Fine-tune your off-premise menu, offer digital ordering, make your pick-ups low-touch, etc. But restaurants aren’t all alike – thankfully – so a cookie-cutter approach to COVID survival and success isn’t going to work for everyone. If this sounds like you, what could work for you? What might inject your business with enough lifeblood to keep it going until spring, when the environment may look a whole lot better for restaurants? A recent New York Times report profiled the Brooklyn restaurant Gertie, which serves updated Jewish-American deli food and has embraced reinvention mode. When the pandemic hit, the restaurant had no takeout or delivery operation – the one thing believed to be a must for operating in these times. So the owners created one. Far from being a saving grace, it was a “dead end.” So instead, the restaurant has focused on nonprofit work – partnering with a range of meal programs around the city that distribute meals to the hungry. Prior to the election, they planned a weekly event designed to boost business while encouraging support for candidates running for office. So far, it’s keeping them going, and they continue to look for ways to reinvent themselves. The environment for restaurants is severe – but money is still flowing in this economy. What organizations in your community could be critical partners for you right now? What causes might inspire your best customers to support you? This isn’t what you’ll be doing forever but it may help carry you through these next few months to a point next year when life feels a bit safer, people want to get out and support restaurants, and yours will be among the ones there to serve them.
The holidays are coming – though they are likely going to look a little different this year, with fewer work gatherings and indoor celebrations filling your dining room every night. But can you still make it a season of goodwill? If you’re looking at a likely downturn in business this year because of capacity restrictions and virus infection upticks, how can you use this time to ensure that you’re still taking care of the customers who can help you come back stronger in 2021? A recent Business Insider report shared the out-of-the-box ideas that Geoff Tracy, the chef owner of several Washington, D.C. area restaurants, has implemented in recent months. He and his teams took on a number of goodwill projects in the early weeks of the pandemic, including offering free car washes for customers and even calling their top-500 loyalty point members and offering to pick up prescriptions, drop off dry cleaning and give rides to doctor’s appointments. To be sure, these aren’t the kinds of tasks his staff signed up for when they started working with him. But the next time Tracy’s customers are looking for a takeout meal – or their first indoor sit-down meal after the pandemic – how could they consider ordering from anyone else? At a time when celebrating looks different, tap into your service mindset. How can you help brighten the day of your best customers? Maybe it’s with a custom meal package created for a loyal guest isolating at home. Maybe it’s something your restaurant has never done before that could supercharge guest loyalty like never before.
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?
Even for an industry used to having to adapt to change, the past several months have forced restaurants to take a crash course in being flexible: Offer curb-side pickup. Adapt your online systems to accommodate curb-side pickups and deliveries. Offer delivery but avoid having to pay steep third-party delivery fees. Create an outdoor dining area. Adapt your indoor dining area. Train your staff on rapidly developing regulations. Adjust your menu to align with people’s changing daily routines and fluctuations in the supply chain. In a Nation’s Restaurant News report, the supervisor of restaurant operations for the south Florida casual dining chain Flanagan’s credits cross-training, as well as data monitoring, with the restaurant’s ability to adapt to the rapidly changing environment in the state. The restaurant has been able to keep many of its employees working by training them to package and deliver food and take phone orders, as well as serve customers arriving for curb-side pickup. As regulations have changed, Flanagan’s has relied on data to help determine how many employees they will need where – if regulations call for their dining room to serve at 25 percent capacity, for example, they can look back at their data and assess how they managed staff and service the last time they were at 25 percent capacity. What are your top tools and practices that help you shift gears when needed?
COVID-19 has turned the employee training rulebook on its head – and it’s a major area of investment among restaurant operators right now. A June survey of senior executives in retail and hospitality found that for 75 percent of respondents, employee training was their highest priority – well above even contactless payment (48 percent). At a time when fluctuations in COVID-19 cases are causing mandates to change at the state and local levels, it’s critical to be able to contact your team (and have them take appropriate precautions) before they even walk through your doors. Can you connect with your staff at a moment’s notice? Before flu season adds to the strains of the past several months, now is the time to assess weaknesses in your communication protocols and ensure everyone on your staff receives alerts about important operational changes promptly – and understands how to adjust to new mandates as needed.