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.
Like constant change? Probably not. Even for those who are more comfortable with change, the past year has likely forced too much of it. But what if you could adjust your mindset and your business so that you could better weather, anticipate and (perhaps) even welcome change? A September TD Bank survey of 250 restaurant operators around the U.S. aimed to take the pulse of the industry and find out what strategies have worked for restaurants that have managed to succeed in such a tumultuous year. Three key findings emerged: Off-premise sales are critical and restaurants need to be able to accommodate them (particularly via such consumer conveniences as mobile ordering and delivery). Payment methods including mobile, online and contactless are helping restaurants encourage consumer confidence. Finally, many of the traditional physical characteristics of restaurants are changing to accommodate drive-thrus and pick-up areas, shift to ghost-kitchen formats and decrease overall footprints. So how can this information help restaurants set themselves in a more powerful, less reactionary position for the future? First, scrutinize your off-premise menu and sales to ensure they are practical and profitable. Then adjust. Get comfortable trying new ideas regularly – it will not only help you see what works and what doesn’t, but it will also give you something new to promote to customers. Next, evaluate your payment methods: Do they help you limit face-to-face interactions with customers and also enable you to expedite payment and get a faster, clearer picture of your sales? Finally, take advantage of this time of disruption. Look for new partners and investors, and talk to bankers, landlords and suppliers to identify opportunities to secure more beneficial arrangements.
Restaurant operators are natural creatives, but who would have thought that the past year would have required so much creativity – less for planning special events and more for just figuring out how to keep business afloat? The past year has hit caterers especially hard – and required near-constant reinvention across the hospitality sector. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s likely that restaurant operators will continue to need new operating models and diverse streams of income to fortify themselves going forward. How can you make your business as nimble and adaptable as possible for the long haul? It might involve converting or scaling down your existing real estate for new purposes. Perhaps you can convert your food truck into a door-to-door meal delivery service. Or your former events business into a smaller specialty meal-and-dessert service for virtual meetups. Have a team with big personality and ideas? Create a series of YouTube videos that feature them showing viewers how to throw a festive dinner party at home – and offer a corresponding dinner-and-wine kit available for purchase. Becoming a more nimble operation may involve simply adopting technology to help fine-tune your inventory management, minimize waste and manage labor. Returning to business as usual shouldn’t be a long-term plan for any restaurant business, so what incremental changes can your business make this year to create new revenue streams and cushion against future challenges?
“I don’t have restaurants anymore; I have websites.” That’s what Mike Friedman, chef at the Washington, D.C. Italian restaurant Red Hen, told Eater recently. Last summer, Friedman and his partners at Red Hen and two additional restaurants didn’t feel safe bringing guests back indoors to dine – even when it was allowed – and they instead reinvented their business model to fit the times. That has meant making food that practically generates its own online content. On a rotating basis, the partners launch new pop-up concepts around different regions of Italy and offer food and wine from that region for takeout and delivery. The regularly changing pop-ups create new content for their social media and email newsletter. (What guest wouldn’t want to check out how they are integrating Sicilian citrus into their menu or what red wine will be paired with their Tuscan-themed pop-up?) In the current environment when guests aren’t coming to dine inside your restaurant, can you flip the script and make your website, social media and newsletter create the kind of vibe and excitement around your food that you once thought could only be experienced onsite? The benefits of rotating pop-ups include being able to use a simple, scaled-down menu for a set period of time, having ongoing reasons to get in touch with your customers and promote what you’re doing on a regular basis, and securing a steady stream of customers. You can entice customers with new options – and convince them to order from you now, before their current favorites rotate off the menu.
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.
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.
This year has been a frightening rollercoaster ride for restaurants – and while 2021 shows glimmers of improvement, we’re surely going to experience more twists and turns between now and recovery. But restaurants can also play an important role in shaping what’s to come. Recent research from McKinsey & Company said that to survive COVID-19, most restaurants will need a redesign – both in terms of their physical layout and business structure. If you’re planning to scale down your hours this winter or close altogether in anticipation of a stronger reopening in the spring, how can you use that down time to your advantage? Can you reconfigure your interior and exterior space to accommodate streamlined food pick-ups? Now is the time to, at the very least, create new systems that allow you to keep a finger on the pulse of your business every day (ask us how we can help). Ideally, that means adopting analytics and automation capabilities. They will help you manage inventory, monitor your equipment and energy use, provide contactless pickups, manage labor fluctuations, anticipate customer preferences – all of the critical capabilities you will need to succeed as we push through this difficult period.
Recently the long-anticipated “second wave” of COVID-19 cases was spurring an indoor dining ban in Chicago, leading to talk of heightened restrictions in the U.S., and bringing back lockdowns in Europe. At a time when COVID fatigue has set in and we’re all eager to congregate again, restaurant operators are in the difficult and pretty impossible position of being arbiters of public safety. Unfortunately, the colder air will make virus transmission even easier than it has been to date: As reported in the Oregonian, Dr. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago medical school said colder air is drier and the droplets that transmit the virus become smaller – so removing masks to eat and drink poses extra safety risks. Instead of pouring your creativity and resources into building a safer outdoor dining area to sustain you in the months ahead, you will likely be better served by going all-in on perfecting your off-premise offerings right now. Think back to how you operated in the early weeks of the pandemic and focus on doing those things again and better. People may be less comfortable eating out for the next several months but they will still need to eat – and the public has become more educated about the low risk of COVID transmission on packaging. Your off-premise menu can help bring some festivity and normalcy to life in these strange times.
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.
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.