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.
No doubt, the past year has been more difficult for restaurants than we care to think about. But the turning of foodservice on its head hasn’t been completely bad. In fact, it has opened some doors – particularly for nimble, entrepreneurial operators who have a knack for posting enticing food photos on social media and the ability to use tech to set up ordering and delivery. As the New York Times reported recently, there has been an explosion of inventive take-out food concepts on Instagram lately as foodservice operators have begun promoting small, rotating, deliverable menus on the platform – and with success. Some of these concepts are based on ideas that chefs have dreamed of trying for some time, but others are simply a temporary means of keeping money flowing in to pay employees, cover rent and essentially stay in business in some form until the pandemic winds down. Some chefs are even working out of simple home kitchens. Whether you’re in the position to try pop-up concepts like this or not, they are evidence of the newly stripped-down list of resources a restaurant truly needs to function, which are important to remember for the long term. Operating a restaurant is no longer about real estate but about being able to reach your customers where they are – and using the range of tools at your disposal to help. First, focus on making it easy and fast for customers to order from you online. Think about how you can profitably get food to customers – whether by aligning with a third-party vendor, offering a scheduled weekly drop-off of food (ready to eat right away or freeze), or even just making curbside pickup more appealing. Mix up your menu and promote the changes online – when you rotate new items through on a regular basis, you give your customers a reason to look for your updates each week and you naturally create new reasons to post those updates on your social media, website and email newsletter. Finally, take food photos that sing. You can do this on your mobile phone – just opt for warm, natural light, use a reflector or simply a light piece of paper to soften shadows, use color and contrast to make the food pop in the image, and add some simple decorative (or brand-specific) elements to elevate viewers’ perceived experience of eating your food.
Team Four’s corporate chef identified the rise of food halls as a trend to watch in 2020, and for good reason: There are many significant food hall projects under development throughout the US and worldwide right now, the ones in operation have a strong track record of success (only three projects have failed of the more than 100 that have opened across the U.S.), and they offer low-risk, potentially high-reward environments for restaurant operators looking to take part. If you’re considering adding food halls to your restaurant marketing plan, Touchbistro says they offer a number of benefits and can reduce the substantial risks of opening a new restaurant, such as lower startup costs, shared maintenance expenses, shared infrastructure and shorter, more flexible contracts than you would have to agree to when signing for a conventional restaurant space. Newly added restaurants can hit the ground running in a food hall, benefitting from pre-existing foot traffic and fewer up-front marketing costs. Just bear in mind that a food hall experience may challenge your brand and require you to adapt your existing menu, service approach and marketing efforts. For instance, when you’re one stall in a crowded food hall, the experience of eating your food may feel different for guests than it would in a standalone restaurant – and the hundreds of options and long queues for food can cause overwhelm for some. How can you make your food memorable and your customer experience positive when your surroundings may be beyond your control?