One silver lining of the pandemic for the restaurant industry has been how restaurant operators have shown the ability to creatively reinvent themselves – and well beyond the menu. In addition to creating curbside pickup lanes, working from ad hoc kitchen setups and streamlining the ordering process to improve how food is provided to customers, restaurants have expanded their offerings available for purchase. While operators may not need to go as far as selling toilet paper and other household staples as we emerge from the pandemic, it makes sense for them to think broadly about what they can do to generate new revenue streams – whether from guests visiting in person, those at home or even those who live nowhere near the brick-and-mortar business. Is your restaurant known for a special marinade, salad dressing or sauce? Could it develop one that could be sold on your website, in local stores or in larger wholesale forums? Is there other merchandise you could offer to guests who have made your restaurant part of their summer vacation traditions over the years? Could you offer a subscription for meals, desserts or homemade bread in exchange for unlimited coffee or a free glass of wine when the subscriber purchases a meal from you in person? Could you collaborate with a complementary restaurant or unrelated business to create a series of special offers? Tap into your data about customer preferences to better understand what drives your guests to your business. How can you take your most enticing offerings and ensure you’re generating as much business as you can from them?
Restaurant delivery continues to climb: In 2023, the online food delivery market is expected to balloon to $154 billion from $111 billion in 2020, according to Statista. Are you doing all you can to make sure that as many delivery orders as possible are coming to you from customers directly instead of through third-party delivery apps? Your patrons aren’t necessarily seeking out the DoorDashes and GrubHubs of the world – they are simply ordering via the channel that’s most convenient to them. You can make direct orders more convenient (or at least more enticing) for them when they’re ready to place an order. First, make sure your customers know they can find the best food selection and deals if they order directly from you. Limit the menu options you offer via third-party providers to your highest-margin items – and make it clear on your website, search engine listings and social media posts that people can find a wider variety of food options, lower prices and access to limited-time offers by coming directly to you. When they do visit your website, they shouldn’t have to navigate far to where they place an order. Modern Restaurant Management suggests using a pop-up banner with a link (and perhaps a QR code) that directs them to your online ordering page. On that page, encourage them to join your loyalty program so you can continue to reach them with direct and increasingly targeted offers. Finally, make sure your customers know that they can best support you and your staff in challenging times – and help ensure they can keep their favorite dishes coming – if they order from you directly. Include language on your menu, website and on notes placed in third-party delivery bags that says just that.
Consumers are expecting things to be a bit different as a result of the pandemic – and at a time when supplies continue to be short, labor is difficult to find and customer traffic is unreliable, restaurants can use this expectation to their advantage. Many restaurants already are: Take Michelin-rated Eleven Madison Park, which announced it would be reopening as an entirely plant-based restaurant after its closure during the pandemic. As you have managed your restaurant throughout the course of the pandemic, have you come to conclusions about major aspects of your business that need to change in order to preserve the longevity of your restaurant? Would you be better able to stabilize your menu by making it entirely plant-based? Have you always relied on a dine-in customer base but believe this can no longer be your main source (or even a small source) of sales? Do you think you should serve a different demographic of customers than you did before? Are you too reliant on labor shifts – and burdened by the need to provide higher wages and benefits? Now is a good time for reinvention. Identify your primary pain points when it comes to your supplies, staffing, marketing and day-to-day operations management. By changing things that may have needed changing for a long time, you can give yourself a new story to tell customers, refresh your brand and generate renewed interest in it as we emerge from the pandemic.
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
Gift cards are a front-of-mind gift-giving option for a vast number of U.S. consumers. The gift card market is worth more than $160 billion and it has been growing by double-digit margins since 2015 – and gift card purchases have been a means of paying restaurants forward during the pandemic. But according to a new study from Incisiv, restaurants are still leaning on old-school tactics when it comes to managing their gift card sales instead of harnessing the data-driven power they can offer. By better connecting gift cards to loyalty programs, restaurants can capitalize on the special occasions that inspire guests to use these cards – occasions that happen to be predisposed to generating feelings of loyalty. The study advises restaurants fine-tune their approach to gift cards in four areas: First, make gift cards a more frictionless experience for guest and employee alike. That means considering such actions as how to minimize the steps/people involved in processing a transaction, or if you can add a gift card balance to a third-party wallet or loyalty account, for example. Second, make it possible to purchase, transfer, redeem and reload gift cards across all of your purchasing channels. Third, make it more personal – like so much of the experience of dining out, customization of restaurant gift cards helps drive loyalty. Do you offer a range of designs for a range of occasions? Sample messages? Can a giver include a special video message or photo? Finally, make recommendations. Suggesting products based on the occasion and the recipient can help you upsell your cards, as well as generate data that can improve your ability to segment and target your customer base going forward.
It may seem like ghost kitchens have experienced a lot of growth in the past year, but there’s still a long way to go. According to Euromonitor, ghost kitchens could create a $1 trillion global market by 2030. Between now and then, expect a lot of innovation in the space, along with a range of ways for operators to make them a part of their business model. If you’re considering a ghost kitchen as a means of diversifying your sales capabilities, make sure you start from a place of strength when it comes to your digital brand. If you plan to have a scaled down brick-and-mortar presence, you still need a reliable way to get in front of consumers – particularly a strong digital connection, such as an Instagram account that gets regular engagement from followers and a customer database that allows you to segment your mailing list and target guests with informed promotions. On the latter point, operating a ghost kitchen will be most effective if it is set up within a small radius of the customers most likely to buy food from it, so understand the tastes of the surrounding area. If you have the brand connection with customers and you’re close enough to them that you can get their favorite dishes to them shortly after they’re out of the oven, you’re in a good position to succeed – and if you’re sharing your ghost kitchen space with complementary businesses that can enhance your own promotions, all the better.
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.
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?
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.
As the pandemic has called for people to work, learn, eat and shop from home, attitudes about the best places to live have shifted too. The suburbs and some rural areas have experienced a lift as people have left cramped urban quarters behind. A survey conducted by Zillow last spring found that the rise in remote working was generating a property-buying spike in suburbs and smaller cities. What’s less clear is how temporary that suburban shift will be. As a result, it’s become a bit more difficult for restaurant operators to know who their customers are – and how their preferences may differ from those in pre-pandemic times. Your in-store technology should be providing real-time updates to help you manage business day to day, but it’s important to keep an eye on the larger picture too. Datassential’s Firefly database is one new tool that lets users examine the restaurant landscape in any city or geographical region. It pulls from demographic data including average household income, median age and other factors to help operators get a better sense of how their community is changing – and how they will have to adjust as a result. Overall, the suburban shift has much to offer restaurant operators, including greater flexibility with space, lower costs, and less competition from other chef-driven concepts. A recent report from US Foods says succeeding with
current suburban diners is about offering value and variety, while accommodating their interest in being adventurous.