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.
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?
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?
When you think of top-notch restaurant service, it probably doesn’t look like it did in early 2020. It’s yet another aspect of the restaurant experience that operators have had to reinvent. If you consider your menu alone, your ability to provide the kinds of options customers want is key to providing the kinds of memorable experiences that bring them back. Food trend specialists Innova Market Insights produces an annual report of top 10 trends for the year based on responses from consumers around the world. In their latest report, half of the trends listed are about the need to inform customers about the foods they are eating, explain what health-related benefits they can provide, and offer the option of customizing foods to particular dietary needs and preferences. The research found that 60 percent of global consumers care about where their foods come from – and if they meet key ethical, environmental and clean-label standards. They put their money toward the businesses that meet those standards: 64 percent of consumers surveyed said they have found more ways to tailor their life and products to their individual style, beliefs and needs. They support restaurants that can find ways to bring the restaurant experience home to them with restaurant-branded products, meal kits and sophisticated ingredients to go. And not so surprisingly in a pandemic, consumers are increasingly interested in their immune health and eating foods that meet their individual nutritional needs: 60 percent of respondents are increasingly seeking out food and beverage to support their immune health – with one in three saying their concerns about immune health increased in 2020 over 2019. When you consider your menu, look at it through the lens of consumer transparency and customization. What equipment and cooking processes will enhance not only the taste but also the nutritional value of the food you’re preparing? How can your technology help you proactively select suppliers you’re proud to promote to customers? How can your access to real-time inventory information help you prepare more dishes with fewer ingredients while also adapting to a range of nutritional needs? What special aspects of your menu are specific to your brand and can be packaged up and enjoyed at home?
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?
The pandemic has put restaurant packaging under a magnifying glass. That will only increase this winter, with fewer (if any) dine-in guests in your restaurant. Your packaging is what ensures the experience of eating your food is as good at a distance as it is in your dining room. Is yours up to the task? The materials you’re using – as well as your to-go menu – should be adjusting to the times. If items your restaurant is known for don’t travel well – like burgers and fries – make new packaging a priority. While the pandemic has posed seemingly endless challenges for the restaurant industry, it has also sparked innovation – including the development of new packaging options (along with new uses for existing packaging, like paella being delivered in pizza boxes). Eco-friendly options are on the rise right now – and will likely again be more of a consumer demand as we emerge from the pandemic, which has caused many restaurants to return to plastic and Styrofoam packaging for the short term. If you’re making packaging changes right now, consider packaging made from biodegradable materials or easily renewable sources like bamboo, as this report from Stylus explains. As the distribution of the vaccine makes life feel safer, you may also be able to return to reusable containers that guests can return and refill. A recent McKinsey report said post-pandemic, packaging companies will need to think about three requirements going forward: sustainability, hygiene and effective direct-to-consumer design. Restaurants should have a growing number of packaging options available to help them perfect the off-premise experience.
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.
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.
If your restaurant has pivoted to mostly takeout service in recent months, you may long for the days when you were serving attractively plated meals. But since takeout is here to stay, can you find a better way to present your off-premise meals? Offering durable reusable containers may help you – and may also help ease your customers’ guilt about the mountain of takeout containers and utensils they have likely accumulated from their favorite restaurants this year. (The Washington Post recently reported the troubling statistic from National Geographic that the U.S. uses more than 36 billion disposable utensils annually – an amount which, if laid end to end, would circle the world 139 times.) Not only is serving food in reusable containers more eco-friendly and budget-friendly if used in the long term – it’s more appealing to customers than eating out of cardboard or from an unrecyclable plastic container that has to then be tossed in the garbage. It also provides an additional means for restaurants to demonstrate (and market) to customers that they are taking steps to minimize their impact on the environment. This Fast Company report mentions Dispatch Goods as one company that is offering a reusable container service that, for a small additional fee, allows customers to set their takeout containers outside in a reusable bag for pickup, cleaning and later reuse by the restaurant. Companies like this are becoming more common and cost-effective for restaurants. Could the model work for you?