Seemingly all restaurant operators have had to adjust how they operate during the course of the pandemic, whether by enabling curbside pickup, designing delivery-friendly menus, redesigning a strip of sidewalk to accommodate tables in any weather, or otherwise. But even as we ease back into more normal conditions, it will likely benefit you to retain many of the changes you have made. For one, make your outdoor dining areas usable year-round with the help of solid structures, sturdy weather-resistant canopies, heat lamps and even those dining bubbles used widely last winter. This is simply about scrutinizing your entire real estate footprint so you are making money from each square foot. Along those lines, try flexing your space to better accommodate carryout and delivery orders during lunch, or offering promotions to remote workers looking for a temporary workspace or snack break during your quiet periods. Your takeout menu is another area that needs to hold strong with foods that travel well, coordinated cocktails and special touches like notes or candies included in the bag. Continue to seek out technology that will help you streamline ordering and payment, minimize lines and turn tables faster. Finally, maintain your efforts to show your commitment to cleanliness. Hand sanitizers should be ready for guests as they walk in your doors – and asking guests to sanitize their hands before they sit can help you show them you care about safety.
Takeout is here to stay (and even if you’re eager to serve a full dining room again, you have reason to be happy about the takeout part). The proof is in the numbers. According to a new survey of more than 2,000 U.S. consumers by Paytronix Systems, 63 percent of the money that U.S. consumers spent on food orders last year was on food eaten at home. Digital channels supported those orders by a large margin: Of the money consumers spent online on food orders, 89 percent was spent on orders placed via desktop websites, mobile apps and aggregator apps. What’s more, the research found that consumers spent 50 percent more on average when they placed orders online for takeout. Paytronix CEO Andrew Robbins says that in 2021, a consumer’s ability to order online, collect orders via a drive-thru or curbside pickup, and earn rewards through loyalty programs will create the most opportunities for restaurants. This makes it all the more critical to be able to use your POS to quickly summon information about what your recipes cost, which menu items deliver the most profitability, and what items a guest has ordered in the past. If your restaurant receives a grant from the American Rescue Plan, consider using it to fine-tune your tech to streamline your takeout so you can suggest the profitable items and combinations that a guest is most likely to crave time and again.
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.
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?
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.
Of all restaurant segments, fine-dining restaurants have arguably met with the most challenges in the past year as many of their hallmarks – from a sole focus on in-dining-room service, to higher-touch interaction with staff – became safety hazards practically overnight. But like much of the restaurant industry, there are disruptors within it who are transforming the experience of fine dining for the current times. One new concept, dubbed The Finishing Gourmet, aims to replicate the experience of fine dining in a home-based setting. Restaurant Hospitality reports that a former Four Seasons executive chef is part of the team that conceived the business, which includes the in-house delivery and upscale presentation of high-end foods that are ready (or very nearly ready) to be eaten, along with such additions as complimentary steak knives and even a chef’s torch to add the finishing touches to a crème brulée. The foods are intended to be delivered contactless and, unlike a meal kit, may require just a few minutes of cooking by a home chef (to sear a steak, for example). If your business once relied on in-dining-room service and prided itself on its human touch, how can you offer those benefits to people at home? Taking cues from catering businesses and meal-kit companies may help you identify new hybrid approaches to recreating the experience of dining in your restaurant – or delivering something close to it.
The winter weather will mean customers will be more apt to lean on restaurant delivery – and third-party delivery apps – to get the food they crave. But as a recent New York Times article reported, “restaurants have quickly found that the apps, with their high fees and strong-arm tactics, may be a temporary lifeline, but not a savior.” That’s especially true when an app can charge fees surpassing 30 percent per order and take customer data along with them. In 2021, how can you set yourself up to encourage your customers to come to you directly when they want to order from your restaurant? If you can’t divert waitstaff to delivery duty, use a third-party provider as a courier service only (which typically involves paying a payment processing fee and delivery fee but not losing any customer data), or make it more appealing for guests to collect their orders. In every bag to be collected by a third-party vendor, include a coupon good for a pickup discount – along with an explanation about how third-party fees are impacting restaurants right now. Offer rotating specials that are only available through orders placed via your website. Finally, use your social media and website to directly urge customers to come to you. Reinforce how much they will save on fees by simply collecting an order from you or (if possible) having you deliver it to them directly. Explain the difference side by side and tell them how much money your business makes or loses depending on how an order is placed – sometimes a consumer’s decision to use an app is not a conscious one and the person just needs to be reminded of how you’re feeling the difference. Your customers have surely seen some of their favorite restaurants close in recent months – and they want to see you survive and thrive. Tell them how to place orders that can best support you right now.