For a while, meal kits and semi-prepared meals offered by grocery stores and online foodservice businesses were considered offerings that could eat away at restaurant sales. But the pandemic has altered that perception, with more restaurants experimenting with new ways to prepare, package and sell high-quality meals that can be completed at home – and are likely a cut above what a person could pick up from their grocery store. This winter, offering variations on the meal kit could provide a reliable income stream for you when winter weather and illness makes it less appealing for people to dine out. According to research shared in a report from The Rail, 41 percent of guests would buy a make-at-home meal kit from their favorite restaurant. Further, 90 percent of meal kit users refer others to the service they subscribe to – so if you execute your kit well, your chances of gaining more business are good. Kits are also a powerful means of developing traction on social media: After all, if you make it possible for someone to prepare an eye-catching, restaurant-quality meal at home, that person is going to want to show off their perceived culinary skills to friends.
Shortages of to-go packaging rank among the top supply concerns for restaurant operators right now. Prices, accordingly, have increased along with the shortages: A 2021 operator survey by Datassential found that 72 percent of respondents said the price of their takeout packaging had climbed significantly. Adding to the challenge is that some regions are cracking down on the use of packaging materials like Styrofoam, all while consumers are also taking greater notice of restaurant packaging and supporting brands that have managed to find environmentally friendly solutions to the problem. (One case in point: apps like Jybe, which enables consumers to search specifically for restaurants that are making Earth-friendly packaging choices.) Could this year be the year your restaurant gets into reusable packaging options? Increasingly, it’s becoming a feasible alternative for large multinational brands and smaller independents alike. For example, Restaurant Hospitality reports that in addition to Burger King testing reusable Whopper containers and Starbucks testing a cup-rental option, small chains like Tiffin in Philadelphia are offering delivery containers that can be returned to a delivery driver on a subsequent order. Other smaller operators are partnering with the growing number of third-party suppliers offering food and drink containers that can be used, returned and reused.
At a time when restaurants may be struggling to get consumers to come out to eat, pop-up restaurants have many things going for them: They often incorporate fun, surprising, or novel concepts; they generate excitement and increase the potential for viral, time-sensitive sharing on social media because they are designed to be temporary; and they’re low-risk outlets for experimentation. As a result, they also happen to be made for the moment: Supply-chain challenges are limiting what chefs have on hand week to week and pushing them to pivot quickly and be all the more creative in their recipe development and presentations. The rise of ghost kitchens – and even chefs preparing meals out of their home kitchens – is making it possible for operators to test new ideas and cuisine combinations in lower-risk environments. The novelty of what restaurants can offer through pop-up concepts can also provide the promise of a memorable experience – an incentive consumers may need when meal-kit companies and grocery stores are offering options that make it easier to eat meals at home. Could your business try a pop-up concept – whether as a brick-and-mortar location or as a short-term takeout or delivery option? Consider how a pop-up concept might help you create an additional income stream or test what menu innovations guests respond to.
In surveys Datassential conducted in June, consumers showed a commanding preference for purchasing meals to go/pick up over both delivered food and meals eaten in a restaurant. For limited-service and full-service restaurants, an average of 63 percent of consumers preferred meals to go, while 36 percent preferred delivered food and 41 percent opted for sit-down meals in a restaurant. As you continue to assess your to-go menu options, consider new consumer preferences and how well your menu can flex to accommodate them. For one, consumers are placing greater focus on their health right now. Older adults who have been in isolation, as well as others concerned about finances or struggling to juggle the demands of work and home life during the pandemic, may have been over-relying on comfort foods. Promoting fresh produce, healthy proteins and high-fiber grains can help generate business as both restaurants and consumers look for ways to get back on track in the coming months. Datassential found, for example, that dishes like vegetarian turmeric-cauliflower and quinoa were popular choices for both to-go and delivery customers. At the same time, it’s wise to continue to cater to groups too, as people reconnect with family and friends this summer but may not yet be comfortable eating in a restaurant. Datassential found that family-style feasts are still getting a lot of support on to-go menus right now, with pizza and pasta dishes, as well as sandwich bundles, being among the most popular choices.
Many operators are reworking their business models right now in an effort to keep business going while people are quarantined. Even restaurants that are providing meals through takeout and delivery are branching out and offering a menu of meal boxes that contain various combinations of seafood, meat, produce and appetizers. This approach can tick a number of boxes (and it is the first item suggested in a recent report from FSR Magazine about tactics restaurants should be implementing right now): Meal boxes allow operators to sell larger packages of food at higher price points and with fewer customer interactions, appeal to couples or families who are quarantined together and crave quality meals, help keep suppliers going in these unstable times, demonstrate a restaurant’s values and brand, and reinforce connections with customers. At the UK-based restaurant Little French, operators are offering boxes full of local fruit and vegetables that promote their support of local suppliers, as well as boxes of various cuts of meat and seafood – along with a recipe – to demonstrate the care they put into the preparation of their menu ingredients. To sweeten the deal, they sell home-baked bread, suggest different bottles of wine that complement each box, and offer other specialty items like olive oil, vinegars, cured meats and olives. For those looking for an interactive cooking experience – or a little help with restaurant-style preparation – the restaurant’s chef will be posting videos of himself preparing dishes that use the ingredients in each box. How can you box up the best parts of your brand to keep business flowing right now?
Reusables are on the rise, if the latest news from McDonald’s and Starbucks is any indication. The brands are backing a pilot program called the NextGen Cup Challenge, which involves developing reusable plastic cups with trackable QR codes or RFID chips. Bloomberg reports that the cups are intended to be returned by customers, cleaned and then reused in an effort to take a large bite out of the billions of plastic-lined paper cups discarded by customers of the two brands each year. Is there opportunity for returnable, reusable cups, plates and utensils in your operation? A number of brands – large and small – are providing models for how it can be done. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that the 40-unit fast-casual brand Just Salad has offered a reusable bowl program for close to 15 years – guests who choose their reusable bowls get a free topping on their salad each time. (The brand recently launched a sustainability initiative that rivals those of much larger brands.) It remains to be seen if such incentives will become necessary as restaurants offer more reusable items. Other chains are taking different approaches: The Counter reports that the fast-casual brand Dig, which estimates that 80 percent of its business is take-away, recently launched a program called Canteen. Enrolled guests install a smartphone app and pay $3 each month for a hard reusable bowl that they can return to Dig for washing (and subsequent refilling).
Has your restaurant resolved to use less plastic in 2020? It seems everyone has some plastic guilt nowadays – and there are businesses cropping up to help operators replace plastic and also find new uses for the plastic that already exists. Take Riegel Linen, which was among eight companies to win Restaurant Technology News’s “Restaurateurs’ Choice Award for Environmental Good” competition. The company, which makes linens for a range of industries, found a way to integrate leftover plastic bottles into its textiles. Riegel Linen collects, sorts and inspects plastic bottles, then sterilizes and dries them before crushing them into chips, Restaurant Technology News reports. Once melted down, the material is made into a new fiber that Riegel Linen uses to make napkins and tablecloths. Its RieNu napkins are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled polyester.
Looking for alternatives to plastic for off-premise food packaging? Increasingly, it’s coming from plants. Corn is currently being used for plastic alternatives ranging from straws to containers, but according to a report in Scientific American, the disposal of the material poses challenges, along with leaving an environmental footprint. It is compostable and not recyclable, so if not sent to an industrial facility where it can biodegrade, the process can take between 100 and 1000 years (versus just a few months). Still, other promising and more easily biodegradable plant-based plastics are being developed from materials ranging from cactus to algae. Some are even designed to eliminate waste altogether. The Spoon reports that the startup Decomer is developing a plant-based capsule containing honey. It can dissolve in coffee, tea, or other liquids at a wide range of temperatures.
Now that Uber Eats is testing a “Dine-In” feature on its app, expect other third-party delivery providers to follow suit. The feature allows a person to order food at a restaurant, track the process of its preparation so she can arrive at the restaurant in time to eat it, and also leave a tip. The benefits to restaurants could include having to pay a smaller fee to the delivery provider than would be required for third-party delivery, faster table turnover, and the opportunity to offer deals that could attract dine-in guests during slow periods. It remains to be seen how accurate the app’s food preparation tracker will be at peak periods, but if you’re struggling to fill seats, it might offer an opportunity to entice guests to come in and sit down.
At a time when restaurant businesses are feeling pressure to identify new revenue streams, the CIO of Mattson, a food and beverage innovation firm based in Silicon Valley, says many operators are missing out on a potentially lucrative opportunity: meal kits. Barb Stuckey of Mattson told Restaurant Dive that she has long been urging operators to take a look at offering the kits to at least determine if they make sense financially or operationally, but few are following through, save for perhaps Chick fil-A. The brand tested meal kits to positive results last year, according to Forbes, though they haven’t announced future plans for them. Stuckey likes the kits because she thinks they can help operators attack some of the quality-control issues they may experience with delivery. For instance, kits may be worth a shot if you have menu items that could do well off-premise but may not travel as well when they are fully cooked (like fries and sandwiches). Or, if you have brisk lunchtime traffic, promoting the kits during lunch may help you sell to guests who want to sort out their dinner plan in advance. At least, the category could help restaurants tap into a less saturated segment that is ripe for reinvention. According to Packaged Facts said, meal kit market expansion in the future is likely to rely more on alternative purchasing venues than on the traditional subscription model, which can clash with the on-demand mentality of off-premise customers. Restaurants can provide that on-demand experience.