The COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous effect on every facet of the restaurant industry, from logistics and supply chain to kitchen hygiene protocols to customers' attitudes around safety. For those willing and ready to make a few changes to day-to-day restaurant operations, this can be a time of opportunity.
Countries like China, South Korea, Italy, and Japan are coming out from under lockdown orders, and we can look to them to understand the new changes they have implemented. In the U.S., many states have started a gradual reopening of restaurants while adhering to social distancing measures that ensure the safety of their staff and customers.
Social distancing measures
Day-to-day restaurant operations will have to take into account various social distancing policies and procedures. In China and South Korea, some restaurants have installed glass or plastic barriers on tables to maintain social distancing in dining rooms. In the U.S., many restaurants are at 50% capacity or less, with tables placed at least 6 feet apart from each other. Additionally, guests sitting face-to-face must be at least 6 feet apart. Some restaurants have gotten quite creative with their social distancing measures. For example, a cafe in Germany provides customers with hats that have pool noodles attached to encourage physical distancing, while a restaurant in Maryland put inflated tubes around tables.
Implementing and communicating new hygiene guidelines for kitchen and dining room
China's strict social distancing measures were found to be successful in reducing the rate of transmission, allowing the government to reopen restaurants and businesses safely. For instance, some fast-food chains require staff members to take their temperatures when they arrive to work. Staff must also wash their hands at least once every hour. Other restaurants have outlined new hygiene policies and contactless guest experience, and have placed hand sanitizers at condiment stations, hallways, and other high-traffic areas.
The CDC has implemented a set of guidelines as well as a decision tree that helps restaurants navigate the reopening process while adhering to social distancing and hygiene guidelines. Communicating new hygiene guidelines is vital to instilling customer confidence; restaurants should share updated safety protocols across their website, social media, and with physical signs on the restaurant premises. Customers will be looking for guidance from the CDC as well as state and local governing authorities to decide whether to venture out or not. Widely communicating that stringent and hygienic practices are being implemented will be key to ensuring that the customer base returns with confidence.
New (and varying) government regulations
These recent safety measures seen in restaurants are likely to become mandatory government regulations going forward in the near term. Restaurants need to keep in mind that rules and regulations vary by country, state, and even city. For example, although the state of Florida began rolling out reopening measures at the beginning of May, the city of Miami opted to apply a stricter reopening plan that will take place several weeks later. In the U.S., an understanding of the state and regional trends in reopening plans will be necessary to anticipate how to adapt and respond. Statistical modeling has shown which states are best positioned for a robust but safe reopening within the restaurant industry.
Customers will expect strict hygiene practices
With social distancing and other hygiene measures in place over the last several months, customers will be more aware of a restaurant's efforts to ensure a safe dining experience. Having employees practice frequent sanitizing of high-contact areas such as tables, entryways, menus, and condiment areas will boost customer perceptions of cleanliness. Customers also may prefer ordering devices that can be easily cleaned with sanitizing wipes compared to traditional paper menus. Moreover, online ordering and off-premise dining will continue to become more commonplace so that customers can reduce the amount of contact with people.
The National Restaurant Association has provided guidelines that offer safety measures to protect both customers and employees. While many of these measures were already in place before the pandemic, day-to-day restaurant operations must include these additional recommended steps to instill customer confidence.
Changes in food trends
Salad bars and buffets were an important part of the restaurant landscape before the pandemic, but due to the new guidelines, popular self-serve options have been effectively shut down. Pre-made salads or salads made-to-order may be appealing ways to satisfy the craving for fresh foods, as long as customers trust that restaurants follow the proper safety procedures. As time goes on, restaurants may bring back hot bars and salad bars, but they will likely use servers to provide the food from behind a counter instead of self-serve options.
While takeout and delivery food are often associated with more fast-casual restaurants, high-end food delivery is on the rise. Foodies and aficionados of gourmet cuisine are craving their favorite chef-prepared meals with all the fine dining accouterments that they were accustomed to before the pandemic. These fine dining takeout and delivery meals are a great opportunity for those establishments nimble enough to pivot to this new niche.
Other trends that have seen success among fine-dining restaurants include a pared-down menu with fresh ingredients from local farms. Using a simplified menu that changes daily or weekly, and offering drive-through, pickup, and contactless delivery options are becoming increasingly popular strategies for many restaurants—even those with Michelin stars.
Online ordering technology
Online food delivery is predicted to be the primary revenue source for restaurants in rebound mode. Contactless ordering will continue to increase. Web platforms, mobile apps, customization, and one-click ordering will continue to play an important role whether customers purchase to-go items, pick up, or delivery from their favorite restaurant. Smart speaker technology will also be implemented to order food or make reservations, and voice recognition software will be incorporated into online food delivery platforms.
Restaurants are a critical piece of our society and culture, and the industry will bounce back from this difficult time. Keeping track of evolving consumer and industry trends while preparing for what's next will help you take advantage of new opportunities for growth.
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