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Back to the Future: Restaurant Trends After COVID-19

Sep 30, 2020

How will restaurants increase sales and design their spaces in the near future? Through a creative combination of historic and contemporary tools and techniques.

With the US still in the grips of COVID-19, restaurants continue to grapple with ever-changing regulations as well as shifting customer expectations. What does “service with a smile” mean when servers have to wear masks? Is the main restaurant metric still “butts in seats?” How can independent concepts be more nimble and creative to meet their customers’ needs? The solution lies in an inventive mix of classic service models, new performance measures, and the latest foodservice technology.

Low Touch and High Impact

While personal touches in restaurants are limited, restaurants are communicating with their customers in new and creative ways. True Foods Kitchen now prints language on their coasters to tell customers that their table has been freshly sanitized. Other establishments have their staff wear health check stickers dated that day to show their commitment to staff and guest safety.

With so many customers moving to take-out and delivery, restaurants can still provide a personal touch. One idea is to include a checklist completed and signed by the staff member fulfilling that order. Not only does this technique demonstrate the restaurant’s commitment to order accuracy, it also personalizes a typically “faceless” transaction.

Hospitality at its core is about warm and welcoming service. While servers’ smiles are largely hidden for the moment, operators can still make that all-important connection through inventive approaches.

Moving to Sales Per Square Foot

Current limitations on dining room capacity have left operators struggling to effectively utilize their indoor space. Restaurants lucky enough to have access to outdoor seating have moved dining outside, but with winter on the way, the doors to al fresco dining are soon closing.

Operators can now look at their dining room as part service counter and part marketplace. Many restaurants have set up makeshift pick-up stations in their dining room for prepaid online orders. Other ideas include setting up displays of grocery items, packaged sauces, and spice rubs. With the proper hot and cold holding units, operators can turn unused dining space into a mini-market, selling family meal kits, packed sides, hot soups, and marinated proteins. Instead of filling seats, think about filling your dining room with options that provide customer convenience and upsell opportunities.

Though winter is coming, don’t ignore your outdoor space and dedicated parking area for year-round opportunities to increase sales. If possible, dedicate a couple of parking spots for curbside pick-up or 10-minute parking. Consider renting all-weather party tents and freestanding heaters and create four-seasons seating. Designate a section of your parking lot for “dine in your car” opportunities. The goal is to think about your facilities, both indoors and out, and devise more ways for customers to easily do business with you.

Coupling Old-Fashioned Service with New Technology

While no one knows the long-term impact of the pandemic on restaurant size or design, large chains are looking to reinvent future locations with classic and cutting-edge devices. Last month, Burger King released 3-D animated footage of their “restaurant of the future” that visualizes the burger chain’s commitment to flexible ordering, pick-up, and onsite dining.

Food locker unit

Mobile orders are held in a food locker unit reminiscent of an automat, where customers unlock their order cubby through their smartphone. A walk-up window allows guests to place an order and take their food to go without entering the restaurant. Designated curbside pick-up parking spaces integrated with handicapped parking ensures accessibility for all. The restaurant’s exterior design includes several modern touches like solar panels on parking awnings, a living wall, and a kitchen open to visitors in the drive-thru lanes. Kitchen space and flexible indoor/outdoor seating areas “float” over multiple drive-thru lanes allocated to pick-up and order placement with cash and credit card.

Besides restaurant design, the pandemic has forced restaurants to accelerate their thinking about technology. Obviously, the Burger King restaurant of the future will be heavily reliant on an integrated technology system that links POS with inventory management, third-party ordering platforms, and KDS—a solution more easily integrated by large concepts. Independent operators frequently rely on bargain systems with limited integrations, making the integration of a holistic technology solution a big challenge.

Convenience was already a huge restaurant customer trend before COVID-19. Nowadays, convenience has morphed into a critical need. Operators of all sizes must consider a heightened reliance on technology moving forward.

Some Things Never Change

While today’s pace of change has operators’ heads spinning, the core principles of hospitality haven’t changed. Listening to customers and responding to their needs, wants, and expectations will never go away, but the ways restaurants respond and express their commitment is a moving target. Most of all, making it easy for customers to do business with you now takes a village of online and offline branded touchpoints that keep customers engaged, reassured, and coming back.

For more ideas about future restaurant trends and sales tactics, check out our webinar with The Howard Company.