It’s more than just a place that serves food. We enjoy restaurants for the experience, for the pleasure of going somewhere special, and for the sake of spending time out with friends and family. From the humble Chinese buffet to the five-star fine dining experience, we all have our favorites – but the coronavirus pandemic will bring permanent changes to our restaurant experiences.
Some won’t survive, especially local and regional favorites who just didn’t have the dollars to stay closed for months on end. Those that do thrive will have to make big changes if they want to re-open and then stay opened. One thing’s for sure – going to a restaurant will never be the same again.
So what will restaurants look like a year from now? Will it still be the same? Can we still look forward to sitting down at a table with a crowd of friends, ordering pitchers of cold beer from a smiling waitress who calls you “Hun” and sharing bites from each other’s plates? Although the waitress may still call you “Hun,” pretty much everything else is going to be different. Here’s what some of the industry experts have to say about it.
Washington, DC is a great place to start asking questions. Out of all the cities I have visited, this is the one with some of the greatest restaurants, and when I’m there, I never have enough time to visit all the ones I want to try out. Immigrant Food, which celebrates America’s story of immigrants, is a fast-casual advocacy-based restaurant and it is certainly on the agenda for my next visit to the capital. Tea Ivanovic, Communications Manager for Immigrant Food, says “The small business community was deeply affected by the coronavirus. Costs remained high while demand was plummeting, causing many in the hospitality industry to temporarily close their doors. Since no one knows for sure what the ‘new normal’ will look like, our restaurant has had to be creative and adaptive with its business model. For example, our focus will remain on growing our delivery and takeout business, virtual events will be here to stay for a while, and our Engagement Menu, where people can engage directly with immigration-related causes, has moved to a weekly Saturday newsletter. This is a difficult time for the service industry, especially for small restaurant businesses, and we are learning and adapting every day.”
Restaurants have certainly ramped up their sanitation protocols, and that is likely to be a permanent change. Daniel from Standard Restaurant Supply says they have focused much of their business online due to the pandemic. “One trend that has continued from our customers is the buying of cleaners and sanitizers. Many of our cleaning supplies are constantly sold out and when we restock they only last a couple days. I think this likely means we will see increased efforts to keep restaurants clean and sanitized, not only to remove risks related to COVID, but also to make diners more comfortable. While I do think things will calm down, I also believe it is likely that in five years we are going to be seeing restaurants still making an effort to keep things cleaner and more sanitized than they would have a year ago.”
If you can’t go to the restaurant, why not bring the restaurant to you? I’m not just talking about delivery – Hello Cheffy lets you find a chef to cook in your home. Katherine Hunter-Blyden, CEO of Hello Cheffy, has been considering what restaurants will look like post-pandemic for some time. “Mostly I contemplate what the post-COVID 19 dining experience means for chefs,” she says. “Will few of them have jobs? What will happen to them when their unemployment benefits run out?” Katherine says, “The restaurant dining experience will change substantially in the short term. We have heard that many restaurateurs simply cannot operate their brick-and-mortar at the capacity-limiting levels that local governments are asking for. More bluntly, seating patrons at every other table does not generate enough revenue to justify opening in-restaurant dining for many restaurants, especially neighborhood restaurants.”
What about going to those big buffet restaurants and filling up your plate? Will that still be as popular? Not so much, according to Jeff Kear, CEO of Planning Pod, who provides event and venue management online software platforms to restaurants. “Most of our restaurant clients believe that self-serve options like buffets and serve-yourself drink dispensers that are being discouraged during the COVID-19 pandemic will probably be permanently phased out after the pandemic ends. In addition, customers will probably come out of the pandemic more wary of community areas like buffets and it may make more sense revenue-wise to find an alternative to buffet dining based on this reluctance.” Jeff also says that restaurants will need to offer better ventilated areas and more outdoor seating, and “because customers are now acclimated to ordering out from their favorite restaurants, you are likely to see carry-out and delivery options become larger revenue streams moving forward for those customers who have modified their out-of-home dining habits.”
Brian Robben, CEO and founder of Robben Media, sees an exciting, but very different future for restaurants: “The restaurants who thrive post-COVID will become experience-focused venues who serve food. Unless a restaurant has best in class food that can’t be replicated anywhere else, which most places don’t serve, there must be a kicker beyond food to persuade people to go. For example, this could mean a mini-golf course inside a restaurant where you both play and eat. Maybe there’s a breathtaking view over the bay for restaurant goers to experience as they eat their entrees. Or it’s a fancy boat cruise or train ride that serves dinner with the experience. By innovating, restaurants post-pandemic will have a better chance of keeping old customers and winning new ones. The bar has been raised when it comes to going out. It has to be truly exciting or many people will continue to cook at home or get carry-out for the foreseeable future.”
Michael Hammelburger, CEO of The Bottom Line Group, notes that it’s more than just the pandemic that will change the industry. As people become more socially aware, they will be paying a lot more attention to the companies they patronize. “It’s not only the pandemic that an influence changes in the restaurant industry. As a CEO of a startup, I advocate buying from black-owned enterprises to show our support in their struggle for equality and provide meaning to the lives lost in this struggle.” According to Michael, “The restaurant industry has suffered a lot from their closure due to the pandemic and now that protests are happening around the globe to condemn the death of George Floyd and so many other victims, the public is trying to raise the morale of the black community by supporting their livelihood. So it is expected that black-owned restaurants can as well be more patronized during this time due to the recent social events.”
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.