Originally posted by the National Restaurant Association.
Congress has passed a $900 billion relief bill to provide short-term economic relief to the country in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The bill includes a second round of access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) with unique provisions to assist the restaurant industry.
Provisions in the new bill that will benefit restaurants include:
PPP second draw – 100% forgivable loan
Restaurants can access 3.5x payroll
Greater flexibility in accepted uses of PPP loans – including inventory costs
Expanded Employee Retention Tax Credits (ERTC)
Long-term extension of Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC)
Business meal deduction expanded to 100% for next two years
Enhancements to other critical SBA lending programs
The Holiday Season is here! Learn about some of our favorite products you can use to create a delicious holiday menu with ease. Click the link to download a copy of our Holiday Speed-Scratch Idea Book.
Every restaurant today is looking for creative ways to stay above water and survive the pandemic. With rents still due at the end of the month, it can seem daunting to find ways to make the business work. In order to boost profits, here are a few pieces of advice we have heard from speaking with restaurant owners, to help food service businesses get through these tough times.
Optimize the menu
With very limited dine-in business, restaurants must look for new ways to grow revenues. One way to do so is to optimize menus to better fit with customer needs today. Three menu transformation strategies stand out for the success that it can bring to a restaurant during COVID. First, create high margin items that can easily be bundled together to drive up overall guest checks. Family-style meals, for example, are great for customers who are busy handling childcare while working a fulltime job remotely and allow restaurants to include complementary items to a signature dish. Drinks, desserts and appetizers also tend to have better margins as they have a higher perceived value to the customer.
Free tech tools such as Agnoris can help restaurants identify which changes to the menu drive the biggest impact on delivery volumes and profits. Second, focus on convenience in takeout offerings. This means coming up with dishes that can be assembled easily and be switched around depending on availability and price of ingredients. Items should also be packaged to travel up to 30 minutes in a third-party delivery or for a customer to pick up themselves. Third, despite the previous points about menu innovation, don’t forget to double down on customer favorites and signature dishes that brought business in the first place. Stay in tune with what customers want but don’t be afraid to innovate on the way those products are delivered and presented.
Embrace new technology
With a variety of free tech tools available today, low-cost, high impact bets can improve operations and pay dividends in the long term. One way tech tools can immediately make an impact is by surfacing useful insights from the past. By analyzing historical customer order and food cost data, for example, restaurateurs and chefs can match up what has been selling well with dishes that are also most profitable. In addition, tech tools that are designed to facilitate contactless operations, team communication and streamlining back of house ordering will also be very relevant to look into during these trying times. While it is difficult these days to remain calm, it is prudent that restaurant leaders make data-driven decisions rather than going by feel to best ensure the viability of the business going forward. Ultimately, technology can help improve operations, save time and remove errors to help a restaurant’s bottom line and manage their business more effectively.
Focus on social media branding
Given the time people spend online today, social media is one of the most effective channels for restaurants to reach their customers and bring in new business. As an added bonus, social media presence is free and all it takes is consistent authentic and relevant content to customers to build and connect to a community. It is recommended to schedule 1 post per day, since customers correlate recency of posts to whether the restaurant is operating or not. Social media tools such as Buffer, Later or Hootsuite help analyze high performing hashtags and allow users to schedule content ahead of time. Potentially partner with local content influencers to help promote the business to their following. Professionally photographed food pictures, pictures of safety precautions taken in the restaurant to make customers feel safe and comfortable, and posts that communicate new items for takeout and delivery are three ideas to jumpstart an advanced social media strategy.
Elevate Takeout Experiences
Elevate takeout to match the ambiance of dining in. Fine dining restaurants have attempted to translate the experience of dining at their restaurant into their takeout offerings. If appropriate with the clientele and brand of the restaurant, it is worth investing in some bells and whistles to take the customer experience to the next level. Some chefs have created pre-cooked components of a meal with a recipe attached so customers can reheat the dish and enjoy at the appropriate temperature and texture. Chef Grant Achatz at Chicago’s Alinea offers detailed instructions to reconstruct and plate their beef wellington dish with mashed potatoes and gravy. Philadelphia restaurant Apricot Stone offers to FaceTime guests to walk them through the menu. This level of elevation extends into the digital experience of ordering online to make sure guests feel taken care of even when they’re not dining in. Other possibilities include high- margin wine pairings, personal notes, and curated Spotify playlists. Find the level of sophistication and personality that fits with the brand and match takeout to the dine-in experience that customers expect.
The cost of food can be the most expensive variable cost on any restaurant’s balance sheet. As such, it is important to reduce food cost whenever possible—whether that is through bulk order discounts from suppliers or concentrating on less expensive items. Some restaurants are focusing on ingredients that have overlapping uses in multiple dishes so they can order bigger quantities, less often and still take advantage of discounts. Back of house tech tools can help analyze what is a healthy cost of goods sold number, and how it compares to the industry average.
The takeaway is simple: it is simply not enough to use the same menu, tactics or ingredients that worked for dine-in and expect it to perform as well in a takeout and delivery-centric world. By focusing on these 5 strategies, restaurants can be more well-prepared to get through the crisis and even flourish once the pandemic is over.
Operators who emphasize personal safety and ramp up technology are the ones who will attract consumers who want to dine at restaurants again.
COVID-19 has changed everything, including how restaurants operate and the way customers use them.
The restaurant industry has experienced catastrophic losses and profound changes resulting from the pandemic. Nevertheless, its businesses continue to evolve in order to thrive again.
As restaurants start to reopen and prepare for dine-in service, they’re noting that while consumers are exhibiting a pent-up desire to return to restaurants, they’re also sending a message that they expect a different kind of experience — one that demonstrates commitment to safety, embraces technology, and practices social distancing and hospitality.
Heartland, in partnership with the National Restaurant Association, presented a webinar, “From Surviving to Thriving: Reimagining the Return of Restaurant Experiences,” that explained how restaurant businesses could address the social and safety anxiety issues consumers feel, change those perceptions, and make customers feel more comfortable about dining out again.
Tama Looney, Brand Analytics & Customer Engagement Expert for Heartland, shared insights to help operators understand consumers’ emerging behaviors on everything from how they engage with others, to ordering and payment preferences when they eat out. Here’s a look at where the industry has been, where it is now, and what the future looks like.
Where we’ve been
When the pandemic hit, states issued shelter-in-place mandates and restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms, operating takeout and delivery services only. The following statistics tell the story of the industry since March.
The National Restaurant Association research found that the industry lost more than $80 billion during the first two months of the pandemic
92% of restaurant traffic moved to off-premises foodservice
Drive-thru made up the largest service category
Order-ahead for pickup followed at 23%
Delivery made up 21% of sales
To-go registered at 18%.
Online ordering and delivery increased 7%.
According to Looney, brands that were able to come up with innovative ways to create and keep revenue flowing will be the ones who will succeed in spite of the many challenges they face. She also said the world now sees the importance of restaurants and the role they play in our everyday lives.
Where we are today
As the states have lifted their stay-at-home orders, more Americans say they long to return to a semblance of normal life, and dining in a restaurant is part of that picture. To keep customers and employees safe, restaurants have adopted guidelines from assorted sources including the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Reopening Guidelines, the Food & Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, creating ways to incorporate them into everyday operations.
However, published reports indicate that 80% of consumers are still anxious about the safety of dining out. For example, consumers say they would rather place their orders through a mobile device or at a kiosk instead of speaking to a cashier or server.
In addition, when it comes to payment, they generally agree that contactless payment is safer for personal health than using cash or swiping their cards. An American Express survey, conducted in May, found that 58% of diners who used touchless payment before COVID-19 are more likely to use it now.
To meet these consumer needs, operators have ramped up the technology available at their restaurants.
“Restaurants are battling to get back up and running so consumers can feel normal again, and they’re also moving new technologies into the space to make them feel safer,” Looney said. “The industry is changing, demand is shifting, and consumers are rewarding brands that have thought through the safety of their return, and this is not changing any time soon.”
What happens now?
Despite the anxiety, Looney said consumers would continue to dine out, still wanting to celebrate the special occasions in their lives. They will still want their basic expectations met — delicious selections, hot food served hot and cold food cold.
The biggest and most critical expectation, however, is personal safety. Diners will choose their dining destinations more thoughtfully, with safety determining where they go, and operators know it. Consumers expect their safety needs to be visible, and that restaurants should ask patrons who don’t practice social distancing to leave.
What do restaurateurs think? They believe that current COVID-19 safety precautions are the new normal and could continue long after the disease is gone.
Track Every Reopening Regulation by State with Two New Association Resources Operators across the country now have access to two additional reopening resources from the National Restaurant Association.
The State Reopening Training & Certification Requirements/Regulations document, created by the Association’s ServSafe Training & Certification Compliance team, covers all food safety training and certification requirements for restaurants by state as each enters new reopening phases. It also covers any state food protection manager and food handler certificate expiration extensions and lists deadlines for required recertification. It’s updated twice a week.
The Official Return to Work Guidelines for Foodservice Establishments covers, by state, everything from dine-in status and required PPE to distancing/occupancy limits, and employee and customer health-check requirements. Updated regularly, it was created by the Association’s Restaurant Law Center and State Restaurant Association Relations teams.
COVID-19 might just end up a watershed moment in restaurant technology.
The way people interact has fundamentally changed. This is especially true of hospitality—an industry rooted in fostering connections.
Delivery, pickup and curbside, crowd control, contactless ordering and payment. They’re all stress points of the “new normal.” While we know guests are eager to dine out again, restaurants can stall that reality as easily as they can reward it.
SevenRooms, a restaurant reservation system, released a guide to help operators think through how diners are changing, what they want and need in a current- and post-coronavirus world, and what it means for businesses everywhere. How have expectations changed? Will these fresh behaviors usher in a new definition of guest experience?
Here are some points from Datassential, Statista, and the James Beard Foundation. What’s clear is we’ve crossed into uncharted consumer demands, and it all happened within four months.
89 percent: Of consumers who said they felt it’s safer eating food from a grocery store or at home versus in a restaurant.
83 percent: Consumers who would avoid crowded waiting rooms in order to minimize the risk of dining out.
72 percent: Guests who don’t trust others (fellow diners) to act safely once businesses reopened.
70 percent: People who think eating out at restaurants will help them feel normal again.
As today’s fractured landscape tells us, you can’t approach evolving consumer behavior broadly. Mindsets and comfort levels will vary. Some people will wear a mask while smoking a cigarette in a casino (this is a real thing), while others will lobby fiercely against mandates and call their local health officer a “charlatan” (this also happened).
The bottom line is restaurants need to remain flexible and meet guests where they are. It’s their role to facilitate interactions and support how people want to dine, no matter how strange it might seem compared to previous norms.
SevenRooms identified four key mindsets restaurants must cater to upon reopening:
Delivery or pickup diner who is still hesitant to dine out. This is the person who’s accessed your restaurant’s off-premises options during the pandemic and will continue to for the foreseeable future.
Guest who wants to dine out, but with reservations or a virtual waitlist.
Diner who wants to eat out, but in a safe, contactless way.
Care-free guest ready to get back to normal.
For a lot of restaurants, satisfying some, or all, of these evolving bases represent brand-new challenges. It’s why so many will experience a seismic shift in the way they operate.
And it starts on the foundational level—systems and functionality to meet all of these consumers at the proper points. Safe options for delivery and takeout. Digital reservations. Virtual waitlists. On-premise ordering. Payment.
“Across these touchpoints, the ability to own guest data, and the subsequent guest relationships, allows operators to personalize and automate marketing—resulting in higher revenue in the long run,” SevenRooms said.
It also offered a pro tip.
“Have access to a guest database with email addresses? Now is the perfect time to reach out and survey your guests to understand their needs and comfort levels going forward. The information you gather from the surveys can help inform your reopening strategy. It’s easy to set up surveys through Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.”
Guests being able to order from their own mobile device, even at the table, could play a big role post lockdowns.
A lot of restaurant chains tightened marketing budgets in light of COVID-19. Or they pushed resources into more cost-friendly channels, like social. Others sealed the purse strings knowing they would need to loosen them when lockdowns lifted.
Either way, reopening is a delicate time for marketers. You have to not just inform guests you’re getting back to business, but also to tell them how, why, and what precautions are in place to make the process acceptable for guests and employees alike.
Think back to the new customer mindsets. That message needs to reach all of those people in some manner. There are a lot of avenues to address.
SevenRooms suggested restaurants “over communicate at each step throughout the guest journey to make guests feel safe and comfortable.”
Here are some basics to control your branding and message across platforms and spread the word:
As for the guest journey itself, restaurants need to adapt at every step to meet new regulations and the varying wants of a changing customer. Technology can help.
Online experience: Optimize touch points
On-premise experience: Offer contactless
Guest feedback: Build relationships
Loyalty and retention: Personalize and target
The first point
The online experience has come a long way these past few months. For some restaurants, it was simply a matter of optimizing what was already there or adding contactless features. On the reverse end, it’s been a rapid dive into something that typically takes months to onboard and educate customers to adopt.
But the major COVID-19 difference: guests across all generations went to restaurants expecting these options to exist, whether they were there previously or not.
This is an opportunity for operators post-lockdowns. Before a guest receives their order, there are multiple online touch points where they interact with a brand—from asking about a reservation to placing an order for takeout. It’s key, SevenRooms said, to be in the driver’s seat of these communications in how and what you display as it relates to available options.
The starting points—search and discovery. People need to find your restaurant. This has emerged as a more powerful issue versus pre-virus days simply because of the uncertain landscape. We aren’t sure who’s open and who’s not.
And, from the beginning, core dine-in customers have turned into off-premises users. Instead of thinking of “delivery restaurants” and “takeout restaurants” as separate categories, all restaurants got looped into one collective pool. So there were suddenly a lot more of consumers seeking out their favorite spots for off-premises business. Given trust has become the leading currency, guests turned to restaurants they knew already. It wasn’t just about who was on Uber Eats or DoorDash anymore.
In response, restaurants should ensure they can connect directly with consumers across their owned channels, SevenRooms said. Take ownership of online listings and make sure there are direct links to book a reservation or place a delivery or takeout order. Even if the restaurant fulfills through third-party, make that clear on the site. Don’t rely on consumers finding the brand through aggregator apps.
By owning these direct links, restaurants can send guests right to their website versus a third-party platform, where there’s a lot more competition. Going direct can cut out some of the noise.
Here’s a pro tip from SevenRooms:
“With guests choosing restaurants based on what they already know and trust [or what is a 5-minute walk or drive from home], this means your local guests or ‘regulars’ can be the people you rely on to help build back your business. Invest in ways to make these guests feel special.
Offer perks that are exclusive to locals like a complimentary beverage or a ‘locals only’ secret menu. Promote these offerings via your channels and redeem to those who have address proof. Keep in mind, once you learn someone is a local, it’s important to record that data point in your CRM. This can help you market future local offerings to them directly, and helps your staff execute on this information the next time the guest orders delivery or dines in the restaurant.”
It’s pretty difficult to avoid delivery and takeout in this climate, no matter the restaurant segment. Even during the reopening process, if viable, it makes sense to keep those options flowing for customers feeling uneasy about dining out.
Besides, it’s not as though COVID-19 ignited a delivery trend dormant before. According to Statista, delivery revenue is expected to show an annual growth rate of 5.1 percent (this was pre-coronavirus), which would push market volume to $32,325M by 2024.
Direct delivery, in particular, allows restaurants to gain new customers, engage old ones, and drive revenue from guests who can’t make it into restaurants. And with the right tech, operators can also own the guest data and control how they showcase their brand.
THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY
The Cheesecake Factory was starting to roll reservations before COVID-19. That turned out to be good timing.
Reservations, or not
Online reservations have assumed new importance in post-lockdown days because of social distancing. Nobody wants to walk into a crowded lobby.
Here are some tips from SevenRooms to make reservations effective:
Find a partner that allows you to communicate via SMS messaging. Guests can wait in their cars or nearby versus in the foyer and receive ‘Table-ready” texts.
Place a greater emphasis on reservation-booking across your channels so guests feel confident that they’ll have a table available the moment they arrive on-site.
Find a reservation management system with the ability to easily adjust your floor plan and reservation inventory to reflect any guidelines for reduced capacity and social distancing.
Enforce reservation end times to ensure you have the allowed number of guests in the dining room at all times, especially while capacity restrictions are in place. Through your communications, you can inform guests of their allotted time to dine. This will allow you to maximize table turns and help streamline operations
Communicate your credit card policy for last-minute cancellations or no-shows throughout the reservation making process. Each reservation represents dollars to your business, so it’s important that you are keeping your dining room full while having the ability to collect revenue if a guest cannot make it.
“Promote outdoor seating,” the company added. “With some guests only feeling comfortable dining where they know social distance can be kept, outdoor seating is a great option to meet this need. With the right technology partner, you can actually promote outdoor seating throughout the booking process to create more visibility for guests.”
There are other benefits at stake. Reservations might not work for every concept, which is where virtual waitlists come into the picture. These allow restaurants to control the number of guests in the venue at any given time without putting a bouncer at the door.
It’s a more COVID-19-friendly version of the walk-in-and-put-your-name-on-the-list practice. People are going to want to be able to do this safely online. Perhaps before they leave the house. Maybe from their cars outside.
SevenRooms presented these ideas for how to use a virtual waitlist:
Enable guests to sign-up for the waitlist at home online to avoid waiting and queueing at the restaurant.
Similar to communicating with guests with reservations, it’s easy to notify guests who added themselves to a waitlist when it’s the appropriate time to come into the restaurant.
Operationally, a virtual waitlist also helps reduce the amount of time a host spends managing the waitlist so they can use their time to help in other ways, such as bringing curbside takeout orders to vehicles.
“Whether through an email or text the day before a reservation or directly from a mobile device while waiting for a table, there are options to offer the ability to place an order in advance with payment,” SevenRooms said. “This helps eliminate the need for menus and interaction with staff, provides an upfront revenue commitment from guests to help reduce no-shows, and allows restaurants to turn tables faster.”
Meeting these demands, only contactless
Fulfilling orders isn’t what it used to be, either. Having all of those virtual systems in place to connect with customers is one thing. Getting them food is another.
So how do you go contactless?
Curbside pickup has remained one of, if not the, most popular pandemic changes among restaurants, especially full-serves. Many restaurants have morphed this option into makeshift drive-thru service.
According to search intelligence provider Captify, based on consumer searches, curbside pickup mentions soared 458 percent since March 11.
The key is customers aren’t looking to wait in the foyer for their food when they show up. First Watch took its community tables, which no longer held the same lure for guests, and turned them into contactless pickup stations for walk-in guests and third-party drivers.
SevenRooms suggests relying on technology to open lines of communication. Choose a delivery and takeout partner that allows the restaurant to SMS message with guests, the company said. When the order is ready, it can automatically send an “order ready” text to consumers in the parking lot to let them know it’s time to pull up for their order.
Some restaurants added a field into the digital ordering process where you can put “curbside” in the checkout cart. And in that field is a place to list car model and color information to help employees recognize guests as they show up.
Outdoor signage to promote contactless is a powerful tool as well. This helps capture consumers passing by who perhaps didn’t plan to drop in. It can ease their hesitation and inspire action.
SevenRoom said restaurants should take this up a degree by adding a QR code that can be scanned to invite the customer to join a waitlist, order takeout, or make a reservation.
“When you have guests signing up for a virtual waitlist, think about all the guest data you’ll be collecting before a guest even enters the door. You can enforce email address collection with every sign-up, as well as request marketing opt-in,” the company said.
Once customers get inside
Contactless doesn’t exclude four-wall service. Mobile ordering and payment, especially from somebody’s mobile device, can eliminate unnecessary touching of tabletop tablets, menus, check holders, credit cards, cash, and receipts.
SevenRooms calls this the BYOD, or Bring Your Own Device, model.
Here’s how it could work:
Diners access the menu from their own device via a text from table management technology or QR code.
They’re automatically connected to a branded ordering experience.
Guests select their menu items, hit check out, and pay via a credit card or mobile wallet (like Google or Apple Pay).
Their order is sent to the kitchen instantly.
The majority of mobile ordering solutions are powered by location markers to identify which table the order is coming from, SevenRooms said. So restaurants can get the food out in a timely fashion if they take this route. It would also give servers more time to focus on other things as they are no longer order takers. Perhaps that’s cleaning and sanitation, or holding the door open for people.
Chances are restaurants will operate with smaller, cross-functionally trained staffs at the onset reopening stages. Maybe indefinitely.
Additionally, mobile order and pay offers operators the chance to collect guest data, which can lead to marketing opt-in opportunities, email communication, and some personalized future services, like knowing preferences and allergies and what they like to order.
Feedback, as always, remains an important lever. It’s just taken on fresh dimensions thanks to COVID-19. Beyond service and food, it will be critical to monitor whether or not customers feel safe. What do they think of protocols? Are employees actually executing them?
When connected directly with guests for on- and off-premises dining, restaurants have the ability to send surveys to visitors. SevenRooms said operators should ask about the health and safety measures, and then appropriately respond to guests and even send a follow-up note inviting them to dine with their restaurant again.
There are tech partners that can automate the sending of surveys once a delivery order arrives or a guest leaves the restaurant, directly from a brand’s CRM.
Monitoring third-party sites will remain valuable, too. Restaurants can collect feedback from multiple channels and aggregate results. “You can even segment the reviews by on-premise dining and off-premises delivery or pickup to understand how the experiences differ,” SevenRooms said. “There are technology partners that help you track this information and provide you with dashboards and daily emails summarizing your guest satisfaction.”
Personalization pays off
This is where guest data will surface. Restaurants can track how guests interact with them and then tailor marketing to promote new behaviors. For instance, try to turn a delivery order into an on-premises visit, or third party to direct, etc.
Here’s an example message of the latter, per SevenRooms.
Subject line: Thank you from (enter restaurant name)
We wanted to take a moment to thank you on behalf of the entire team at (enter restaurant name).
We really appreciate you booking directly with us. As an added thank you, we’d like to offer you a complimentary dessert on your next visit. Just use this link to book your next reservation.
We look forward to seeing you.
SevenRooms suggest offering perks to guests in the email (like the free dessert) and include direct links to those actions you’re asking them to take.
And as guests react to marketing and start to follow the links, it’s important to continue the reward-visit relationship going. This is especially true, SevenRooms said, if the restaurant is trying to reduce or eliminate third parties as the middlemen for reservations and delivery.
“Consider setting up a loyalty program that rewards direct behavior at each dining experience with the value of the reward increasing each time,” the company said. “For example, the first direct order could result in a complimentary cocktail while the fifth direct order could offer a free bottle of wine.”
Here’s a path to optimizing visits over the course of a year (for guests booking or ordering direct).
20 percent off
50 percent off
Free bottle of wine
Special experience at the chef’s table
It’s safe to say one of the keys to success post-pandemic is access to guest data. The brands thriving right now, SevenRooms said, are the ones leveraging guest databases to drive delivery and takeout orders and to continue to maintain guest relationships.
With guests more reluctant to eat at restaurants, takeout or dine in, making each interaction count remains crucial.
It boils down to three ingredients:
Own consumer touchpoints
Own guest data
Online and offline connectivity
Here’s a checklist from SevenRooms for restaurants to evaluate as they begin to revisit their tech systems:
What’s the pricing structure?
Are there any hidden fees or upcharges?
Can the system integrate with your other tools?
Is it your brand or the partner’s brand that is represented to your guests?
Does their business model align with yours?
Do you get to access and own your guest data?
Do you have 24/7 support?
“It’s a new era of hospitality,” the company said. “Restaurants can make their own rules, change processes, update systems, and take advantage of a time where guests are tuned in more than ever to help reshape the relationship guests have with restaurants.”
The purpose of the National Restaurant Association’s guidance is to offer direction and provide a framework for best practices as restaurants reopen.
The updated guidance document builds on their original guidance and reflects the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration specifically related to interacting with diners. The National Restaurant Association wishes to provide both restaurant operators and diners information about what to expect as the industry returns to on-premises dining.
The National Restaurant Association launched a new industry grassroots education and engagement resource available online at RestaurantsAct.com. This new site is a one-stop hub of critical information for restaurants, employees, customers, and industry partners.
In addition to the latest resources on COVID-19 restaurant and employee recovery programs, RestaurantsAct.com offers a brand new, industry-first interactive map of each state, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. This map links to state-by-state information, tools and updates covering state laws, regulations regarding closures as well as, eventually, re-openings. The map includes the latest state and federal jobs, job loss, and economic data covering the restaurant and foodservice industry.
The site also provides a direct connection to the industry’s grassroots engagement platform. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the Association has coordinated more than 400,000 emails to Congress from restaurants, employees, consumers and industry supporters—all speaking out about the need for swift and strong federal relief and recovery programs.
“Restaurants, employees, consumers, and our industry partners have turned out in record numbers to contact Congress in support of restaurants and their employees,” Executive Vice President of Public Affairs Sean Kennedy said.
He added, “RestaurantsAct.com provides a home page for all industry stakeholders to obtain the latest information on their state, as well as at the federal level, and also a dedicated platform to share with Congress how important restaurants and employers are as community cornerstones.”
It’s a question hovering near the surface. When COVID-19 is over, will it truly be over? Even if social distancing guidelines relax and cases taper off, will people feel ready to return to normalcy, or at least some semblance of it?
Sense360 asked a panel of nearly 1,300 consumers on March 28–29 when they expected coronavirus restrictions to end, and how long it might take to return to “normal” daily activity.
As the chart below shows, more than half remain relatively optimistic. But a full 43 percent are bracing for a timeline that could stretch into the summer.
Here’s a look at the demographic differences. Interestingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly, there is a correlation between the hopeful and eating at restaurants more recently.
In Datassential latest coronavirus report, titled “Pent-Up Demand,” the company dove into this dynamic and how restaurants might be able to play an active role in getting society back on steady footing—a purpose they’ve met for more than a century.
There’s little doubt, barring something really concrete occurring on a broad scale, in record time, like a vaccine or treatment, people are going to be wary out of the gates. Sure, some might rush into society like they’ve rediscovered humanity, but the overall picture is going to be one of caution.
Datassential’s 1,000-customer survey showed that larger crowds and situations where people are tightly packed together are going to be tough sells. Outdoor activities or places that allow people to keep some distance, like dine-in restaurants, zoos and hotels, however, could offer consumers an opportunity to get used to being around others again.
Remember those early days when dine-in restaurants were restricting seating? Cutting the number of tables in half, making sure there was 6 feet between patrons, etc.? That might evolve into the crawl before the run for operators, instead of the saving grace it once promised to be, before complete shutdowns swamped the landscape.
Typically crowded restaurants, especially those in urban, dense markets with small square-footage setups, might want to take it even more slowly, regardless of whether officials take their foot of the brake or not. Doing so could go a long way in showing customers you’re still cognizant of their fears, despite there being less reason to be constantly vigilant. There’s nothing worse than forcing somebody into a behavior they aren’t ready for or don’t want to embrace. This is a key and lasting tenet of hospitality. Let that thinking extend here until the floodgates truly open. Just let the consumer dictate when that will be.
“When the COVID-19 starts to improve and social distancing is eased, how will you feel about …”
Attending social events, celebrations, etc. with friends or family
Very comfortable: 16 percent
Somewhat comfortable: 38 percent
Not comfortable: 46 percent
Shopping for fun (non-essential items)
Very comfortable: 16 percent
Somewhat comfortable: 36 percent
Not comfortable: 49 percent
Visiting public places (parks, museums, zoos, etc.)
Very comfortable: 15 percent
Somewhat comfortable: 37 percent
Not comfortable: 48 percent
Staying at hotels, Airbnb / vrbo, etc.
Very comfortable: 15 percent
Somewhat comfortable: 31 percent
Not comfortable: 55 percent
Eating inside restaurant dining areas
Very comfortable: 13 percent
Somewhat comfortable: 35 percent
Not comfortable: 52 percent
Shopping during crowded times
Very comfortable: 10 percent
Somewhat comfortable: 27 percent
Not comfortable: 63 percent
Taking planes/air travel
Very comfortable: 10 percent
Somewhat comfortable: 27 percent
Not comfortable: 64 percent
Going to bars, nightclubs, etc.
Very comfortable: 9 percent
Somewhat comfortable: 22 percent
Not comfortable: 69 percent
Attending events with large crowds (concerts, sporting events, etc.)
Very comfortable: 9 percent
Somewhat comfortable: 22 percent
Not comfortable: 70 percent
Taking mass transit
Very comfortable: 9 percent
Somewhat comfortable: 20 percent
Not comfortable: 71 percent
So, restaurants fall right in the middle of this. As Datassential explains, these numbers might look completely different in a month or two. Today, consumers predict they will err on the side of caution. Once a sense of normalcy kicks in from going to work or hanging out with friends and family, however, their comfort curve could surely ease up.
Again, though, take the pulse of customers before doing anything drastic. Perhaps an email survey to guests or just some metric digging could serve as a guidepost. If there are still concerns, the pared-down dining room, with limited reservations, might be an option. Or maybe just continue to showcase sanitary measures in the open. But if all signs point to green, get ready to be the answer to cabin fever everybody’s been waiting for.
People will flock back to restaurants to help regain a sense of normalcy.
This following data set provides a real glimmer of hope. One of the inescapable realities of a takeout- and delivery-only restaurant world is that it’s left Americans craving for activities where they can socialize and be entertained. When it comes to food and drink, Datassential said, people are most excited to get back to dining in with family and friends, whether at restaurants or family gatherings, as well as entertainment venues like movie theaters and shopping centers. Baby Boomers reported the strongest preference for dining with family and friends, while food courts and music venues scored higher with Gen Z.
“Which of the following food and drink places are you most excited to get back to.”
Dining at my favorite sit-down restaurant: 41 percent
Going out to nightclubs, lounges, music venues, etc.: 9 percent
Visiting cafeterias (in offices, schools, hospitals, etc.): 5 percent
It’s simple: People miss their favorite sit-down restaurants. And that’s one of the better sentiments to hang onto these days.
Pre-COVID-19 conversations around restaurants more than likely started with the food, Datassential said. Which trendy place should we try next? Did you see what this spot was rated, and so forth. However, too much time “sheltering in place” has shifted the role of restaurants for housebound Americans. More than anything, the ability to dine in again will provide some emotional relief that life is returning to normal.
“Not to mention, a much-needed change of scenery for the masses with cabin fever. This is especially true among Baby Boomers, who are more adherent to social-distancing orders,” Datassential said.
Basically, we will get past this “eat-to-live” society we suddenly find ourselves in. Food will return to being an experiential event as much as an essential, elementary one. And restaurants will fill that need.
“If dining rooms reopen, what are your top reasons for wanting to visit restaurants and bars again?”
Needing to feel normal again: 45 percent (greater among Boomers at 58 percent)
Cabin fever—I’ve been stuck inside too long: 38 percent (greater among Boomers at 46 percent)
Change of scenery—tired of being in my house: 35 percent (also greater among Boomers at 43 percent)
Needing to socialize in person and be around other people: 34 percent (once again, greater among Boomers at 42 percent)
Supporting restaurants in my community: 33 percent
Getting foods I can’t make at home or easily get delivered: 30 percent
I’m tired of cooking at home: 26 percent (ask this question again a month from now; it will probably be higher)
For special occasions I wouldn’t normally celebrate at home: 25 percent
Need a date night/romantic night out: 20 percent
None of these—still nervous about restaurants and bars: 13 percent
Need a night out away from the kids: 9 percent (also ask this a month from now)
Returning to this idea of taking one step before the leap, Datassential suggested consumers will seek reassurance after COVID-19. Sanitation and social distancing are key, it said. But don’t just talk about, demonstrate it.
Guests will need to see everything from frequent cleaning of high-touch areas to employees in safety apparel to making sure food is covered for protection. In many ways, it feels like the early days of the pandemic.
The good news for restaurants, though? Most of these practices should now be business by usual by the time restrictions lift. Whatever your brand built into its culture during this downturn, from hygiene to hospitality, don’t let those slide.
“Extra precautionary measures, like serving all items individually wrapped or providing contactless ordering and payment, fall lower on the importance scale, yet may provide operators with an opportunity to offer extra reassurance as customers rebuild their comfort with dining in,” Datassential said.
“If dining rooms reopen, what can restaurants do to make you feel safe?”
Regularly/visibly wiping down tables, kiosks, other things people touch
Absolutely required: 71 percent
Helpful, but not required: 21 percent
Not that important: 9 percent
More food covers/sneeze guards/enclosed cold cases, etc.
If restaurants made it so you don’t have to touch door handles
Absolutely required: 38 percent
Helpful, but not required: 48 percent
Not that important: 14 percent
Enabling mobile ordering for contactless payment
Absolutely required: 38 percent
Helpful, but not required: 42 percent
Not that important: 20 percent
Serving everything individually wrapped
Absolutely required: 33 percent
Helpful, but not required: 43 percent
Not that important: 24 percent
The big takeaway is to keep in mind, even during an unprecedented, seemingly unrelenting crisis, that people will look to comfort zones to ease back into regular life. Consumers are excited at the prospect of re-engaging with friends over food, but not quite ready for big crowds just yet, Datassential said. While there remains a lot of uncertainty, guests will gravitate toward places that allow them to self-protect.
“Restaurants can help ease this transition, by providing a balance of levity along with COVID-19 safety precautions,” the company said.
The evidence is clear: more restaurant guests are interested in plant-based and vegan menu items. Veganuary—the practice of going vegan for the first month of the year—began in 2014 and its numbers have doubled each year.
According to Tripleseat customers throughout the US, there was an increase in guests requesting a variety of plant-based or meatless fixings 2019, with many new plant-based options being offered.
Lightlife analyzed demand and found that 31 percent of Americans expect to try a flexitarian diet in the future. Within the next year, 22 percent of Americans see themselves eating more plant-based protein alternatives and currently, 62 percent of people say they expect to see plant-based protein alternatives in restaurants.
How can restaurants be responsive to their guests and capitalize on this growing lifestyle trend?
Data supplied by restaurant analytics platform Tenzo, found that vegetarian and vegan meals have seen a sales increase of 2.1 percent in the first week of January across fast casual and quick service restaurants in the UK as compared to the first week of December. However, some individual chains have seen an increase of up to six percent on their vegan offerings. Tenzo said this appears to occur when the restaurant has a larger variety of vegan dishes, showing that people like to have a choice of meals when dining out instead of just one or two options. This also indicates that people are choosing what restaurants they go to based on vegan options – meaning they peruse menus before choosing where to eat.
Tenzo added that restaurants and chains offering exclusively vegan options are seeing the same trends as those offering both vegetarian and vegan options, meaning that catering to the most proscriptive dietary choice may be the best idea. How can restaurants be responsive to their guests and capitalize on this growing lifestyle trend?
“To better provide for vegans and those with dietary restrictions, look at modifying what’s already on your menu,” said Allison Taylor, the Director of Brand Development and Training at Daily Jam. “Looking at what dishes or menu items that have no or less meat or can be easily swapped out with plant-based options for meat. If you aren’t ready to adjust your menu completely, you can ease into it by offering substitutions, adding in more vegetables and removing the meat, or pulling the cheese product to make a salad made up of only vegetables.”
At Daily Jam, Taylor looked into adding in vegan items that already fit the style of the menu and said substitutions were a great way for a restaurant to cater to guest desires.
“The restaurant already offers smoothies, and when they added the açaí smoothie as a vegan option, they brought in a vegan chocolate protein powder. This protein powder can be used as a substitute to help make other smoothies vegan. There are ways to make simple additions and modifications to the menu.”
How to cater to vegan customers without a vegan option on the menu: training is key.
“At Daily Jam all of the staff are taught the different diet restrictions, so that if someone has celiac for instance, the staff would be able to recommend menu items with slight changes to accommodate the customer,” Taylor said. “It’s key to make sure your staff is aware of what the different terms are be it vegan, gluten-free, paleo, etc. By offering the customer a modification, you create a stronger connection with that customer as opposed to telling them that you don’t have anything that will accommodate them.”
Daily Jam is featuring a vegan LTO for the month of January including Phoenix Saute, which is a mix of country potatoes, squash, onion, tomatoes, and Morning Star soy chorizo, served with avocado, cilantro, and a warm tortilla and Soyrizo Avocado Toast— thick cut artisan bread, avocado, tomatoes, and Morning Star chorizo topped with cilantro.
Many would not think a comfort-food classic like mac and cheese could be adapted for vegan palates, but fast-growing franchise I Heart Mac & Cheese recently launched new vegan menu plant-based options through a partnership with Beyond Meat, and created a homemade modified cheese sauce for vegetarian/vegan guests.
As part of his role as the brand’s corporate chef, Michael Blum was following dining trends and felt vegan items would be a good fit for the brand and a way to expand its customer base. So far, his hunch proven right and his sauce featuring a mix of coconut milk, nutritional yeast and a proprietary spice blend has been sought after by vegans and non-vegans alike.
“Working with Beyond Meat and having our own sauce enables us to offer a variety of vegan and plant-based options and be responsive to our guests and not just for Veganuary,” said Blum. “As a company, we want to be very inclusive and provide customization.”
One way chefs and restaurateurs can gather information on growing a plant-based menu is through continued education. Online culinary school Rouxbe launched a plant-based course designed especially for professionals looking to keep pace with the increased demand for plant-based menu options.
The new Rouxbe program was designed to help empower culinary teams to innovate menu options that support vegan, gluten-free, and other specialty diets. According to Rouxbe execs, by learning to apply fundamental plant-based techniques, kitchen staff can become equipped to produce incredible food that will draw the diners in and keep them coming back.
HUNGRY’s Chef Anthony Spino suggested switching up food items that have similar tastes/textures but are perfect for those who are vegan such as Jackfruit.
Spino grew up in a traditional Italian family and learned to cook in his family’s Italian restaurant. When he moved to New York City, he changed his lifestyle to support a plant-based diet and worked in the kitchens of some of the vegan, plant-based & vegetarian chefs in the country, perfecting a whole new kind of cooking. He’s now focused on making those traditional Italian recipes using plant-based ingredients.
“Clearly marked vegan options on a menu make an enormous difference for people who want to choose plant-based dishes,” noted Cadry Nelson, a vegan food & travel writer at cadryskitchen.com. “Knowing which items are vegan as-is, and which can be prepared that way with a few simple swaps speeds up the ordering process. It also helps staff who may or may not be aware of all of the options available. That way during peak restaurant hours, there are fewer trips back to the kitchen to ask. Best of all, customers feel like their business is wanted. When vegans see a menu without designations, they wonder if the staff is aware of what ‘vegan’ means and if they are prepared to make dishes without animal products. “For more from Nelson on what restaurants have to gain by labeling vegan options, click here.
Her other tips:
Don’t alienate vegan by expecting them to pay more for less: “For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered an entree that usually comes with meat or dairy and asked staff to leave them off, but still had to pay the costs of those items,” Nelson said. “By either discounting for the items a customer isn’t receiving or allowing them to add avocado or vegan meat/cheese for no additional cost, it feels a lot fairer to the customer.”
Go Beyond the Burger: “Now that Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are becoming more widely available, those are easy to keep on hand for sandwiches. However, since so many businesses are using them, it’s refreshing to see them used in non-burger applications – like tacos or meatballs. That gives a fresh way of serving them that isn’t directly competing with the other businesses carrying those burgers,” she said, advising to also have a vegan bun.
Vegans show up for interesting, filling, and satiating menu items: “Just like non-vegans, vegans like tacos, nachos, pizza, and sandwiches you can really sink your teeth into,” Nelson added. “While salad, hummus, and pasta seem obvious, those aren’t the kind of dishes that vegans go out of their way to get. Think about the menu items your non-vegan customers love, and then find a way to veganize them. As a vegan, it’s really disappointing when I go to a restaurant with huge portions of comfort food, but their only vegan option is a sad pile of couscous.”
“It’s easy for restaurant professionals to accommodate Veganuary diners,” said teen vegan chef Doris Zeger of Montclair, New Jersey. “The dishes that would be appropriate for these diners would make sense for restaurants to offer, and they aren’t that different from what’s on the restaurants’ regular menus.”
Her suggestions include:
Vegan pancakes/waffles on breakfast menus (there are lots of recipes that are available online)
Lentil and bean-based soups
Expanded selections of side dishes, such as roasted or grilled vegetable, potato, and rice dishes with no butter or cheese
Meat dishes that use meat substitutes (Beyond Meat’s burgers, ground meat, and sausages are a great choice)
Vegan pizzas (restaurants can create their own almond milk mozzarella and clever toppings combinations)
Suzannah Gerber (Chef Suzi), executive chef and director of Haven Foods— restaurant, food, and medical industry consultant, and author of Plant Based Gourmet, offered a number of tips for restaurateurs.
Have a small printed vegan menu if you can, but make sure vegan options are on menus too. Finding them easier, especially because Veganuary consumers are new to vegan options will take the stress out of dining and make your restaurant a go to option all month and thereafter.
Look to your sides- you have had vegan options all along, start combining veggie sides into tapas, Meze and other plant-forward dishes to maximize space prep and ordering methods you already employ.
Consider a simple swap out- sourcing a vegan butter like earth balance, a vegan mayo like Veganaise, and converting a couple staple sauces and condiments to vegan options like ranch or whip cream can open an entire set of options. Suddenly all aioli dishes are vegan friendly and you don’t need to prep two.
Look to your gluten free options and veganize them. Going for maximum impact with gluten free vegan items means you are targeting huge sections of your consumers with the same dishes.
Innovative Dining Group’s Los Angeles restaurants BOA Steakhouse, Katana Los Angeles, Sushi Roku and ROKU West Hollywood all provide extended vegan menu options in addition to their regular menu.
Lee Maen, partner/founder at IDG said, “More and more people are going vegan or thinking about it, and L.A. is a hot spot for that. We saw the demand from both vegans and people who just want to try it out, and we said, ‘Why not offer them the BOA experience?’”
BOA Steakhouse recently debuted all-new vegan dishes on their menu including a Cauliflower “Chicken” Milanese and Nidi Bolognese in addition to their An Impossible L.A. Classic Burger. Their plant-based section was so well received that IDG expanded their menu by incorporating more plant-based dishes at their Japanese themed concepts which offer a vegan omakase menu featuring vegan nigiri, vegan sushi rolls and other plant-based dishes.
Oregon-based Coconut Bliss, which has been creating organic, plant-based ice cream since 2005, begun working with a number of fast-casual restaurants in order to provide customers vegan dessert options.
For example, Coconut Bliss had the opportunity to partner with Pacific Northwest restaurant chain Burgerville in the past year to create plant-based Bliss Shakes for their customers. Customers can now order any existing shake flavor as a dairy-free shake without paying extra.
“We expected customers to love this option, but we didn’t foresee just how popular the Bliss Shake would become,” Kim Gibson Clark, President and CEO of Coconut Bliss “Because of partnerships with fast-casual companies like Burgerville, Coconut Bliss has found that providing plant-based dessert options at restaurants is not only widely popular, but increasingly expected.”
In 2019, the company’s restaurant distribution program performed 232 percent over projections with the entire food service program up 190 percent.
“Because of this sweeping success, our focus has changed from concentrating solely on vying for shelf space with grocery retailers,” added Clark. “We are now actively seeking new restaurant partners to appeal to this new wave of restaurant customers.”