The impact of COVID on the restaurant business
July 19th is the date the hospitality industry has been waiting for. And it has been a long time coming! Many places have been lucky enough to open with outdoor spaces, but social distancing and enforced table service has made it a much slower opening than the industry would have liked. Luckily at the time of writing, England are still in the Euros which is definitely helping get people out celebrating more!
Football aside, will July 19th be the return to normal that the hospitality industry is waiting for? Unlikely… industry experts are warning of a change in consumer behaviour, and urging us to be prepared for the changes to come. A recent panel at the Better Hospitality Conference spoke to Simon Stenning of futurefoodservice.com and Katy Moses of KAM Media – both agreed that those that are successful will be those that listen to their customers, and adapt quickly – Darwin seems to be at work in hospitality too.
So what is likely to go back to normal, and what has changed for good? Let’s take a look at how the pandemic has impacted the hospitality industry, and how we can be ready to react.
Local community focus
One of the major trends we have seen throughout the pandemic is the focus on communities and the return to local shopping. Online delivery slots were as hard to come by as bags of flour at the start of the pandemic, so whether by desire or necessity, people went out into their local communities to shop. This has highlighted the importance of the local butcher, or grocer – and people are keen to keep supporting them. Consumers are also becoming more discerning – they want to know where their food is coming from, its story, or at least that it comes from sustainable, ethical sources. This translates into the hospitality industry – provenance can be a selling point, and a service point. If your server knows which county your fillet steak comes from, what breed of cow it is and therefore what flavour you can expect, it changes your experience of eating that steak. The story imparts flavour. You don’t even need to train all your staff to know all these details – rather make it all available digitally.
This brings us nicely onto our next trend to come out of the pandemic. The ubiquity of QR codes, mobile sign in requirements, and the enforced use of OAP (order and pay) apps to reduce social contact – all these have rushed technology developments and have made even the most technophobic embrace the power of digital. A wealth of information is now available as soon as you wave your phone camera at a black and white box. A very easy and smart way to give consumers all the information they could possibly want on the provenance, story and sustainability of their food. It is important that technology enhances the customer experience, rather than detracts from the positive service elements that make hospitality so… hospitable! So provide plenty of information but make sure your servers still engage positively with the consumer. It won’t hurt them to know the provenance of the food too – it will help with upselling to get that extra margin which is so needed.
Necessary labour efficiencies
In a way, the move to digital will help deal with another issue that has come out of the pandemic – staff shortages. Combined with Brexit, the limited availability of European staff who make up much of the hospitality industry’s labour numbers is proving to be a real headache. I went into a coffee shop a few days ago to order some lunch and was told that the kitchen was closed because the chef didn’t show up. Pre pandemic, an agency chef would have been called in, or a favour would have been called in – and the consumer would have been none the wiser. Not so now. Pre ordering food is also likely only one step away – with all the information available in advance, why not? It makes it easier for the restaurant to predict stock levels, reduces waste, and means people can spend more time catching up with their friends rather than deciding on food. Where things can be automated – reservations, bill splitting, order and pay – it would be wise to invest in those technologies. Hopefully robots aren’t set to replace chefs in kitchens yet, but some aspects of digital advances can save on labour overall.
At home dining
What of the plethora of delivery options, finish at home meal kits and DIY cocktail kits that have cropped up over the last 18 months? Research is showing that consumers are keen for these to continue. Not only does it enable those who live outside the traditional restaurant hubs to try a whole new range of restaurants, but people are becoming more used to dining in the comfort of their own home. They don’t have to get dressed up, brave the rain, make reservations and wait ages for their bill (a particular bug bear of Gen Z, apparently). If consumers supported restaurants by buying the meal kits when the restaurants needed their support, it is important for restaurants not to turn their back on this new line of business and new breed of consumer. Think also of gift experiences as a way of enhancing your offering. It is a more compelling reason to leave the comfort of one’s home than a simple meal which can be replicated with a kit!
Whilst most of us are hoping that things go back to some form of new normal come July 19th, there will definitely be some lasting effects of the pandemic. We have looked at a few high level ones here, but there are sure to be more to appear. Perhaps sharer platters and communal hummus dips are a thing of the past? The most important thing is for hospitality to listen to consumers, and adapt to their changing needs. People will always want to eat and drink – it is just where and how that is shifting so be ready, to quote Ross, to pivot!