Though the COVID-19 pandemic upended the restaurant industry in 2020, many quick-service brands survived the tumultuous year by adapting quickly as the situation unfolded. Now, looking ahead toward the rest of 2021 and beyond, restaurants are drawing on the lessons they learned during the first 12 months of the pandemic and, as a result, are heading toward major strategic and operational changes. As they do so, leaders in the quick-service space are prioritizing heavy technology investments that will prepare restaurants for the digitally enabled future of the industry.
Here are some of the biggest restaurant investment trends PlayerLync’s industry experts, Alex Walsh, senior success manager, and Joey Wenberg, senior manager of customer success, see dominating the industry in 2021.
1. Off-Premises Dining
Of all the changes the industry has seen over the past year, the dramatic growth of off-premises dining has certainly been the biggest. Though channels such as curbside pickup, carryout, delivery, and drive thru were already seeing expanded use nationwide, the lockdown orders and social-distancing guidelines accelerated their growth.
“I saw a 60-percent increase in off-premises sales from 2018 to 2019, even before social distancing measures were put into place,” Walsh says. “but now, as malls are closing and being repurposed as hubs for third-party delivery services in Europe and more people are on the go or working from home, I see off-premises as the future of the industry.”
Take, for example, Chipotle. Though the popular fast-casual brand is traditionally known for its dine-in and carryout service, it launched a digitally enabled “Chipotlane” drive-thru concept in 2019. In 2020, the investment paid off, as Business Insider reports digital orders grew during the pandemic and ultimately made up more than half of the brand’s sales for the year. Yet Chipotle is not alone, as other brands have invested heavily in new prototypes that reduce the size of the dining room in favor of adding additional drive-thru and order pickup lanes. Additionally, some chains are expanding their carryout order parking or installing pickup lockers or windows to better coordinate with third-party delivery drivers.
“We saw a lot of our customers move toward third-party systems, like DoorDash and Grubhub,” Wenberg says. “Now, even traditional brick and mortar brands are pivoting toward curbside pick up and off-premises options and building stores with no indoor dining even if they didn’t have those initiatives prior to the pandemic.”
To enable this off-premises business, brands are also investing in tools that improve communication and workflow around these channels. For example, Walsh notes some brands have invested in developing apps that use geofencing technology to alert restaurant staff when diners who ordered online or delivery drivers arrive to pick up orders.
“A ton of companies are using this technology,” Walsh says. “I’m really interested to see how the public responds as people begin talking more about data and privacy.”
2. Menu Innovation
In addition to new prototypes, restaurants are also considering the ways off-premises dining also necessitates changes to menus. Not only must restaurants invest in takeout and delivery-ready packaging, but they must also contend with how to deliver on the guest experience even if diners never set foot inside their stores. This makes executing orders consistently every time even more important now than ever.
“You don’t have the ability to fix a mistake in an off premises scenario, particularly if a diner ordered through a third-party platform,” Walsh says. “The No. 1 reason guests return to a quick-service restaurant is consistency, so it’s essential to invest in training and ensure employees have access to the materials they need to be successful across the board.”
To help aid consistency, particularly amid the turmoil of the early months of the pandemic, many restaurants simplified their menus. However, now that businesses have adapted to the challenges of COVID-19, are once again investing in innovative products that help attract diners in a competitive environment, such as Chipotle’s Cilantro-Lime Cauliflower Rice, launched in January.
Wenberg says that in order to ensure staff members keep up with these menu changes, he saw the restaurants he works with focus on providing their employees with more thorough training to boost consistency with those products.
Some restaurants, however, have focused on not only expanding their existing menus, but also on expanding their concepts, either with catering or by launching ghost kitchens. By operating a second concept out of the same back-of-house footprint, restaurants are able to appeal to customers on multiple fronts without necessarily investing in new real estate, equipment, or teams.
Walsh and Wenberg both note that whether a mom and pop takes on a second concept or a large company takes over a warehouse space from which they operate as many as 10 different concepts, ghost kitchens still require the same consistency and operational efficiency required of other quick-service brands. “This makes providing access to information through a platform like PlayerLync, which lets training managers segment the content by each user’s role, is critical, since each member of the team will need different materials to do their jobs,” Walsh says.
“However the ghost kitchen and virtual brand trend plays out, I’m excited to see how these concepts like Nextbite, which operates several delivery-only brands, are able to grow in the coming months,” Walsh says.
3. Guest and Employee Experience
Just as ensuring guests—and employees—have an excellent experience with a brand was a crucial part of restaurant success prior to pandemic, this is still an expectation twelve months later. However, while dining rooms are closed in much of the country and restaurants are operating with smaller crews, this is sometimes easier said than done.
Due to these challenges, Wenberg says communication throughout an organization must be a priority. While training is an important part of this, he notes that restaurants should also focus on building content that makes employees feel like valued parts of the organization.
“In addition to employee training, we’re seeing restaurants invest time into developing more resources that help build the restaurant culture,” he says. “We often recommend that restaurants have members of their leadership teams and executives, such as CEOs, record video messages telling employees how much they are appreciated.”
Wenberg also notes that because each state and city’s response to the virus varies and because the situation remains fluid, it’s important to invest in tools that let chains segment which stores receive which information and make it easy for brands to share information from the frontlines up. For example, he notes that some restaurants have sourced video content from store managers, which feature updated local guidelines on changes like outdoor dining, rather than trying to produce this content on a corporate level. Then, when those videos apply more widely, those restaurants are sharing applicable videos in multiple regions or even across the chain.
Though the restaurant industry still faces significant challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants have adapted quickly, and the innovative strategies they invest in now will change the fabric of the industry in the coming years.
“There are organizations out there seizing this as an opportunity to launch or to grow existing brands,” Walsh says. “We all want to see which ones will become the next Chipotle or the next Starbucks, but the people who are going to become the next leaders of this industry are already out there operating and investing for the future.”
To learn more about these trends and more, visit the PlayerLync website.
By Peggy Carouthers