Before the COVID-19 crisis, takeout and delivery were already revolutionizing the quick-service industry. Now, however, restaurants have had to quickly pivot to an off-premises-only model, fundamentally changing the way they do business. While lockdowns and quarantines won’t last forever, the pandemic will leave a lasting impact on the industry.
Here are a few ways the industry might change and how restaurants might prepare for this new future now.
With high turnover rates and minimum wage hikes, labor was already a top industry concern, so it will come as no surprise that it’s still a challenge during the pandemic. However, the way restaurants think of labor is already changing. Amid the economic slowdown, it’s more crucial than ever for restaurants to make every dollar count, and they are likely to continue thinking the same way once recovery begins.
“Restaurants are already focused on reducing waste, and not just material waste but waste in the process of building orders and handing them off to consumers,” says Mike Wills, CEO of Apex Supply Chain Technologies. “When restaurants start to rebuild this will be just as important.”
Wills notes that this means restaurants are looking for ways to cut unnecessary labor by removing “friction” from their processes. Not only does this help restaurants save payroll hours, but also reduces turnover.
“Around two to three weeks into a job, many employees start to see how processes are cumbersome, which begins to cause burnout and ultimately makes them leave,” Wills says. “If restaurants take the time now to scrutinize which processes are inefficient, not only can they find ways to save on payroll now, but they can also improve employee engagement.”
For example, Wills recommends looking for ways to automate the handoff process. Though manually giving food to customers may seem like a small aspect of the job, asking employees to take time away from prep to do so adds up over time, making it a costly expense. Additionally, it puts workers in more direct contact with consumers than is absolutely necessary. Restaurants can automate this step with tools like pass-through lockers, which create a more efficient prepping process and keep employees safe.
2. Health and Safety
Not only will employees appreciate having fewer touchpoints, but consumers will, too. Now more than ever, diners are considering how many times they and their orders come in contact with other people. Consumers now prefer minimizing contact, and they also want assurances that their food isn’t tampered with either in the store or through the delivery process. As a result, tamper-proof packaging is becoming more crucial, as well as infrastructure that minimizes risk of contamination at handoff.
“If you go back a couple years to when mobile ordering and carryout were first growing, we saw some handoff solutions emerge that used unsupervised cubby areas as landing zones for orders awaiting pickup,” Wills said. “Anyone could touch a bag or a tray and spin it around looking for a receipt. If it wasn’t their order, it was already too late, as contact had been made. I think you’re going to see brands quickly retreat from those unsupervised solutions, while also retreating from committing full-time labor to supervising order handoff areas in favor of automated handoff that offers customer authentication.”
For example, Wills says restaurants may move toward options that enclose to-go orders in lockers and require customers and delivery drivers to scan a code on their mobile devices that verifies their identity before the locker opens. Not only does that keep food safe, but it gives diners peace of mind that others haven’t touched their food before they arrived.
Additionally, Wills says his company is exploring the possibility of adding an order disinfecting process to handoff to add extra protection, and that may become another feature diners demand in the future.
Though the focus now is on streamlining delivery and takeout, once stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, consumers are likely to flock to their favorite restaurants for out-of-home dining experiences.
“I think people will rush to get to some normal life, and restaurants could get slammed,” Wills says. “Restaurants will likely have to contend with dining tables that are spaced farther apart, reducing table count. This means front lobby traffic management will play a big role in the future of the industry.”
To help eliminate bottlenecks after they reopen, restaurants may consider relocating curbside and delivery order pickup from lobbies. Wills says some brands are already cutting holes in their external siding in order to install two-way lockers that allow workers to deposit orders from the prep area while delivery drivers and takeout customers can pick up from outside without ever entering the lobby. This makes pickup more convenient while also reducing the potential spread of germs and limiting crowds indoors. Not only will this appeal to off-premises diners, but it also means those that want to eat inside won’t see a crowd waiting for pickup orders inside the lobby and assume it’s the line for dine-in.
“Up to half the traffic inside a restaurant at a given time may be delivery drivers from aggregators waiting for orders, but when other customers see them waiting inside, it gives the impression that there is a 45-minute wait time for food, when in actuality, it’s only 10 or 15 minutes,” Wills says. “Moving this traffic can make the process more efficient while also making the lobby more inviting for dine-in customers.”
While it remains to be seen how long it will take for the industry and the nation to recover from the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, there is no question restaurants will be forever changed, and it’s crucial to plan for that future.
“Operators really need to begin looking at their operations now,” Wills says. “That way they can emerge from this crisis leaner and more efficient from a profit standpoint.”
To learn more about how to prepare for the future of the industry, visit Apex Supply Chain Technologies.
By Peggy Carouthers