2021: A Year of Strategic Questions for Restaurants
6 Min Read By Buck Sleeper
Perhaps the biggest question on restaurateurs’ minds right now is: “Do I plan for the 2021 I was expecting, or can I just go back to 2019?” After all, the news is swarming with stories about vaccines that seem to be working. We’re also seeing a troubling shift towards apathy and exhaustion that has us wondering if rules will be followed anyway—just as the third surge of COVID arrives.
Amid all this, you yourself might be asking: “Do I design for a COVID universe or do I design for the last normal?” Worry not. My colleagues and I at EPAM Continuum have been thinking of 2021 and the trends that will soon be served to us. I’ve applied that thinking to formulate some answers, and a few more strategic questions, below.
Curbside became a thing during the pandemic. What kind of thing will it be next year? Curbside is something that the industry always needed to figure out. It's extremely convenient if you just want to quickly run in and out and grab something. It could be that you've got mobility issues. Or the restaurant’s crowded. Or maybe you’ve got a baby sleeping in the car. But customers have always liked it because it requires a lot less work for the diner—though enormous effort to make it work seamlessly from the restaurant point of view.
Having made curbside a staple item, I do think it’s here to stay in 2021. Certainly people have come to depend on it. But restaurants, now that they are also bringing people back inside, are going to have do the harder work of making it a permanent solution—whether that's a pickup window adjacent to their door or reworking their kitchen in such a way that its food is flowing to the front of house in a more efficient manner.
The Third Surge: When Patrons Take the Stage
The third surge of COVID is on the way. What's that mean for restaurant safety? A lot of people are slower to wake up to this surge than they were the first or second one. Many restaurants are still open. It may be that patrons feel like the efforts to make restaurants safe have already been done. We're checking temperatures. We're wearing masks. We're washing our hands. We're spacing people. We're sanitizing all surfaces—and people are still getting sick. I believe that the restaurant industry has done its part.
The third wave of safety in restaurants is not going to be an operational issue. If the first wave was the MacGyver version (By hook or by crook we will make this restaurant safe, even if we have to barricade the doors with tables!) and the second wave was a more curated response (We're not putting tape on the floor anymore; we invested in stickers and on-brand PPE), the third wave is going to be an appeal to the consumer. The people who work in restaurants have done everything they can at this point and by and large seem to be adhering to those standards. It's now up to the patrons to do their part.
Ghost Kitchens and Living Kitchens
Ghost kitchens and living kitchens have been rattling around in my mind recently. I’m hoping that The Person of the Year in 2020 is the essential worker. Have you noticed that we've reframed our vision of the essential worker as a firefighter, ambulance driver, ER docs and nurses, to people who are restocking shelves, folks who are running restaurants and keeping grocery stores going? My hope is that there’s going to be enough focus on the experience of working in a kitchen that it’s no longer going to be just seen as mere infrastructure for the restaurant but it's going to be seen as environment for people. With that is going to come not only greater transparency into how kitchens are run and what they look like, but also what it means to be inside one.
So that's one part of this. The other is the model of the ghost kitchen itself, and that's only going to increase as businesses seemed to have cracked that nut, and are finding it an efficient way to test out new concepts. From an operator point of view, it means I can start a business faster and cheaper—that's the push. And the pull, from a consumer point of view, is that suddenly you get to try new concepts, new experiences, and I think that a market that promotes quicker turns on this kind of innovation is probably here to stay.
Answering the Question: What’s a Real Restaurant?
I’m currently working on a piece about virtual restaurants that asks: “What does it mean to be a real restaurant or not?”
There will continue to be a stigma against restaurants that don’t have a brick-and-mortar footprint versus restaurants that do. Virtual restaurants are on the rise this year, but to win with consumers long-term you will need more than an online shop and a bag full of food. It seems pretty basic but it comes down to whether or not customers enjoy the entire culinary process: By that I mean the experience of discovering a brand, ordering off its menu, receiving the delivery, consuming the food, and telling their friends about their night “out”. So as long as virtual restaurants focus on a really good meal, and not just really good food (also important), I think they'll continue to see growth and that stigma will slowly erode to the point where you don't really care whether a restaurant has a brick-and-mortar location or not.
'What’s In It?' Personalization
We've put a big pause on some of the research and exploration related to personalization that were growing in 2019, and I think the food service industry has as well. In particular, I’m thinking about discourse around supply chains, the need to personalize food to meet your specific dietary requirements or preferences, or even the shift towards the idea of food as medicine (mapping your own biome and physiological needs so that you can create the right fuel for you). Of course much of that has been shelved in the fervor around keeping restaurants open, but I hope that's something that we return to.
Personalization in 2020 has been about “How do you want to receive your food? Put in a note in for the drop-off procedure that feels right for you.” I hope 2021 is not about “How do you want the food?” but a return to “What's in it?”
Think Globally, Operate Locally
The pandemic and climate change are shifting demographics and requiring cities to either: (a) maintain their current environments, or (b) evolve. This trend should have an interesting effect on restaurants. I wonder: Will we see greater flexibility—a restaurant that can quickly pivot from mostly catering to mostly delivery to mostly dine-in—or increased specialization?
Spyce in Boston just opened up a new location, expanding their robotic woks. So you have more robots, fewer humans. Then there’s Salted, a “delivery first” entirely virtual restaurant group based out of LA that, according their portfolio so far, has no intention of going into the brick-and-mortar space. I think we're going to see new players developing niche offerings, while the more established crowd looks to innovate greater flexibility into their current offerings.
Paying the People of the Year
There's a growing labor movement afoot, and restaurants—like all industries—are trying to figure out the future of work. What’s needed to create real, durable change that will positively impact employees? A lot of it comes down to money. We’re talking about restaurants’ ability to pay people better, provide better benefits and a greater flexibility which comes from larger workforces. Ultimately, that bill is not paid only by operators; it's paid by the people who eat there by way of higher prices.
So I hope that restaurants have enough respect for their workers to take the risk of passing that charge through to their patrons. This will require a couple of things. First, some good storytelling. A great example are restaurants that have told diners: “We're putting a charge on your bill so that all of our employees can get health insurance.” It's also going to require some transparency and trust-building. If a restaurant decides to charge customers more in order to compensate their workers fairly, the owners must ensure that the money goes where it’s supposed to and is being used to support their people the right way.
Wondering what 2021 will look like for your restaurant? Keep asking the question, prototype your assumptions, and test them to failure. The next 12 months, as uncertain as they are, set the stage for years to come.