After a Year of COVID-19, Restaurants Are Ready for a Reboot

The past year ushered in some big, unprecedented changes. For the average person, one of the most visible changes witnessed was the overnight impact on the restaurant industry. With strict government health lockdowns in place, dining out became a thing of the past. Restaurants found themselves facing many unknowns, from how long their doors would be closed to how to manage staff. Restaurant owners were forced to grapple with a question they may have never thought they would have asked themselves pre-pandemic: “Will my business survive?”

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. restaurant industry has lost roughly $255 billion, with about 110,000 restaurants temporarily or permanently closed, according to the National Restaurant Association. Yet despite the losses, there’s a high degree of optimism for the industry. As vaccination rollouts continue and business restrictions lessen, a resurgence in patronage will likely begin. However, the post-pandemic industry will face new challenges even as recovery begins. 

Restaurants that continue to incorporate new technology and solutions that increase efficiency from time-consuming and costly tasks are poised to find themselves on stronger footing for the future.

To tackle the concerns of customers and employees while focusing on business growth, restaurant owners will need to look to innovation and reimagine how they once operated. Today, operators are quickly realizing the industry will likely never look like it once did before, forcing them to create a “new normal.” The effects of the pandemic might be long-lasting, but by adopting and embracing new protocols, revenue strategies, technology and consumer preferences, the industry can adapt and reboot for a more promising future.

Promoting Safety

Restaurants lucky enough to have access to outdoor dining space had to balance the needs of the business with the safety of customers and employees. For customers, it became a new experience. Dining shifted outdoors, inside tents or into bubbles. Many restaurants took guests’ temperatures and participated in contact tracing, which is the process of contacting people who’ve had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. QR code menus have now become the norm.

Everyone from mom-and-pop eateries to high-end establishments were quick to offer no-contact takeout and forge newfound partnerships with delivery companies. For workers, many restaurants provided masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Human resource departments needed to enact new policies and codes of conduct to keep employees and patrons safe, including more lenient time-off policies if workers had to care for sick relatives. For a restaurant, one misstep and one documented case carried the risk of total shutdown or even permanent closure.

As a result, restaurants have shifted advertising efforts and now highlight safety protocols for staff and guests. As the number of vaccinated people continues to grow, it’s likely the industry will see some restaurants advertising the fact that all employees have been vaccinated. However, incentivizing or covering the cost of vaccination raises legal and HR questions businesses will need to be prepared to answer from a compliance perspective. Human resource professionals are in a position to help operators and employees face the new normal with the right tools to thrive and remain compliant when re-opening and welcoming patrons back in.

Mom and Pop Remodeling

During the past year, many family-owned establishments that already operate with thin margins found themselves facing the significant challenge of adapting to new delivery models to remain operational. Many were not operationally built for such a paradigm shift and faced profit cuts in the transition. As we move forward, restaurants might begin to consider adding in-house delivery drivers to curb costs or consider new shared driver models between local restaurants.

In reflecting on the changes we’ve seen over the past year, now is the time for the industry to challenge old ways of thinking, seek out new revenue models and concentrate on creative and innovative strategies that trim topline costs. While a disrupted delivery approach by local operators might come with expanded payroll, policy and compliance questions, technology is quickly accelerating to help with paperwork as new tools are designed to help small restaurants thrive. 

Futuristic Assistance

Automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud-based technologies rose in adoption this past year as a way for operators to navigate the pandemic and set themselves up for success in a new normal. 

Owners have a year’s worth of adaptations and lessons now under their belt as they continue to navigate forward.

The desire from customers and staff for low-touch, high-hygiene and always-on access paved the way for new innovation. Timecards became digital apps, facial recognition was used to log employees in and out, thermal reading cameras took temperatures before shifts, and contactless timekeeping and automated scheduling for managers began to be deployed.

Some brands rolled out robotic cooking systems to cut down on manual contact and increase efficiency. To speed up drive-thrus and help optimize limited staff, other brands tested AI-powered voice ordering at their windows. There was a major migration from kitchens on the ground, to kitchens in the cloud, as the ghost kitchen trend took off. 

The pandemic forced technology adoption to accelerate astronomically with great benefit: much of the result has been more efficiency and minimized health and safety contamination risk – a clear customer priority. As we move forward, restaurants that continue to incorporate new technology and solutions that increase efficiency from time-consuming and costly tasks are poised to find themselves on stronger footing for the future.

The Next 12 Months

Restaurant operators are resilient. Owners have a year’s worth of adaptations and lessons now under their belt as they continue to navigate forward. As long as they retain the flexibility that has kept them afloat in extremely difficult times, embrace technology to lessen the operational burden and allow themselves to ‘think outside the box’ with new strategies, the industry will emerge stronger and ready to service a new type of post-pandemic patron.