COVID Caused Five Permanent Changes in the Restaurant Industry

So much was different before March 2020. Restaurant’s safety protocols were done “behind the scenes,” and guests most likely didn’t care about the sanitation of high-touch surfaces or whether they were sitting within six feet of other tables. For many brands, an annual audit was the norm, while employees may have focused on not "getting in trouble" or "getting a good score" rather than the creation of culture. Many operators relied on gut instinct, without a comprehensive view of their data to inform their decisions. So much has changed in the past few years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest disruption that the restaurant industry has ever faced. Restaurants were unable to operate “normally” during the height of the pandemic, and many wonder if things will ever get back to “normal” for our industry again. I believe that these five things have permanently changed:

1. The Demand for Transparency

Pre-pandemic, restaurant operators focused on maintaining safety standards “behind the scenes,” and customers didn’t think too much about restaurants’ practices. Now, customers are demanding transparency around safety and cleanliness, and expect to see employees wiping surfaces, using hand sanitizer, and following other post-COVID-era protocols. Employees also want reassurance that their restaurants are doing everything possible to keep them safe in our new normal, including masking and social distancing during COVID spikes.

In addition to heightened safety transparency, many organizations are increasing data transparency to improve many facets of their operations. Brands that use digital tools and software have better, more accurate, holistic views of data. They can use this information to boost efficiency, cut costs, schedule smarter, and make more informed operational decisions.

2. Culture Has Become More Collaborative

Many restaurant employees used to dread the annual or semi-annual third-party inspections. They viewed independent auditors with trepidation, worried that they’d be punished for any violations found during an inspection. The auditors looked for infractions but didn’t help teams correct areas of non-compliance or educate them on how to mitigate risks. The exercise felt punitive, leaving employees feeling devalued and disengaged.

During the pandemic, travel restrictions meant restaurants had to figure out new ways to inspect their facilities. As a result, employees had to cooperate and collaborate to identify (and fix) issues and improve compliance. Employees began participating in new tasks, learning more about safety protocols. This evolved into a new, collaborative culture that empowered employees, making them feel responsible for their restaurants’ successes, rather than feeling accountable for mistakes. As an added benefit, having a culture that focuses on teamwork and collaboration boosts employee satisfaction, loyalty, and retention, which is a true positive in a time of staffing shortages and record-setting resignations.

3. More Brands Are Relying on Technology

Restaurants have historically been reluctant to adopt to tech systems, relying instead on manual systems, paper checklists, and Excel charts to track critical information. There are numerous, significant problems with these outdated approaches. For one thing, it’s impossible to get an accurate, comprehensive, real-time view when using paper files. Thankfully, an increasing number of operators are now using tech tools and software to review and analyze data to make more informed decisions.

Technology can show historical sales patterns, which can help improve tasks from staffing to ordering. Digital inspections, inventory, and line checks are much faster, easier, and more accurate than manual processes. And tech tools can help operators spot trends and resolve any issues quickly. Digital solutions allow brands to streamline operations, improve safety and quality management, manage (or cut) costs, and improve inventory, scheduling, and ordering. 

4. Restaurants Are Evaluating Differently

As it turns out, only conducting traditional, in-person audits was not an ideal approach. As mentioned above, employees often dreaded these inspections. Another huge problem: traditional audits only provide a point-in-time compliance snapshot.

Due to the pandemic, many restaurants adopted regular self-inspections and remote audits while traditional onsite audits were paused. This combination approach provides significant benefits, including greater oversight and data collection. More frequent inspections mean that issues are spotted (and resolved) more quickly than they would have been with an annual audit alone. Remote audits mean employees interact with auditors, allowing them to ask questions, get immediate feedback, and learn more about the process. As a result, employees feel more engaged, knowledgeable, and empowered to solve problems and look for issues during self-assessments and their daily shifts. Giving employees more ownership of safety and quality protocols is a permanent change that our industry should embrace.

5. The Way We Operate

Some restaurants survived the pandemic by pivoting to different business models. For instance, many operators began offering – or expanding – takeout and delivery options. Others offered curbside pick-up and/or drive thru. Some operators transitioned from full-service, dine-in restaurants to ghost kitchens, focusing more space, attention, and staff on back-of-the-house operations for more robust take-out and delivery offerings. As COVID cases continue to spike and new variants emerge, operators need to stay nimble. We will likely never go back to dine-in options exclusively, so it’s wise to expand your offerings. This flexibility, innovation, and creativity will be essential to your continued success.

COVID has thrown us curveball after curveball, with quarantines, new protocols, supply chain disruptions, inflation, and ongoing staffing shortages. But some of the changes – like the ones outlined above – are positive. The restaurant industry has shown continued resiliency in the face of many hardships, pivoting to new business models, adopting new ways of auditing, investing in game-changing tech solutions, becoming more collaborative, and boosting much-needed transparency.  Finally, we have some wonderful changes to celebrate.