Four Ways QSRs MUST Innovate to Outlast the Pandemic

Extraordinary times always seem to lead to extraordinary innovations, and the restaurant industry is currently in the midst of perhaps the greatest time of upheaval, ever. And yet, despite the high unemployment, Quick Service Restaurants are one of the few sectors still hiring in massive numbers.

So, what are the big brands doing right that they are not only surviving, but thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic? A large part of their success are the innovations that are reinventing their restaurants to accommodate a changed consumer base. Let’s take a look at four ways your QSR should innovate, that have already shown success elsewhere.

1. Open Up More 'Ghost Kitchens'

Restaurant locations are having a hard time keeping up with all the mandated restrictions to dining in. We’ve seen entire states reopen and re-close in short order due to spikes in cases. It’s a giant expense to gear up to reopen, invest in perishable supplies, rehire staff, upgrade safety measures … all just to close up shop again.

So innovative chains are instead doubling down on the safer service option: takeout and delivery. This has led to QSRs like Wingstop opening up more ghost kitchens, which are smaller stores that forego dine-in areas completely. This way, the average footprint of a Wingstop location shrunk from 1,750 square feet to 400 square feet, greatly reducing overhead costs.

Also, ghost kitchens don’t have to worry about foot traffic, so they can be located in less expensive areas that aren’t frequented by locals or tourists (especially since not many people are out and about these days), further reducing costs.

Wingstop is expecting to open 120 more locations in 2020; growth numbers you may not expect during a pandemic. But their willingness to innovate by seeing where the cost-reduction opportunities are, while giving consumers exactly what they want, has led them to great success.

2. Go All In on Digital Delivery

It’s still nearly impossible to find disinfectant wipes on store shelves because consumers are still squeamish about touching anything that could potentially harbor the coronavirus. This has never been more true for ordering and procuring food, be it in the restaurant, grabbing takeout, or getting a meal delivered.

For the last few years, Domino’s has been a leader in the digital delivery space, which has proven to be prescient for today. Even back in 2017, Domino’s was seeing 90% of its orders being placed through its app or online. Now, because of their investment into these technologies, Domino’s is beating revenue estimates in the middle of peak COVID-19 numbers.

An easy to use app. Simple online ordering. Contactless delivery. Contactless drive-up availability. Domino’s going digital has been a boon to their business. Likewise, all QSRs should follow suit since no one knows how long this “contactless era” will last. And even if the virus is subdued, a consumer base that now knows (and expects) the convenience of contactless order and delivery may keep those habits into the future.

Right now, is a great time to redesign your aging mobile app, or to roll out more contactless methods of transactions. It may feel like too late, since the best time to invest into these methods was yesterday, but today is the second-best time to start.

3. Rethink the Restaurant Experience

Of course, simply moving to more digital delivery is only a shorter-term innovation for the big brands. What’s up next are complete restaurant location redesigns that will completely change the QSR experience for customers. Check out what Burger King has released as a conceptual redesign:

Talk about innovation: shaded drive-in pickup areas. multiple drive-thru lanes and food “lockers” on the exterior for easy walk-up access. Burger King isn’t just putting a band-aid on the coronavirus problem, they’re investing into a future of a new way to operate as consumer desires shift.

Likewise, Taco Bell and Shake Shack have also released design concepts for their upcoming store locations with similar pandemic-inspired changes. The innovative ideas on display may insulate these brands from this crisis, and perhaps others that may come down the line.

While it might be difficult to mirror these expensive redesigns at your business, taking cues from these innovations is a good way to rethink your own layout. Can your locations have a dedicated area for mobile pickup orders? Would food lockers be convenient to install, even for a few orders? It’s time to think outside the box.

4. Hire Faster or Be Left Behind

QSRs are hiring at a rapid clip. Tens of thousands of new hires are needed right now to meet demand. At the same time, the pandemic is adding two additional problems: one, more sick employees which is contributing to the already astronomical turnover rate in the restaurant industry; and two, a huge influx of applicants to sift through.

Hiring managers have been swamped trying to keep up with all these issues and many chains are struggling to hire enough employees because of it. This is why the most innovative QSRs are moving to automated hiring solutions to streamline their hiring process.

For example, Carl’s Jr. has started implementing a system of asking applicants to submit 30-second videos as part of their application process. This way, their hiring managers can gauge personality before an interview, drastically reducing the time it takes to sift through the hundreds of applicants for the right fit. If someone doesn’t upload a video, then that candidate is automatically filtered out, saving a ton of time as well.

A bottleneck in hiring during this time for QSRs can severely cripple operations and revenue. When times are tough, the businesses that do well tend to thrive when times get better. But without the right employees, no restaurant can operate effectively. This is why innovative QSRs take lightning-fast hiring seriously for the benefit and future of their business.