MRM EXCLUSIVE: Lessons Learned From Two Years of Socially Distanced Restaurant Management

As the restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit throughout the pandemic, restaurants have quickly adapted to the changing landscape. Reports show that 81 percent of fine dining establishments, 78 percent of family restaurants, and 77 percent of fast-casual spots added curbside pickup, pivoting away from dine-in services after March 2020. On top of that, nearly half of all restaurants offered delivery services during the pandemic.

Restaurants finally had to embrace what they had been reluctant to for so long: modernization.

Technology has clearly played a huge role in restaurant modernization, especially in light of the pandemic. As a result, the use of self-ordering kiosks and QR codes during the pandemic went up by 750 percent, with 77 percent of survey respondents saying they would prefer contactless ordering and payment once the pandemic ends. Also, menus largely went digital, and more restaurants have since adopted digital menu managers as a way of life. Surveys have shown that these trends are driven primarily by a Millennial customer base, with 64 percent of Millennials saying food delivery and takeout are “essential to the way they live.

In March 2022 alone, sales for meal delivery services increased six percent year over year, collectively, with 51 percent of U.S. consumers being new to ordering meal delivery services (up from 47 percent in March 2021). DoorDash and its subsidiaries also earned 59 percent of U.S. consumers’ meal delivery sales, followed by Uber Eats, which gained 24 percent. Postmates, an Uber subsidiary, earned three percent of the U.S. meal delivery market, making Uber’s total market share 27 percent. Grubhub and its subsidiaries came in at 14 percent of U.S. meal delivery consumer spending.

Furthermore, with the wider adaptation of digital ordering and contactless dining, restaurant location became even less of a factor, and ghost kitchens began to thrive. Nextbite began making digital brands that only existed on DoorDash, Uber Eats, and other food delivery apps, proving that patrons didn’t need to worry about a restaurant’s brick and mortar. They could instead focus on the product and the people making and delivering an order.

The traditional three P’s — product, people, and place — were usurped by the idea that if a product was good and the audience was there for online ordering, operating a ghost kitchen could be a way to change or add revenue to a struggling business. It also paved the way for starting a new restaurant without much financial commitment

All that time restaurants were stubborn to budge, it turns out that embracing change with technology potentially revived the industry. 

A Fearful Transition

When online reservations first arrived, plenty of restaurants scoffed at the idea of axing customer interaction. Restaurants still followed traditions of talking to customers, providing face-to-face service with a white-glove experience, and going the extra mile. Booking an in-person reservation was a much more immersive experience. Yet, many restaurants likely never took into consideration that not every customer wants that interaction. Customers might have wanted to book their reservation in the easiest, least intrusive way possible. Ultimately, one of the biggest takeaways from the pandemic is that customers care about the product itself. Yes, fine dining will always exist, along with personalized, face-to-face service, but for the most part, if a customer likes your food, then your food is what they want.

The restaurant industry is a service industry, after all, and the most important part of the service is delivering to your customer the product they crave. Restaurants started realizing that good service didn’t always equate to human interaction — it is actually about addressing a customer’s wants and needs. When pandemic-era interaction took a back seat to technology like QR menus, some businesses changed their operating models to embrace technology and give customers options for how they want to dine. Even though some restaurants will still opt for the in-person experience, the future of restaurant hospitality will continue to let customers “choose their own adventure,” complete with digital ordering.

Lessons Learned

People are always going to want to eat. The question has never been if the restaurant industry will survive — but how.

1. No Such Thing As Tech Aversion

Technology has made the restaurant-going experience easier and better for everyone. Worried about the varied ordering styles of different generations? It turns out that tech aversion isn’t age-related. Customers across all age ranges enjoy the option of ordering online for curbside pickup or delivery. The pandemic highlighted the fact that no matter the customer’s age, no one likes to wait in line, whether it’s at a checkout in a store or a table in a restaurant dining room. 

2. Online Ordering Provides Data

Some restaurateurs might tell you that an online or digital menu feels too impersonal. However, it’s proven better for everyone involved. There are plenty of kitchen display systems that allow staff to observe how quickly food is prepared. Different marketing avenues and point-of-sale platforms can lead to a sale with online ordering and e-commerce. But restaurant owners have never truly understood whether their specific marketing choices successfully brought customers to their establishments to buy specifically marketed items. Digital menus and online ordering, however, provide exact data points on what’s selling and what isn’t. They also show how many people are ordering online for pickup and delivery versus dine-in. Collecting data trends on users makes restaurant marketing easier. 

When customers use your digital menus on their smart devices, they provide you with data on their order and delivery preferences. With that information, you’ll know which items are selling best and if customers tend to prefer delivery, pickup, or dine-in. Digital menus also store customers’ orders and payment methods for more convenient future online visits. These digital touchpoints allow restaurants to learn more about their current customers and, over time, likely attract new ones.

3. Hospitality Reimagined

The industry traditionally saw hospitality as providing precise service, like taking an order properly or bringing food to the table at the correct time. In reality, hospitality is how a restaurant makes its customers feel. It’s having people feel like they’ve been given what they desire and treated well. Using technology to understand customers’ pain points before they know the pain points exist, making better recommendations, or enabling customers to order and pay faster all contribute to a true and lasting sense of hospitality.

The industry has changed in a big way over the past two years. What might have at one point seemed like a temporary shift has turned into an evolution that is here to stay. Some customers may want to dine with minimal interaction. Others may order delivery with no interaction at all. There are so many options when it comes to providing people with what they want and need. 

Restaurant owners should try their best to accommodate each customer’s desires for a more personalized experience. Fortunately, that’s easier than ever before. By embracing modernity and technology, the future for the restaurant industry is a lot less scary — and far more optimistic — than it once seemed to be.