It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the landscape of the restaurant industry. More than 110,000 restaurants across the United States were forced to close their doors forever in 2020, and hundreds of thousands more dramatically changed the way they operate just to stay afloat.
Yes, these numbers may sound grim, but with great challenge also comes new opportunity, and I believe that these five pandemic-era trends will make a lasting, positive impact.
1. The rise of takeout and delivery services
As restaurants across the country were required to close their doors to in-house diners, an immediate scramble from operators to put together some type of takeout, delivery service, or both ensued. For many restaurants, this was the only way they could and would survive the pandemic.
As time passed and restaurant workers became more comfortable and confident with their new roles, the takeout and delivery sector became a breeding ground for creative and innovative ways to continue to serve patrons. Clever to-go packaging, cocktail kits, and online experiences to pair with meals are just a few examples of what restaurants have offered.
As 2020 became 2021, most restaurants have reopened their doors and dining rooms to diners. Yet, this does not mean that the takeout sector is dead. Many operators have continued to embrace takeout and delivery as an added revenue opportunity, one that will continue to grow their business and allow them to reach a more extensive customer base.
2. Customer loyalty
Of course, customer loyalty has always been an essential piece of marketing and running a successful restaurant, but this loyalty is never more critical than during a crisis. While we were all stuck inside our homes just trying to get through another day, the thought of ordering from our favorite local restaurant for a meal was exciting and also uplifting. The pandemic heightened the importance of supporting local businesses and made us feel like we were doing something good — giving back to our community.
This newfound brand awareness is something that restaurants can and should build on post-pandemic. Customers now feel more connected and loyal to their neighborhood restaurants. Restaurant operators can use these connections to build other relationships while strengthening the ones they already have. It’s a win, win for everyone!
3. Tech in the restaurant industry
The pandemic has forced us to become tech-savvy, and restaurants are a huge part of that. Online reservations, QR code menus, mobile ordering, and curbside pickups are just a few examples of how people of all ages embraced technology during the past year.
We began our technology journey of 2020 with a simple goal to make everything contactless. But, now that we know and love the convenience technology can award us, there’s no turning back. Not to mention that many restaurants spent big money to obtain the technology to offer contactless everything. With these two reasons in mind, I believe that tech in the restaurant industry will only grow in 2021 and way beyond.
4. Pimped out outdoor dining
Before we were allowed back inside restaurants, we were allowed to dine alfresco. And just like restaurant operators rushed to build takeout and delivery services, they also jumped to create or upgrade their outdoor dining options. Parking lots were turned into outdoor dining oases, city streets were blocked off to accommodate yurts and creative seating areas, while outdoor heating lamps were selling like never before. Americans began to dine outside during colder months like our European counterparts have been doing for decades.
I truly hope that town and city governments will adjust their rules moving forward to allow for this trend to grow. It was so fun seeing city streets, once lined with bumper-to-bumper traffic, bustling with groups of friends and family dining together and enjoying each other’s company. It’s also a great way for our restaurants to add additional seating, which in turn brings in additional revenue.
5. A kinder and more equitable industry
One thing that the pandemic did was give us all time to reflect — to think about what is really important and also what desperately needs to change. I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the restaurant industry and for its players. Yet, that does not mean that I believe the industry is a kind or equal one. Changes need to be made.
I think we can all agree that change does not happen quickly, and we certainly can’t fix things overnight. But the restaurant industry is made up of mostly good, hardworking people, who want to change for the better. After all of the reflection the past year has given us, coupled with the fact that the restaurant industry is one that does not bow down from a challenge, makes me believe that kindness and equality are in our future.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Seated magazine.