No industry has been impacted as greatly by Covid-19 as the restaurant industry. From front-of-house to back-of-house, every aspect of service, food preparation, and management has been affected. The pandemic revealed an industry that had not embraced new technology, and all of a sudden had no choice but to rapidly do so.
Online ordering is a perfect example. Plenty of consumers had taken advantage of online ordering prior to the pandemic, but usually from larger chains, not their favorite local spots. When dine-in eating was shut down, those favorite local spots were the ones hit the hardest. Many restaurants didn’t even have their menus online, let alone the capabilities they needed to compete with chains that already had their online ordering systems perfected. Many mom & pop venues were forced to go digital after hesitating or resisting for years and had to move quickly in a time of unprecedented turbulence and stress.
Embracing these changes was not easy for many restaurant owners. Driven by fear of new technology and fear of investing in new tools during the peak of uncertainty, hesitation abounded and sadly contributed to the loss of so many great venues. But even though this pandemic has forced a tragic amount of restaurants to shut down, some restaurants have absolutely thrived.
They adapted and embraced all the technological advances the industry has to offer such as online ordering, contactless payments, curbside pickup, and QR code ordering. Everything that allowed restaurants to safely keep their doors open. And those that survived now have the evidence to show that new technologies are an investment every restaurant owner needs to make if they want to be around for the long haul.
Unfortunately, the industry isn’t out of the woods yet. Lingering issues like staffing shortages and the rising cost of food and supplies mean many restaurants that survived until now are strained to the breaking point, seeing profits dwindle. Owners need to save money, but customers want to see new health and safety practices; they want single-use cutlery and menus, and extra cleaning procedures. They want to see staff in masks and anti-bac stations. All of this adds to the dollars a restaurant owner has to shell out while routine costs continue to rise. At this point, cost-cutting measures are going to be a lifeline for restaurants and vendors really need to step up and find new ways to help.
A large chunk of money goes to third-party aggregators who take a commission from restaurants’ online orders. Unfortunately, many restaurants feel caught between a rock and a hard place because being listed by these aggregators is “free”, takes little effort, and orders do, indeed, come in. But the amount of commission paid comes close to outweighing the benefit of the orders. This is when an investment in their own online ordering system can cut costs big time for restaurants and put more money in their pockets.
Credit card processing fees are another great example. They’ve been rising steadily for years. It’s no wonder that big chains are implementing cash discount programs to save on those fees. Smaller venues need to do the same to have any hope of surviving. Investment in technology that helps cut and absorb costs is the way forward.
Many restaurateurs have been waiting for things to get back to normal, hoping takeout, curbside, and online ordering were temporary. But the Delta variant has made it clear that’s not going to happen any time soon. Reports show that restaurant sales growth slowed dramatically in August, once again leading to uncertainty for restaurants. And frankly, with or without a new variant, restaurants will be forced to innovate. New technology quickly becomes the norm, consumers get used to the ease of ordering they experienced during the pandemic, and when things do return to normal, you find that the temporary measures you implemented are now part of that normal, and are not going anywhere.
Over the next few years, restaurant owners, managers, and staff will need to be more agile than ever before. And businesses that serve those restaurants will need to constantly innovate and find ways to cut costs and increase profits. There will be some major shakeups required to help restaurants fight back as new waves and variants raise their heads. As an industry, we need to ensure that restaurants can continue making the food we all love while remaining profitable in a new normal.
Saleem S. Khatri is the CEO of Lavu, a major global restaurant software and payments solution provider. His first job was as an ice cream scooper at a local creamery. Saleem later went on to Harvard Business School to get his MBA and built several successful startups. He loves spending time talking to and meeting with restaurant clients.