As the pandemic has stretched on, it’s become abundantly clear that once COVID-19 has waned, the “normal” that we’ll all be living in will be very different from the “normal” we experienced pre-pandemic.
What was one of the first places where we caught a glimpse of what the future might hold? The restaurant industry.
Countless full-service establishments have bent over backward to adapt to pandemic conditions and find a way to serve customers who are, and should be, looking for ways to avoid contact at every step of the customer journey.
With all the changes that journey has undergone, due both to restaurant adaptations and customer behavior, it’s critical to ask what that journey will look like once the pandemic has passed. How can full-service restaurants recover?
There are two key elements that I believe will have to be embraced—not in the future, but right now.
One is contactless dining. The other is labor optimization.
By contactless dining, I mean what might be called safe dining: mobile ordering and payments, and digital menus, primarily.
Now, while digital menus have been a mainstay of the pandemic response, due to concerns about contamination and shared items, I don’t think they’ll continue to be dominant long-term.
Contactless ordering and payment, however, are here to stay. Some brands may feel wary of allowing customers to order by themselves on their mobile devices because it can be seen as removing an element of the hospitality that guests expect when they come into a restaurant (expectations that have been put on hold during the pandemic).
However, brands that are employing contactless ordering right now are finding that in fact, allowing people to browse a menu and order on their phones does not remove hospitality—instead, it offers an added level of convenience to guests who appreciate a faster dining experience, while supporting the restaurant by allowing for faster table turns.
While contactless ordering will likely remain an option for customers at many restaurants, rather than the only way to order, contactless payment will soon be adopted across the board by establishments of all types, with the potential exception of fine dining restaurants.
That’s because the process of waiting for a server to bring you a check is antiquated. It’s a process that has, for a long time, needed to be streamlined so that people can simply pay at the table with their phones. I’m certain that within a few years, we’ll reminisce about the time we used to have to actually hand someone a card to pay for a meal.
As with any industry, with the advent of specific technology, labor changes soon follow. Often, we simply assume this is going to mean reduction—usually, a drastic reduction.
However, in the case of full-service restaurants, I believe this will look more like labor optimization than reduction, although it’s certainly true that there will be a certain level of reduction (of course, there already has been).
Here’s an example. Many sit-down brands have started delivering food as a pandemic adaptation. But customers aren’t going to want to give that up once the pandemic passes, and many brands will either choose to or will be forced to continue offering it.
So let’s say 30 percent of your business is now going off-premise. Someone has to deliver that food, so some people who were or would have been servers will now become delivery drivers. The same is true of kitchen staff—opening up off-premise dining has, for some brands, increased their orders during certain times, necessitating more cooks and kitchen staff.
For front-of-the-house staff, we’ll see an increase in the level of service they’re able to offer, because they’re able to focus more on the hospitality element of their job rather than the technical details like firing orders to the kitchen, delivering checks, and so forth.
What’s more, servers who are only filling the position as a stopgap—those workers who aren’t loyal to a specific brand, who jump from restaurant to restaurant, and who aren’t as invested in the job—will naturally gravitate toward other positions, or be let go by restaurants that no longer need warm bodies to take care of the volume of customers.
And since many of their former job functions will be taken care of by the customers themselves through contactless ordering and payment, the more experienced and dedicated servers will be able to take care of more tables at once, further reducing the necessity for additional, less-optimal staff members.
The future of full-service restaurants will be heavily dependent on tech and optimizing staff resources. By implementing these changes now, restaurants can be ready for the post-pandemic recovery—whenever that starts to be possible.
Rom Krupp, is the founder and CEO of OneDine, a comprehensive dining solution for restaurants which increases table turns and incremental sales while reducing labor costs. He can be reached at Rom.Krupp@OneDine.com.