It is clear that restaurants are amongst the hardest hit industries affected by COVID-19, if not THE hardest hit. It was reported 1 in 6 restaurants will not be able to open up their doors again at all. In the United States, 110,000 restaurants have closed, and in the height of the pandemic, 20.5 million jobs were lost in the restaurant industry. But with a vaccine in the beginning stages of distribution, and hope on the horizon there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for the food service industry after all.
If 2020 taught us anything, it is that the key to success in the food industry (or any industry, really) is adaptability and resilience.
Here in my hometown of Los Angeles, after the initial city wide lockdown, restaurants were allowed to open with a limited capacity in order to socially distance all guests. While this may have made it tougher to turn a profit because it significantly reduced the quantity of people a business could serve in a day, most restaurants actively tried to adapt to this new “normal”. Since profits for their standard dine-in experience had been significantly diminished, most local restaurants began to look for ways to supplement their profits in order to keep their business afloat, and their teams employed. Restaurants who do not normally provide take away food turned to delivery apps that they had previously passed on or chosen not to participate in, others employed their existing teams to set up a delivery process of their own making. Even many bars started providing to-go cocktails, which, in most US cities, was not allowed prior to this year. Some took this a step further and created meal kits so customers could learn to cook restaurant quality food at home, thus also ensuring that their high quality produce and products were not spoiled nor wasted.
Restaurants were challenged with the task of meeting Covid-19 safety guidelines that surpassed the standard health codes by a long shot. Suddenly tables needed to be 6 feet apart, servers and bartenders needed to wear masks, and in many places, dining had been limited to outdoors only. Now, this seems simple enough, however, for many eateries meeting these new guidelines required additional investments in equipment such as weather resistant seating, outdoor heaters, etc., which can be a tough pill to swallow when your business isn’t making enough money to justify the spend, especially as the cost of these items skyrocketed when the demand increased. Some businesses even opted to utilize their parking lots for expanded outdoor dining space, which is a creative solution if you have the property to do so and are operating in a city where the climate lends itself to comfortable outdoor dining. Others struggled to find the necessary space and were unable to continue to provide a dining experience in a traditional sense.
Even something as straightforward and simple as restaurant menus and accepting signatures for payments presented new challenges. Employers had to minimize the contact their staff had with guests and decrease all physical touch points of service. With this we saw the rise of the QR code. Paper receipts? Pens? Both relics of the past.
From a customer perspective, during the best of times, it can be difficult to get a reservation at a restaurant in a reasonable time slot, but while restaurants must operate at a limited capacity, it can be near impossible. That said, the demand is there. People are craving social interaction and nice dinners out more than ever.
So what’s next? What happens now? A vaccine is rolling out and within the next year (hopefully) the world will begin to heal from the impact of Covid-19, but where does that leave the restaurant industry? What changes are to stay and what changes need to be left in 2020? With society’s reinvigorated focus on the spread of viruses and bacteria, certain advances are probably here for the long haul. Contactless payments and QR code menus are likely here to stay. It’s hard to say whether the to-go cocktails and meal kits will continue in following years, especially since alcohol regulations are largely up to the city government, but I for one certainly hope they’ll stick around. Some of the rest I hope to see become relics of the past, such as masked servers, and distanced tables (once it is safe to discontinue these measures)
More importantly though, for the entrepreneur, a post-Covid world might actually be the perfect time to open a new restaurant. A new restaurant will have built-in demand and less competition than ever before. Not to mention commercial rent prices in most major cities are significantly lower than recent years. When there are downturns in industries and the economy, it can ultimately be equated to an opportunity.