Temporary disruption or here to stay? 5 restaurant trends to include in your recovery plan

To stay alive during the pandemic, brands, owners and operators have had to adapt. Many restaurants found it necessary to kick long-term plans into immediate action, such as adding drive-thru, while many made changes no one ever would have anticipated — fine dining available as take-out?!

As we pass the nine-month mark of pandemic-related restrictions, restaurants are implementing some of these changes for the long haul. But some changes that were driven by survival in March 2020 may not be here to stay. Which is which? RMS believes the following five trends will become the new norm in 2021 and beyond.

QR-enabled menus

Touchless technology has become increasingly popular in restaurants around the world. Not only does digital ordering lower the risks of exposure between customers and servers, but it also eliminates the cost and waste of disposable menus and the time it takes to sanitize reusable menus.

As such, QR codes are increasingly reshaping table service as we know it. The pageantry of a waiter carefully handing over a menu has been replaced by diners pointing a smartphone at a black code square on their socially distanced table. Though perhaps less elegant, QR codes get the job done. The phone camera scans the code, and voila, today’s menu appears. Guests place their orders as they wish, when they want, without touching anything other than their own phone. Payment happens the same way — all digitally. Diners leave their cards in their wallet and bypass waiting for the server to initiate and complete the purchase. It’s contactless, fast, secure, efficient and clean — and will go the distance.

Drive-thrus and curbside pickup

Drive-thrus aren’t new, but they are gaining newfound reliance as a way for people to feed their families safely. Workers wear masks and gloves, and they often present food on a tray, with only the customer touching the bag. Traffic and sales proved out the concept’s relevance for today’s diner — YOY drive-thru sales were up as much as 45% in August and are still 30-35% above 2019 figures.

When dining restrictions were first put in place, brands not equipped for drive-thru service scrambled to provide an option. The scramble paid big dividends for brands like Chipotle, which recently opened its 100th Chipotlane, the brand’s drive-thru digital order pickup lane. The brand’s CFO recently told investors that the $70,000 investment for the window generates 10% to 15% higher volumes, which could mean up to $300,000 in added revenues per Chipotle store.

Drive-thru’s distant cousin, curbside pickup, emerged as a lifeline for fast-casual and more formal, sit-down restaurant brands that had to close dining rooms. Even as restrictions have eased to allow for some percentage of dining in, curbside remains in high demand. Whether it’s fear of eating in a closed space, the convenience of enjoying a non-QSR meal at home, or both, we predict curbside pickup will not fall by the wayside anytime soon.

Trustworthy health and safety policies

Cleanliness has always been paramount to restaurant guests, but in the days of COVID, concerns extend much further than a sanitary restroom and spotless table. According to our survey, when respondents were asked about their concerns when eating out at restaurants contamination, safety and sanitation practices, and cleanliness made the top of the list. Diners expect restaurants to follow — and go beyond — government-mandated health and safety policies about pandemic-era operations. According to QSR magazine, “To win trust with guests, it is crucial for businesses to update their operating procedures, including but not limited to: employee temperature checks before each shift, masks for employees, and more stringent food safety and sanitization protocols.”

Restaurants must ensure and visibly demonstrate that staff and customers are out of harm’s way wherever they encounter the brand: inside the establishment, handing off and picking up food curbside or from the drive-thru window, or even leaving food at the customer’s front door as part of contactless delivery. Customers still want to enjoy the convenience and fun of dining out, but it’s up to restaurants to communicate that they are doing all they can to reduce risk. In a time of great uncertainty, enhanced expectations for health and safety is one trend that we are all but certain will be a lasting and permanent change come life 2.0.

Third-party delivery services

Third-party delivery services like DoorDash, Postmates, Uber Eats and Grubhub have kept the restaurant industry’s business alive. Just a few clicks on a website or a few taps on an app brings food delivered from a favorite restaurant in an instant.

And while third-party delivery services are an easy way to support local restaurants safely, they can be expensive and prohibitive to brands, especially smaller mom-and-pop outfits. To offset the commissions, many restaurants are adding their own delivery staff or partnering with local providers while maintaining a presence with the bigger-name players. As Shane Broussard of the Restaurant Marketing & Delivery Association and DeliverLogic says, “In the online ordering game, guests are interested in delivery, not loyalty.” Delivery will survive post-pandemic, but who will be doing the driving is yet to be determined.

Plant-based alternatives

Pre-COVID Burger King and others kicked off a plant-based meat explosion, and Impossible and Beyond went head to head at brands and grocery store shelves. In May, Bloomberg reported that “the biggest surge of any category came in plant-based meat, which includes offerings from companies like Beyond Meat Inc. and Impossible Foods Inc., with sales jumping 264%.”

That heat has cooled slightly, partly due to reduced menus and compromised supply chains and partly due to changing consumer behavior. In our recent survey, the number of respondents eating plant-based meat alternatives multiple times a week declined from 33% to 20%, and 54% believed plant-based meats are too expensive.

Yet many people are rethinking their diets and ethics as a result of the pandemic, and a growing number of consumers recognize that plant-based meats are better for the environment. Look for plant-based foods to take their place in everyday eating habits, whether it is meat or plant-based milks and other products. We’re already seeing the boost in grocery, and brands located in urban or suburban higher-income areas will see a bump. Our survey found that frequent users of plant-based meats tend to be millennials and/or families with household incomes of more than $100K and who live in the coastal states of California, New York and Florida.

At RMS, we’re committed to helping the restaurant industry move forward with strength. We’re helping some of the world’s largest brands create a plan for profit. Let us help you — we’re in this together.

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