Five Trends for Dining Out in a Post-COVID World

Image: Jay Wennington via Unsplash
Is your restaurant ready for the new normal? Here are some trends to be prepared for with the future of dining and what consumers will come to expect and what businesses can do to meet their needs.

While the COVID pandemic has changed the restaurants around the world do business, it will eventually come to an end, and the lessons learned during these difficult times will shape how diners view “eating out” in the future and how businesses adjust to the new normal.

With an eye towards the post-COVID food & beverage business environment, Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, one of the world’s top hospitality schools, has put together a useful list of five dining-out trends affecting restaurants, bars, and consumers that are emerging in a post-pandemic world. 

According to Michael Cheng, Dean of the Chaplin School, the changes taking place are ongoing and it’s important for the food and beverage industry to adjust and adapt to changing consumer preferences.

“The abruptness of COVID-19 has caused many of us in the food and beverage industry to stop in our tracks and pause for a minute,” said Cheng. 

“At first, we thought it was a temporary pause on life as we know it, on the way we socialize outside our home with friends and family over drinks and dinner. We thought that something as simple as after-work drinks or weekend get-togethers would be put on pause for a couple of weeks.”

That hasn’t been the case says, Cheng.

“As the layoffs and furloughs started mounting in the hospitality industry, we began to realize this didn’t resemble anything normal. At the same time, restaurants and bars were trying to determine their next move. Some were hesitant and closed initially, while others started expanding their services to include deliveries, take-outs, mini-groceries and meal-kits. As the weeks became months, it was evident that new health and safety protocols were going to be implemented when the economy re-opened, and there was a new need to address and allay consumers fears over dining out.”

Here are the top trends that the industry should be mindful of according to the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management.

Five Post COVID Dining-Out Trends 

#1 Transparency and Communication

There will be a hyper-awareness of safety and sanitation on the part of consumers in the post-pandemic world. The key will be to actively demonstrate adaptation to new safety and sanitation protocols and simultaneously communicate this to customers at all times. It will be crucial to ensure that staff teams feel safe returning to work, and customers feel safe frequenting a dining establishment. 

A recent webinar hosted by a trend software, predictive analytics, and consumer insights firm casts consumer doubt on businesses acting responsibly when non-essentials reopen, which includes restaurants and bars. 

Cleaning should be highly visible at all times, and protocols should be clearly posted on the website and within a place of business for all to see. “Invite social media influencers to do a vlog of your new safety and sanitation protocols in your restaurant,” says Cheng. “Better yet, invite your local municipal officials to tour your establishment unannounced.”

#2 Innovation and Creativity

Many restaurants and bars have introduced service extensions such as delivery and take-out options as well as pop-up grocery stores during this time, and there is no reason for that to stop once businesses reopen. 

In fact, research shows that these new off-premise eating habits have been widely adopted by consumers with the majority of Americans saying they will likely continue to order a family meal bundle, subscribe to a regular meal kit service, order restaurant food for delivery, purchase alcoholic beverages for delivery using an online service (where legal), and shop for groceries using an online app. 

Of note are the restaurateurs who have paid it forward by providing meals to essentials workers during this time. Will this continue and will it pivot towards a different demographic of interest after the pandemic is over? Only time will tell. 

Other creative endeavors that have surfaced during the pandemic are the rise in subscription services, such as Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where customers can order an Iconic Market Box that includes a variety of items from the vendors for pick-up or delivery. In spite or perhaps because of the pandemic, innovation has soared.

#3 Contactless Technology and Virtual Presence

Contactless ordering, payment, and pickup will continue on in the foreseeable future, as consumers continue to practice social distancing. In the meantime, the need to have contactless-everything has intensified all of our virtual presence. 

From virtual happy hours to virtual team meetings, many restaurants and bars have resorted to establishing virtual tip jars to help garner some relief for their employees during this time. The New York City Wine & Food Festival (NYCWFF) launched “At Home”, virtual cooking with your favorite NYCWFF chefs with the proceeds benefiting NYCWFF Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, and numerous cities have also launched virtual restaurant weeks to boost delivery and takeout support of local businesses. 

The use of advanced analytics and Internet of Things or IoT technology will also reveal more robust data about consumers, allowing restaurants to tailor marketing strategies and offerings, targeting different segments of the business day and different demographics. Robotics and labor automation will become commonplace in restaurants as the need to adhere to safe distances and contactless capabilities continue.

#4 A Collaborative Community

The restaurant and bar community is tight-knit. During these uncertain times, many restaurant and bar owners have been sharing their playbooks with each other. 

From launching relief funds within days of closure, such as the SOBEWFF® & FIU Chaplin School Hospitality Industry Relief Fund, to sharing best practices for packaging and deliveries, they have all banded together to help each other out. 

Some have even recommended their own laid-off or furloughed employees to others who needed help setting up their technology to take online orders or increase their social media presence. 

Others have come together to collaborate on special events, such as a recent Cinco de Mayo collaboration between Temple Street Eatery of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Taquiza Tacos of Miami Beach, Florida. As more and more cities set reopening dates, they have collaborated together on drafting reopening guidelines and providing feedback to local authorities on what works and what doesn’t. This collaborative bond that is created today will continue on in various neighborhood restaurant and bar communities.

#5 Reset!

This is a chance for a reset in the restaurant and bar industry. We all know the margins are notoriously small, and many owners usually have one month or less of cash reserves in the bank. 

When disruption of this magnitude hits our industry, there likely will be many closures, with some estimating that 1 in 5 restaurants won’t reopen. Yes, the dining landscape may be vastly different from now on, and sharing menus and communal tables may very well disappear. 

Some have questioned the longevity of the buffet, but with proper safeguards and elimination of self-service options, while maintaining ample choices, the buffet may be modified to survive in the future, potentially leading to healthy lifestyle choices. 

Dining out will continue to be a desired experience, but how that experience is consumed by different demographics will vary. The physical lay-out of the restaurant will have to be redesigned to emphasize more social distancing, and outdoor dining with fresh air could be the norm, along with take-outs and deliveries. 

This could reduce the physical footprint needed by each restaurant or bar, and the eating area could become a shared space, like a food hall. A larger, more ambitious outcome could be a total reset of wages and rents in this industry. This will include a fight for fair wages, reliable benefits, and workplace democracy for all who are involved in the food chain, from the field to the table. 

The existing business model for restaurants and bars will have to be closely scrutinized, as many will not be able to afford to pay their leases in the current conditions with a reduced seating capacity and social distancing requirements.

“While these are signs that we see today, the next 12 months will give us better clarity of the way forward,” said Cheng. “Whether or not we can secure herd immunity or provide a vaccine for everyone will determine if we can return to dining and drinking the way we’ve been accustomed to. We may not, however, want to give up some of these new learned behaviors.”

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