Renewed consumer optimism is unleashing pent-up demand for “getting back to normal.” A large part of that is dining experiences. Consumers miss catching the game at their favorite sports bar, date nights, and even the power lunch. Restaurant industry traffic is already accelerating in areas where dining restrictions have eased.
Experts expect the rebound to grow in the months ahead. The following measures will allow you to bounce back sooner rather than later.
#1- Stay Aware of Guest Sentiment
Rapidly changing public health environments vary across states. As you navigate shifting protocols, keep the guest experience front and center.
While public confidence is increasing, there is also a sense of fragility. Many customers remain wary and have a feeling we could move backward at any moment.
Be responsive to customer feedback. Find ways to adapt your hours, menus, or venues in response. For instance, restaurant operators in China reduced venue capacity to increase space between tables to alleviate social distancing concerns.
Use social media to communicate with your customer base. Share your safety measures to build confidence. Run polls, read comments, and follow loyal customers to gain insights on customer wants or concerns.
#2- Bring in Technology & Track Data
Using technology improves efficiency. With restaurant-specific back-office software, you can monitor sales and foot traffic to forecast staff needs, avoid food waste, and manage all costs.
The data can also pinpoint some opportunities. Case-in-point: the NPD Group reported customer visits to restaurants during the “snack period” service–3-5 pm and 9 pm-5 am– increased year-over-year in January and February 2021. According to the analysis, “the top growing reasons consumers give for visiting during the p.m. snack period are the quality of food and desire for a treat.”
Restaurants can leverage this knowledge by creating special offerings that appeal to customers seeking a quick “snack period” treat.
#3- Digital Ordering
People embraced the convenience of digital ordering and digital menus during the pandemic. In fact, digital ordering was up 145% in December 2020, compared to the prior year.
“Before Covid-19, order ahead and delivery were on the rise, but that number has only grown during the pandemic,” said Noelle Ifshin, President of 4Q Consulting.
“Restaurants will move to frictionless ordering and payment with an increase in online and mobile orders for pickup and delivery. Even inside restaurants, diners will order their own food on tablets or kiosks to limit exposure to employees and payment devices.” – Noelle Ifshin, President of 4Q Consulting
Not only does digital ordering reduce touchpoints, but restaurants gain the agility to adjust for food pricing and supply while reducing printing costs.
#4- Focus on Value
Restaurants implementing technology use the data to find more low-cost high-margin offerings. This is how brands stay afloat in a recessionary period.
“Restaurants that offer good value for the price and quality food can find success in any environment. This was true during the Great Recession; it’s true during COVID, it’s true no matter boom or bust,” said David Portalatin, Senior Vice President and Industry Advisor at NPD, in a 2021 industry projection.
#5- Be Creative
Restaurants that adapted and found differentiators are the ones that survived and are now thriving. For example, restaurants started selling do-it-yourself dinner kits to minimize waste and provide customer value. Others created family packages for takeout service.
Ifshin finds creativity not just in the menu. Brands are unveiling new prototypes and “reimagined venues, which would have been laughed out of the boardroom pre-pandemic.” She sees new designs featuring drive-thru-only stores, triple-lane drive-thrus, ghost kitchens, and configurations just for mobile ordering.
#6- Maintain Carry-out Service
Fast-food and limited-service sectors did well during the pandemic for a reason. People grew tired of cooking meals for their families. Limited-service venues offered a welcome break from the home kitchen.
These sectors are expected to keep expanding in the months ahead. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) 2021 State of the Industry report projects sales at limited-service restaurants will total $313.6 billion in 2021, up 7.3% from 2020 and 1.4% from 2019. They found 68% of consumers are more likely to purchase takeout than pre-pandemic, meaning maintaining some carry-out services will be essential to growing customer loyalty.
#7- Take Advantage of the RRF
The American Rescue Plan carved out a $28.6 billion “Restaurant Revitalization Fund” (RRF) inside the Small Business Administration (SBA). The RRF targets small food-service businesses as a tool to bridge the gap in lost revenue. No publicly traded companies or owner-operators with over 20+ restaurants are eligible. These funds are for any expense the SBA says is essential to maintain operations, such as payroll, mortgage obligations, construction for outdoor seating, or cleaning materials. If you’re an eligible entity, apply for an RRF grant to help you adapt to the shifting industry.
Restaurants Prepare to Accelerate!
The industry is going to recover. People are longing for a sense of normalcy, like treating the family to a night out. While some practices we will be pleased to drop (wearing masks), embracing the gained creativity, flexibility, and technological tools will move the industry rebound. Use these measures to improve the dining experience for all your consumers.