With the virus once again surging in the U.S., it is beginning to look a whole lot like 2020 again. The vaccine’s release in the spring was supposed to bring back the economy, jobs and restaurants.
As of this writing, however, local governments are asking Americans to be safe, wear masks and avoid large gatherings – which specifically includes restaurants.
Let’s assume Covid is not going anywhere soon
Assuming that the virus continues down the path of more virulent and clever variants, as has been the case, the American consumer will quickly revert to behaviors that were unthinkable prior to March 2020.
Social distancing, masks, forgoing the office, Zoom and food delivered to your stoop have all become, if not habits, then widely accepted norms. We expect 2022 to look a lot like 2021, with the continuation of centralized meal preparation and delivery. However, categories that have suffered supply shortages and closed dining rooms will face the threat of substitutes.
1. Cloud kitchens will replace eateries
Our research showed that 46% of consumers expect to continue ordering delivery long after the pandemic ends. This means that restaurant footprints will be smaller and concept sharing will continue to replace the current structure. The share of meal preparation will shift toward off-premise, while on-premise patrons will wait as if the dining room is packed.
Offsite kitchens that serve as hubs for delivery preparation will begin to take the place of restaurants. Walmart recently announced its ghost kitchen concept, which it plans to expand rapidly, adding more competition to an already crowded field.
2. Dining rooms will be living rooms
The shelter in place orders of 2020 quickly changed the American way of life. Instead of commuting to school or work, Americans commuted to the nearest computer screen to begin their day. Day after day this happened in 2020. With restaurants closed, more Americans relied on their homes as the extension of a restaurant dining area. As of this writing, more employees will be resigned to home and Zoom calls as the cooler months approach.
During the pandemic, 40 percent of consumers told us they preferred dining at home and not just for safety reasons. Convenience and comfort also played a significant role. And as the delta and other variants shutter more restaurants, the living room will serve as the front-of-house in the new era.
3. Servers will be runners
With swaths of the population leaving the ranks of foodservice employment, operators will rely more heavily on back-of-house staff and far less on front line workers.
Restaurants will have staff available to deliver food curbside and to hand off orders to third-party aggregators. The front-of-house hospitality will continue in fine dining, but the days of waiters and waitresses have passed.
4. Fountain and dispensed drinks will disappear
Packaged drinks travel well, but not so for fountain drinks. Americans have cemented their relationship with packaged beverages, not from restaurants but from their own refrigerators. For operators, this is a big loss because of the profitability of carbonated dispensed drinks, but the movement is well on the way.
5. Bye bye portion control packs
Similar to the drop in demand for beverages, individually packaged condiments and dressings will (and have) faced the same fate. The double-sided issue with portion packs is of course demand, but also supply shortages. During the pandemic, manufacturers were not able to produce these items fast enough for the operator, and therefore bulk sauce placed in disposable ramekins became more effective and cost efficient. It also gave operators a way to either charge extra or to cut costs and reduce shrinkage on expensive packets.
The operational changes due to Covid are broad and sweeping. There are likely a great number of scenarios that could play out, but these are among the most probable and notable in FSIP’s opinion.