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How restaurant operators are pivoting due to COVID-19

By Renee Lee Wege and Dave Jenkins, courtesy of Datassential

There’s no sugarcoating it: The current COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire world, in countless ways, both from a business standpoint as well as personally.

From social distancing to stricter shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, everything that was once normal – happy hours, having a nice dinner out, picking up fresh produce from farmers’ markets, sending the kiddos to school with lunch money – has been flipped upside down, leading to cascading effects that have reached every corner of the food world.

The pandemic’s impact on the restaurant industry in Canada has mirrored that of the U.S. – both countries have government-mandated closures of restaurant dining rooms, although takeout and delivery have remained options. All but two states in the U.S. (South Dakota and Nebraska) have official statewide mandates closing dine-in restaurants and bars, while in Canada all but one province has officially closed all dining rooms. Closures have hit the industry hard, with one industry survey estimating that COVID-19 has cost the foodservice sector 800,000 jobs since March 1. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Operators are still doing all they can to keep staff employed and finding creative ways to brace the storm.

The following are just a few ways operators both in Canada and in the U.S. have pivoted their businesses in light of the pandemic, along with some insights from Datassential’s complimentary line of COVID-19 reports that can be a source of inspiration for nearly any operation.

Upping the takeout and delivery ante

Most restaurants across North America are now under mandates to cease all in-restaurant dining operations, which means operators are relying solely on takeout and delivery. Below are a few things businesses are implementing:

  • Starbucks, which has 1,400 units in Canada, is limiting service to drive-thru and delivery only, offering free delivery on all orders through Uber Eats. To show support for first responders, however, stores near them and communities with limited food options will remain open for mobile orders and pick up at the door.
  • Vaughan-based Swiss Chalet has reduced the size of its menu and shortened its hours in order to better serve its customers. Contactless delivery as well as curbside pick-up are now available, and the restaurant is offering a variety of bundled delivery deals such as a Deluxe Delivery for Two that includes two of the chain’s famous Quarter Chicken Dinners complete with appetizers and beverages. By limiting offerings, operators can turn up efficiency and shift their focus to just a few items – something to consider if your operation had tons of moving pieces.
  • While it may not be optimal from a business standpoint, some operators have taken to shutting down takeout in order to put the safety of their employees and customers first. McDonald’s Canada, for instance, completely closed down its dining rooms as of March 22 and is only allowing drive-thru and McDelivery service. With mounting concerns around safety, similar measures could be something to consider.
  • Casual-dining chain Red Lobster is an example of an operator offering ways for customers to stock up on food for the whole family. Red Lobster now has Family Meal Deals that feed four, and it also has promotions for discounts on to-go orders with Touchless Pickup. According to Red Lobster Canada, because of supply disruptions, there may be a more limited to-go menu along with some inevitable substitutions, such as Cornflake-Crusted Shrimp in place of Walt’s Favourite Shrimp. 

Going contactless and cashless

With social distancing becoming the norm throughout the world, many operators have rolled out contactless delivery options, while some are also going cashless to further minimize the risk of transmitting COVID-19. According to our COVID-19 Report #4: Hands Off, 44 per cent of consumers say that contactless delivery would make them feel safer when ordering takeout or delivery from a restaurant.

  • Delivery service Foodora offers customers the option of choosing contactless delivery for their orders, and has recently been demoing its new workforce of delivery robots. According to Strategy Online, the Toronto-based food delivery company has partnered with Tiny Mile Robots to create “Geoffrey,” a waterproof, 10-pound delivery robot that can carry up to six pounds of takeout in his locked trunk. Especially as customers try to have as little contact with humans as possible, it could be prime time to give technology-driven delivery options a whirl.
  • Manitoba-based SkipTheDishes, a delivery service that operates in more than 100 cities in Canada, has now made contactless delivery mandatory for all customers and has also suspended cash payments, something that could appeal to customers looking to make sure delivery couriers are implementing as many safety protocols as possible.

Shifting strategies

Most businesses have been forced to switch gears, from restaurants figuring out how to offer their typical menu items in more to-go friendly ways or grocery stores pivoting their operating hours. Here are a few examples of how the pandemic has changed a variety of businesses:

  • Ontario-based pasta manufacturer Italpasta is scaling back on its typical range of pastas. Though the company typically churns out 63 (that’s right, 63!) types of pastas, for now, they’re focusing on just the essentials, narrowing it down to six types of pasta including spaghetti, penne, and lasagna. “We’re running the spaghetti 24 hours a day,” owner and president Joseph Vitale told The Globe and Mail. “People aren’t so fancy right now. They just want pasta.” That viewpoint aligns with Datassential’s research, which has shown that now more than ever consumers are turning to traditional comfort foods for, well, comfort. Pizza, sandwiches, meat entrees, and pasta dishes are the top four dishes consumers say they want from restaurants during the COVID-19 crisis, with 44 per cent of consumers saying they want pasta or noodle dishes.
  • Little India in Toronto is just one example of a restaurant that’s looking out for the greater good during the pandemic. The long-time family restaurant is giving back to the community by offering a free meal to anyone whose job or livelihood has been impacted by COVID-19, no questions asked. Although the restaurant has had to cut some of its staff because of its dining-room closure, it’s been able to provide free meals to the community with the help of donations and preparing the meals has kept its remaining staff busy. While giving out free meals may not be possible for everyone, it could be something that’s doable with the help of donations, or perhaps it’s simply a small way to give back to the community and gain some name recognition. Especially for operators who may decide it’s time to call it (temporarily) quits, it’s also a way to use up any remaining ingredients.
  • Vancouver-based JOEY Restaurant Group has pivoted its restaurant model into JOEY Markets, saying “from produce to pantry, we’ll help you stay stocked and hassle-free.” Anything from JOEY’s brioche buns to bake-at-home apple pies to all-purpose flour are available for delivery or pickup, and they offer a number of meal kits, too.

Renee Lee Wege is a senior publications manager at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis, and concept testing for the food industry. For more information about North American food trends, contact Dave Jenkins at 847-903-5744 or For more complimentary resources on COVID-19’s impact on the industry, visit

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