Predicting the future of dine-in

By Rachel Debling

Social distancing will dramatically reduce restaurant capacity, at least in the immediate future, so as provinces begin to reopen, restaurants will have to be creative in order to stay competitive. David Hopkins, president of hospitality management and consulting company The Fifteen Group, says that an increase in pricing will be the first immediate effect customers are going to feel. “You can’t reduce capacity by 50 per cent and expect to make the same amount of money,” he notes. In addition, menus will have to be streamlined to make peak hours easier to navigate and the kitchen more efficient, in turn helping to improve a restaurant’s profitability model.

It will also be harder for guests to get into restaurants for dine-in service. Hopkins points out that if up to 20 per cent of establishments don’t open their doors following the pandemic, only 80 per cent of businesses will be welcoming back customers. With capacity cut in half, only 40 per cent of seats that were available as recently as a few months ago will be accessible. “It’s going to be almost impossible [to secure a table] unless you book well in advance,” Hopkins notes.

A united front

Training staff to be aware of messaging surrounding new policies and procedures is key to creating a welcoming and hospitable environment for guests as they return to dine-in service during the first few months following reopening. Adjustments made to sanitation processes are just one of the areas that staff should be educated on and encouraged to communicate to patrons. “I think guests will be extremely understanding,” Hopkins predicts.

Lessons learned

In looking to other countries that have already started the process of reopening, Hopkins notes there are takeaways for Canadian restaurants planning their own re-entry into dining room service, such as the use of Plexiglass barriers in Europe and abroad. Still, on home soil the consumer reaction will be based on government mandates – for example, whether or not masks will be required for certain industries. Some restaurants may opt to choose comfort over protection if not required by law to do so, while others may go above and beyond in an effort to show concern for their customers’ health.

There are even some business owners who are soliciting creative license to make the best of a bad situation. “There is a restaurant in the U.S. that is doing social distancing by putting mannequins at every other table,” Hopkins points out. “Someone in Canada could [pick up that idea], too.”

The changing face of dine-in offerings

Though it remains to be seen, buffet-style foodservice likely won’t see the light of day for at least six months following reopening, explains Hopkins. And though it may come back in the long-term, it will undoubtedly be less popular than before. “People will be much more cognizant about being sanitary,” he says.

This change in mindset may also make itself known elsewhere, such as in the quality of the meals guests opt for. “There is a subtle, behind-the-scenes shift toward healthy eating,” Hopkins concedes. In his personal experience, however, he has heard people expressing the desire to the eat decadent, heavy meals they may not be able or willing to make themselves at home, such as poutine or nachos. To that end, he believes there will be a trend in both directions, with some customers opting for fresher, more nutritious options while others look to indulge in ways they haven’t been able to during quarantine.

The supplier chain may also have an influence on menu items, as a lower availability of beef and chicken may cause restaurants to pivot to more vegetarian meals. “Fifteen years ago no one wanted [vegan and vegetarian meals] on the menu – you included it because you had to have an option – and now you need at least several tempting [selections],” Hopkins observes.

Outside of the dining room

No matter how you slice it, the entire dining experience will be different for customers and restaurant staff alike. Hopkins recommends having a solid plan set up well in advance of reopening, as procedures will be different and everyone involved will have a learning curve. The steps taken shouldn’t just be in place to ensure a great restaurant experience in the moment but as a safeguard for the safety and health of guests and employees in the future.

“We encourage our clients to take names and phone numbers and record what table guests are sitting at, in case anyone at the facility does end up becoming sick,” he says. Small efforts like these can be built into a restaurant’s new post-COVID-19 identity, one of a caring and proactive community leader.

“I think restaurants that will do well will be the ones to incorporate these new rules and regulations into their branded experience,” Hopkins says, and in the end, the businesses that overcome any apprehension regarding the changing foodservice landscape will be the ones most likely to survive.

For more information on The Fifteen Group, please visit their website.

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