The lasting changes and passing fads of COVID-19

By Mark Plumlee

COVID-19 brought massive, sweeping changes to the restaurant industry. Now, with the vaccine rollout well underway and provinces continuing to reopen their restaurants, one giant question remains unanswered.

Looking at some of the many shifts restaurant operations have seen over the past year, which ones will turn out to be passing fads? And which ones will be here to stay?

Here to Stay: Takeout and off-premises sales

Restaurant customer interactions have shifted from primarily on-premises to largely off-premises. This started before COVID-19 but has only accelerated since the closure of dining rooms and stay-at-home orders.

According to the Paytronix Annual Report, off-premises sales generated through online ordering systems tripled over the course of the pandemic. 65 per cent of those orders came from first-time customers who had never used online ordering, a massive increase in adoption which generally indicates the staying power of a new trend.

Increasingly, customers expect to have the option of enjoying their favourite food from the comfort of their homes. Unless your restaurant possesses such a large demand that you can confidently fill your dining room regardless of circumstance, you should consider expanding and perfecting your takeout.

That means an easy online ordering system, preferably hosted by you (more on that below). It also means optimizing your menu for takeout. Many restaurants are already doing this by simplifying their offerings down to their bestsellers and dishes that travel well. Even the most delicious order can be ruined in a heartbeat if the dish arrives cold and soggy.

Passing Fad: Reliance on third-party delivery

Temporary closures and stay-at-home orders during COVID-19 have only accelerated the industry’s shift towards delivery and takeout. Popular delivery apps like GrubHub and DoorDash provided restaurants with instant delivery infrastructure and coverage. They made it possible for thousands of restaurants to pivot and adapt overnight.

In a pinch, they worked.

In the long term, though? These third-party delivery services may not remain tenable solutions for restaurants on account of the high commission fees they charge. Restaurants famously operate on low margins, so taking a hit on every order can throw off your entire profit model.

“Most restaurants can’t make the math work with delivery apps alone,” says Hayley Russman, VP of marketing for BentoBox, a digital solutions provider for restaurants. “They need to diversify and find more ways to do commission-free sales.”

Ideally, restaurants can own a greater share of takeout revenue with their own ordering systems, provided by POS and other technology companies. Then restaurants can drive customers to their own ordering links to keep more of the sale. There is absolutely no reason why you should be paying commission fees on pickup orders.

After a year-plus of dine-in closures, many restaurants are beginning to realize that adopting a native delivery system is actually cheaper over the long haul than paying commission fees to a third party. And with so many online ordering and POS services popping up, it’s never been easier to take the plunge and ditch the delivery apps.

Passing Fad: Disposable menus

Disposable menus had their moment in the sun before quickly fading back into the shadows. I don’t anticipate them returning any time soon.

 Essentially just a takeout menu that restaurants use as dine-in menu then dispose of between customers, disposable menus were a big hit early in COVID-19 along with laminated menus when there was little certainty over how the virus spread. Restaurants wanted to ensure that no two customers would share the same menu and transfer pathogens.

Now that we know it can only live on surfaces for a short amount of time, expensive and non-sustainable disposable menus suddenly seem a poor option. And restaurant buying patterns have reflected that revelation.

MustHaveMenus, a menu template design and printing service, sold 212,000 single-use disposable menus in May 2020. By May 2021, that number was down to 42,000. Disposable menus worked as a temporary solution for menu safety, but now restaurants are reverting to more permanent ones.

Here to Stay: Online menus

After the passing fad of disposable and laminated menus, restaurants have turned to a more permanent solution: online menus. These mobile-friendly designs allow customers to peruse your food and drink options from the palm of their hand and will be a fixture of the dining experience moving forward.

According to a report from SquareUp, 88 per cent of the restaurant operators they polled said they would consider switching full-time from a print menu to a digital one.

With online menus, there’s a fine line to walk between design and utility. The colours, graphics, layout, and font styles that are expected to go into a printed menu won’t translate well to a phone screen. Therefore, when converting your menu for the web, you need an online menu builder that lets you enter all of the items with minimal fuss. Basic branding is a bonus, but the key is making the menu easy to read and swipe on a phone.

Here to Stay: QR codes

QR codes became perhaps one of the more surprising developments from the pandemic. Already gaining some traction after a decade of largely failing to catch on, the pandemic saw their popularity explode.

According to a consumer survey conducted by Ivanti, 84 per cent of customers reported using a QR code over the past year. Similar to online ordering, QR codes saw a huge increase in adoption with over 54 per cent of those polled reporting that they used a QR code for the first time in the last three months.

Restaurants use QR codes most often as an easy link to their online menus. But they can also fill dozens of other important restaurant functions: prompting customers to leave a review, promoting discount codes, redirecting to specials menus, upselling desserts, etc. The possibilities are almost endless.

“With the flexibility of QR codes,” says Russman, “we think restaurants are only beginning to scratch the surface of their digital marketing potential.”

Due to their ease of use and myriad of applications, QR codes, the once-overlooked piece of technology, should continue to be a mainstay at restaurants long after COVID-19.

Passing Fad: Excessive cleaning and sanitary messaging

In the early stages of COVID-19, back before we knew more about how it spread, restaurants went into overdrive with regards to cleaning procedures. Handwashing signs were posted everywhere, and employees sprayed tables, menus, and utensils down with disinfectant multiple times an hour.

I talked to restaurant managers and employees who told me that any downtime was to be spent cleaning and disinfecting every surface they could find. At a point, it became more performative a way to show customers that you care deeply about their safety.

Virtually every promotional message from happy hour to music night was replaced in 2020 with a safety message. Signs on the sidewalk, flyers at the counter, and signs at the table instruct customers on how to navigate changes brought on by the pandemic. As the need for that urgent messaging decreased, so did the emphasis on this type of signage.

Customer design trends for marketing materials confirm this shifting focus in messaging. In May 2020, MustHaveMenus customers designed 1130 “Safety Templates” for flyers, posters, sandwich boards, etc. In May 2021, that number dropped by more than 1000 per cent to 102 templates.

After 2020 was dominated by safety messaging, 2021 should see a return of more classic on-site marketing, more attuned to selling, driving bigger orders and higher volumes.

Expect more change and upheaval

Restaurants have undergone a huge transformation over the past year. That will continue into and through 2021 and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic as we continue to see which large-scale changes are here to stay and which ones turned out to be passing fads.

Mark Plumlee is the Sr. Copywriter for MustHaveMenus, a DIY design and digital marketing service for restaurants. His work has been published in Modern Restaurant Management, QSR, FSR, Food Service News, Hospitality Tech and Bar Business Magazine. When he’s not covering food industry trends and technology, he likes to write about the Portland Trail Blazers.

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