You’d be hard-pressed to find an industry that has been more affected by the pandemic than the food and beverage industry. With thousands of restaurants closing and people still wary of travel and hotel stays, this once robust sector has had to adapt with the times in order to survive. But it’s not all doom and gloom. While people may be staying closer to home, the desire to eat a nice not home-cooked meal is still strong. Takeout is booming, and an increase in outdoor dining options is perhaps the best thing to have come out of the pandemic. Some challenges like disruptions in supply chains and labor shortages are stickier problems to solve. But the notoriously wary-of-change food and beverage industry is coming around to new digital solutions. As a result, restaurants and hotels are becoming more nimble with technologies that help track demand, provide safer mobile ways of waiting for and picking up food, and other digital innovations that make it possible for businesses to adapt more quickly to changing situations. While the ever-evolving regulations are making it hard to feel like anything is permanent, these five pandemic-era trends are very likely here to stay:
- People are looking for healthier options
- Even high-end restaurants are offering takeout
- Businesses that take safety seriously win trust
- Labor shortages and supply chain challenges are not going away
- Technological innovations are easing the burden
1. People are looking for healthier options
It’s not surprising that a global pandemic has made people care more about their health. Consumers are having to “rethink their food choices from a health standpoint, with people looking for ways to stay as healthy as possible.” And it’s not just about eating fewer calories. What people want are “healthy foods that boost immune system performance and immunity-boosting ingredients will play a significant role in 2021.”
This trend is coinciding with a growing concern about doing what’s good for the planet and a rise in popularity of plant-based foods. Even fast food chains like McDonald’s are launching a new McPlant burger. People are looking for plant-based options that are “packed with flavor, color, and freshness. You can go the raw vegetable route, or create cooked preparations that highlight the vegetable as your dish’s hero. These include plant-based faux meats, soups, and even roasted vegetable creations. The more creative you get, the greater your customer satisfaction levels will be.” Businesses that are embracing the new “impossible” trend are seeing significant growth in revenue.
2. Even high-end restaurants are offering takeout
Although some restrictions are being lifted, the regulations keep changing, and there are plenty of people who still don’t go out to eat or travel as often as they used to. The restaurants and hotels that made it through the pandemic have learned their lesson: in order to survive, you have to get creative. “Many eat-in restaurants chains have switched up how they do things and updated their menus, making packaged to go and pickup orders standard.” Takeout is on the rise with “sixty percent of Americans ordering take-out or delivery food once a week.”
Even upscale restaurants have switched their focus to dishes that travel well. People may not want to go out as often, but they still want to be able to enjoy even Michelin-starred meals at home. “By putting a restaurant’s branding on to-go meals, guests feel that they are getting the same quality in their food that they would find in the restaurant itself.” Some hotel restaurants are going all out by offering all-inclusive services that aim to recreate the dining out experience with “a seven-course Michelin-ranked meal served in the safety of the customer’s own space, a personal sommelier to pair wines perfectly with each course, elegant floral arrangements for ambiance, champagne for toasting, as well as turndown and babysitting services—all delivered right to your door.” Knowing that more people want to order out rather than dine in presents a huge opportunity for both hotels and restaurants to be more efficient with underutilized spaces, decreasing pricey dine-in space and using less expensive commercial kitchens to cook in.
3. Businesses that take safety seriously win trust
Even as regulations lift, safety will continue to be top of mind for many consumers. The food and beverage industry will have to continue demonstrating that it’s taking precautions and keeping both employees and guests safe. “Social Distancing will be a crucial weapon, one customers are going to be looking for.” The hotels and restaurants that display clear signage with the measures they take, keep spaces uncrowded, and increase cleaning protocols, will gain trust and repeat business.
In addition to making dine-in spaces feel safe, the food and beverage industry will need to continue allowing guests to eat wherever they feel safe by offering take-out, delivery, and curbside pickup options, and increasing available outdoor seating space. Possibly one of the best things to have come out of the pandemic and a trend that’s definitely here to stay is the rise of al fresco dining. “These personalized eating spaces have become wildly popular with consumers, making many restaurants look at all available alternatives for creating this experience for diners.” Hotels and restaurants that give diners a choice of where and how they eat will win the day.
4. Labor shortages and supply chain challenges are not going away
The fear of being face-to-face with many people and increasing their risk of getting sick is making it harder than ever to find workers for the hospitality industry. “The ongoing labor crisis has affected hotel and restaurant operations, and employers are searching for ways to make do with fewer workers.“ The lack of labor and increased safety regulations have also affected global supply chains. In addition to all the other challenges it faces, the food and beverage industry now has to deal with not knowing which products will be delivered when. One solution is to “work with a wider pool of suppliers, including regional ones, and keep larger strategic stocks. An alternative is to simplify recipes and/or remove problem products, resulting in a leaner, more manageable product range, less risk, and lower costs.”
Short of completely overhauling their supply chains, hotels and restaurants can make use of available technology (like Waitwhile’s ability to have 2-way messaging) to better communicate with customers in real time. This way, if things have to change at the last minute because certain items are unavailable, customers can be in the know rather than getting an unpleasant surprise when they try to order. Replacing paper menus with easy-to-update digital ones is another way to go around unreliable supply chains.
5. Technological innovations are easing the burden
One bright spot amidst a sea of challenges is that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of new technology in an industry that’s been historically shy of technological advances. Apps such as Waitwhile “are increasingly important in the way hoteliers manage the services they provide to their customers and can now control many aspects of the guest cycle and experience.” This trend towards digital also helps mitigate some of the labor shortages, making it possible to replace traditionally customer-facing services with “technology-assisted options, such as mobile check-in, contactless payments, voice control and biometrics.”
Technology also helps when it comes to making guests feel safe with options that are contactless. “Consumers can use apps to order well in advance and pay in advance. QR codes inside restaurant apps that are linked to a credit or debit card allow hotel guests to scan at payout so that cards, customers and waitstaff do not have to touch anything someone else has touched.” Apps can also help with social distancing and crowd control by monitoring the number of guests in a given space and automatically signalling when capacity has been reached.
Being able to collect data and make better-informed decisions about products and staffing is another advantage of using technology. “Smart devices such as smartphones, tablets, watches, personal assistants, and smart appliances have changed how consumers shop. These devices include applications that provide data that enables companies to understand how to better serve consumers, which products are in demand, where inventory needs to be sourced, and uncover innovative product ideas.” While technology isn’t a magic wand that solves all problems, understanding what’s available and incorporating it in a way that supports business operations can be a great help in an industry that’s forever changed.
There’s no question that the food and beverage industry has been hit hard. There are no easy solutions. Overcoming staff shortages, dealing with supply chain challenges, convincing guests that it’s safe to venture out again are all difficult problems to wrestle with. But it can also be seen as a moment of opportunity to change old ways, operate more efficiently, and become more creative. Businesses that give guests the options they crave, make safety a top priority, and use technology wisely will be well positioned to come out the other side stronger than ever.