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6 ways eating out could be changed forever by Covid-19

In a post-Covid world many have learned to mistrust social experiences such as eating out. In the wake of lockdowns and social distancing, what can restaurants do to adapt and evolve?

Writing in The Sunday Times, Ian Woods’s account of a visit to a prestigious Geneva restaurant post-lockdown paints a forbidding picture of a city reluctant to emerge from lockdown, and meeting a strange new world when it does so: disinfectant at the door, limited table numbers and few customers, no foreign visitors allowed in the country, a 7-page set of Government rules to consult, waiters making wine suggestions that can’t be heard through facemasks, and a pared-back menu printed on paper that is discarded after a single use. ‘We savour the simple pleasure of eating in a restaurant again,’ writes this diner. ‘After we leave, our table and chairs will be disinfected. The new rules say so.’ 

Restaurants and bars are one of our great social pleasures, but in a post-Covid world many have learned to mistrust experiences that centre on socialising.

Woods’ subsequent visit to an Irish pub is even grimmer. ‘The barman wears a surgical mask. He is partly hidden behind a wooden screen fitted around the beer pumps. There can be no more than four customers a table — and tall wooden barriers have been erected between the tables. No standing is permitted so the dartboard is sealed off.’ Although only one person can be in the toilet area at a time, people often leave early because they say they’d rather use the loo at home.

Restaurants and bars are one of our great social pleasures, but in a post-Covid world many have learned to mistrust experiences that centre on socialising. While take-out and delivery services have found a lucrative niche in lockdown, the dining-out economy has been decimated. Many restaurants around the world have been forced to close, while those able to stay open have played to empty houses night after night. ‘Whereas pizza chains have maintained or increased sales during the pandemic,’ reports Mckinsey, ‘casual-dining and fine-dining restaurants have seen their revenues decline by as much as 85 percent. For some fine-dining establishments, revenues fell to zero.’

Being able to go out and enjoy a cosy meal with friends would feel like a real sign that the world has returned to some sort of post-pandemic normality. But even in China, which is several weeks ahead of us along the pandemic trajectory, research suggests that in-restaurant dining is still down. So, in the wake of lockdowns and social distancing, what can restaurants do to cope, adapt and evolve in these trying times? 

Could we see bars and restaurants gaining or extending their external space by launching pop-up versions in parks and squares?

Eating moves outdoors

Gathering socially indoors may continue to be a source of anxiety for some diners, but people also love to socialise. Opportunities to dine outside – where infection rates are lower and distancing may be easier – are sure to be at a premium. According to a recent Nielsen CGA report, Americans who had not yet returned to a venue to eat or drink said the factors that would most likely draw them back would be outdoor seating (41%) and social distancing measures (40%).

Expect to see eateries converting their real estate for more al-fresco dining, and perhaps sharing outdoor space with other outlets, rather like eating villages and food courts in malls and airports. Could we also see bars and restaurants gaining or extending their external space by launching pop-up versions in parks and squares?

Several countries are looking at ways to reconfigure pubic space to create more of a street-café culture. New proposals in Scotland, for example, have been tabled to alter Covid-19 emergency laws so that some closed streets could be made into spaces for cafes and bars where people can enjoy a socially distanced night out. As MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton argues: ‘Temporarily allowing these businesses to use nearby streets and other open-air spaces would help them lift the shutters when the time is right, protecting jobs and keeping people safe.’ 

UK PM Boris Johnson is also said to be targeting an ‘outdoor-dining revolution’ as part of a ‘Great Recovery Bill’ designed to cut red tape and stimulate the relaunch of services and businesses. Reportedly, requests to councils for street eating and drinking could be fast-tracked, local authority fees for pavement use could be scrapped, and planning permission for retail outlets and pubs to refit to serve customers outside streamlined. 

This sort of approach could be part of a more long-lasting and satisfactory approach to restoring parts of the hospitality sector post lockdown than rationed footfall: in Australia, where restaurants and cafes have been allowed to reopen in some areas, but with limits on 10 people dining inside at any one time, traders have complained that the approach isn’t commercially viable. There could be environmental benefits too, as greater street eating will in some cases involve closing roads and prioritising pedestrians over motor traffic. Rethinking our public spaces could be a massive boost to the hospitality sector, but it will need traders, councils, police and other authorities to work together closely to make it happen. 

Restaurants take delivery to the next level (also, pizza drones)

The ‘lipstick index’ refers to an economic theory that suggests that in times of recession and crisis, we see upticks in sales of affordable treats and indulgences such as cosmetics. Takeaways seem to fit neatly into this template: at a time when money is tight and other pleasures are denied us, a delivery can feel like a nice little treat to take our minds off our troubles.

In China, takeout services are already rising to pre-crisis levels, and spend on deliveries is on the up too. US pizza chains are hiring in thousands of extra staff, reports Mckinsey, as sales spike. No doubt we can expect to see more and more restaurants that were once only exclusively eat-in pivoting rapidly to offer take-out, delivery and takeaway services.

This is likely to see a recalibration of the social status of off-site options, as premium dining brands package and prepare food for consumption out of house, and can no longer afford takeaway to be seen as the poor relation of dining out. It will be interesting to see how more upmarket eat-in brands try to position their takeaway and takeout options as more premium than the rest of the market. Fancy packaging? Customised menus? Exclusive loyalty schemes? Nocturnal dining tours in deep-cleaned limos?

The big fast-food and delivery players, meanwhile, are well into their preparations for maximising this growth in consumer interest. Staff have been trained, supply chains have been secured, and digital advertising budgets have been super-sized. Delivery intermediaries such as Deliveroo and Just Eat are now engaged in a margin-crushing ‘race to the bottom’. And we can expect menus to be simplified to prioritise the sourcing and preparation of the most delivery-friendly dishes. 

Expect innovation and disruption in delivery from big players with deep pockets – and perhaps even pizza drones. ‘The competitive landscape in food delivery will be transformed as QSR [quick-service restaurants] players build internal capabilities, invest in next-generation technology (such as delivery drones), or join forces with third-party providers,’ says Mckinsey. ‘Loyalty programs will become more robust as QSRs look to increase “stickiness” among customers. Some QSRs may also reformat their locations—for instance, by shrinking seating areas and increasing drive-through capacity.’

It will be interesting to see how more upmarket eat-in brands try to position their takeaway and takeout options as more premium than the rest of the market.

Restaurants in your trolley

From Pizza Express pizzas to Nando’s sauces, we’re already familiar with dining brands that have diversified into off-the-shelf product lines. As consumers stay shy of restaurants and spend more time doing their own cooking, we can expect to see more branded products finding their way into trolleys, along with more cookbooks and cook-along videos, like this Wagamama Wok From Home series

‘Early signs indicate that some of the shift from spending in restaurants to spending in grocery stores will persist in a post-coronavirus world,’ suggests Mckinsey. ‘To supplement these losses, [restaurants] can look for additional revenue streams [such as] launching grocery product lines or expanding into new channels, such as B2B catering.’

There’s no doubt that people have the time and inclination to become more adventurous with their cooking, which is already leading to more exotic ingredients and kits in our stores, shopping baskets and deliveries. The Chinese post-pandemic experience again bears this out, with consumers spending more on prepared foods and groceries as well as deliveries. ‘In this crisis, people have become more willing to have a broad array of food products delivered to their homes,’ confirms Mckinsey. There are many reports of independent local producers such as butchers, farm shops and bakers putting on sales, and the famous shortages of flour and bread-making machines also point to people spending more time preparing their own food.   

Likewise, we can expect to see a growth in gourmet pre-prepared meal and restaurant-style home cooking kits, as restaurants look to other revenue streams to offset their on-premise losses. As the market for home-cooking kits becomes more sophisticated, we might see a wider range and choice, perhaps with some kits tied in with gourmet cookery lessons, branded ingredients and utensils. 

Some restaurants may find ways to gamify the challenges of social distancing. What if the Perspex shields became targets for toy shootouts? What about a prison-visit themed restaurant, where diners can only communicate by phone?

The new simplicity

There will no doubt continue to be delays and gaps in supply chains, because of suppliers going under, production issues, shortages and disruptions. Will we see cafes and restaurants pare back their menus to a more limited range that has good margins and fewer sourcing issues? Could this be packaged as a hiply minimal Simplicity, rather like the Slow Food movement?

This minimalistic, restrained approach might well strike a chord with people struggling to get back on their feet financially, and an eating-out scene that might be similarly low-key. In the US, for example, the preferred venues for eating out at this time have been casual dining chains (40%) and independent restaurants (35%), and the key reasons for visiting bars and restaurants were to have drinks with food (42%) and for relaxed/quiet drinks (32%). As Nielsen CGA speculates, ‘this shows the current mood of occasions is generally more low-tempo’.

Creative strategies to woo people back on-site

Eateries may well have to think very creatively if they are to lure consumers away from their takeaways and home-cooking kits and back on site. Fortunately, with everything from igloo restaurants, to insect houses to meals in the dark, the hospitality sector has always been highly imaginative. 

One obvious approach would be to celebrate the joys of splendid isolation. This play is likely to work well with day-time outlets such as coffee shops and sandwich bars, which have long occupied the status of a ‘third place’ in people’s lives, a sort of caffeine-enabled buffer zone between the pressures of home and work. Promoting venues as places to find some space for yourself and be alone with your thoughts could work for some. 

Then of course there are bubbles. If we are able to socialise in acceptable bubbles of people (such as family groups and couples), restaurants can reconfigure themselves to cater for self-contained parties. Who after all doesn’t love a booth? Or what about bubble rooms, similar to the little singing rooms in karaoke bars? Naturally we can also expect special bubble menus, deals and loyalty schemes, and perhaps a new emphasis on family groups (traditionally a disfavoured demographic for many restaurants as family groups with small children take up a lot of space, deter other diners, and spend less per head). 

Finally, some restaurants may find ways to gamify the challenges of social distancing. What if the Perspex shields became targets for toy shootouts? What about a prison-visit themed restaurant, where diners can only communicate through screens and by phone? Sound crazy? Well guess what: something similar has already been done. 

Could we see companies making a virtue of their elaborately stringent hygiene/cleaning routines in their marketing? ‘Consumers will demand much more information about what ingredients are in restaurant food, where it comes from, how it’s prepared, and by whom. Sanitization will become a significant focus for restaurants; day-to-day operating costs will increase as a result. Food-packaging costs may also rise. Contactless delivery and pickup may become the norm.’ (Mckinsey) Cue elaborate time-lapse videos which show in accelerated motion the extraordinary lengths your favourite restaurant goes to in order to make it a place that’s ultra-safe for you to eat in.

Community spirit goes hand in hand with a growing desire to consume local and independent. If your fave little burger joint starting doing takeaway, wouldn’t that be a nice feelgood alternative to a big-chain burger?

Catering to the community 

The hospitality sector, notoriously a poor employer and low payer, has taken a massive hit. But there’s a feeling that people will look hard at the behaviour of businesses and brands during the pandemic, and adjust their affiliations accordingly. Businesses that have a record of being proactive, caring employers and of doing their bit in the crisis may well be able to harvest some of that goodwill now as we start to unlock.

The virus has also shown us how fragile the economic ecosystem that we all take for granted is. Community spirit goes hand in hand with a growing desire to consume local and independent. If your fave little burger joint started doing takeaway, wouldn’t that be a nice feelgood alternative to a big-chain burger?

During the pandemic, restaurants and cafes have provided cooked food for the homeless and the NHS, offering deliveries for the first time and selling local produce. The Alchemist, a 2-Michelin-star haute-cuisine restaurant in Denmark, for example, switched from serving six-hour, 45-course tasting extravaganzas and £500-per-head covers to making shepherd’s pie and lasagne for Copenhagen’s 1400 homeless people. When the restaurant had to close to diners completely, it took its homeless meals operation full-time.

Could some eateries find ways to retain some of that community spirit as we emerge from lockdown? ‘In a country where a privileged group of people save labour time by eating at restaurants while others rely on food banks,’ says Jonathan Nunn, food writer and editor of food newsletter Vittles, ‘the need for alternative modes of catering has taken on new resonance. Not only should access to healthy, nutritious food be a universal right, but social eating can be a solution for those reliant on mutual aid networks, whether they are elderly, disabled, vulnerable or simply lonely.’ 

Nunn cites the National Food Service (NFS), which began in Sheffield in 2018 and aims to provide ‘a free-at-point-of-use social eating hub, run by local communities, in every UK neighbourhood.’ Many local restaurants have been encouraged to join the scheme, and are looking to make their NFS support a permanent part of their operations. This isn’t just about supplying ingredients but could potentially involve ‘transforming their lunch services into contribute-what-you-can social eating spaces, subsidised with the profits they make from their dinner service’. 

This is just one of a number of ways that restaurants can embed themselves more fully in the communities that they serve, along with supporting local producers and artisans, and serving local produce. ‘Many food justice projects already exist, from community kitchens and food-buying co-operatives, to communal food-growing in gardens and farms,’ writes Nunn. ‘Each one is already tailored to the needs of its community – all they would need is more chefs and volunteers, as well as local authority funding.’ Here again, collaboration between private and public resources is key. 

For further information on Sticky, or to talk to us about a business challenge or campaign, contact: Ben Reilly, New Business Director, +44 (0)207 963 7070

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