As the country continues to re-open and restaurants resume dine-in services, the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic is still top of mind. This has drastically altered the once-favorite pastime of dining out. As patrons begin to exit their months-long quarantine in search of a hard-earned night on the town, it’s crucial for restauranteurs to balance the experience they seek with safety.

The COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic’s affect on restaurant profitability has magnified – which is doubly sour considering most restaurants were already operating on slim enough margins. Therefore, operational efficiencies are more pertinent than ever. The front-of-house experience has changed, which presents specific challenges, such as how to maintain a welcoming, hospitable environment behind face masks and safety barriers. And what about the salad bar? How sanitary is it now to have guests serving themselves?

The question then becomes: how does the restaurant industry evolve to continue meeting consumer expectations?

6 Restaurant Trends for Operational Efficiencies During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Since the dawn of the outbreak, restaurants have had to adapt their services exclusively to delivery and carryout. The need for flexibility is still just as critical, and will be until the pandemic is nothing more than a bleak memory. Furthermore, communication is more important than ever. Guests should know what to expect prior to dining in for the first time in months, and it’s just as important to strategize your messages and distribution tactics to ensure both guests and staff feel comfortable entering your facility.

Everyone’s been paying close attention to the ebbs and flows of the industry since businesses were first mandated to close their doors. And as those doors begin to open once more, certain successful trends have emerged. We share those here to inspire operational efficiencies, and further your success as you continue to navigate these murky seas.

1. Showcase Your Sanitation Efforts

Guests need to feel comfortable enough to dine-in, and staff need to feel comfortable enough to return to work. This will require overt sanitation, following local and federal guidelines, and CDC-recommended best practices to build trust among your clientele. Keep in mind, guidelines change, so your sanitation practices will also need to be flexible. You can refer to your state’s government website for up-to-date criteria. When in doubt, err on the side of overly cautious.

Displaying your efforts may look like remodeling your dining room to incorporate safety shields and table partitions, installing easily accessible hand sanitizing stations, hanging hygiene signs and making use of floor signs to encourage social distancing between guests. They should also see you and your staff regularly washing hands to further enforce their safety as your number one priority.

View in-stock personal protective supplies ready to ship same-day, and check out these other restaurant reopening essentials.

2. Contactless Everything

The less that guests and staff have to touch, the less risk of spreading germs and viruses. Did you know the menu is the most touched item in the dining room? Consider offering a digital menu guests can download right to their individual smartphones using a QR code. This saves the hassle of cleaning and disinfecting each hard copy after guests order.

Other contactless solutions common in today’s dining scene include automatic faucets and sanitizer dispensers, single-touch cutlery, and door openers which enable guests to use their forearms or feet to open the door to avoid touching the handle.

3. Reduce Costs with Energy Efficiency

As noted, the financial strains many restaurants face daily have significantly increased. Now’s the time to investigate new ways to cut costs where you can. One trending solution is updating equipment to energy efficient models. Some notable examples include high efficiency broilers, such as Garland’s HE series of broilers that maximize productivity by offering more even heat distribution across the entire cooking surface for consistent results with less required training; and refrigeration with self-cleaning condenser coils to ensure it’s always functioning at peak performance.

Equipment with an ENERGY STAR® rating can help cut down your energy usage and lower utility bills. Some ENERGY STAR certified equipment may even be eligible for rebates.

4. Connectivity

More and more back-of-house equipment is beginning to incorporate technology to communicate with the operator. This has several operational benefits. Many operations are opting for a total kitchen management system where equipment diagnostics feed into one platform for operators to monitor all sorts of data, such as oil usage, cleaning frequency, etc., which can then help implement additional efficiencies.

5. Labor-Saving Equipment

Labor has long been a challenge in the foodservice industry. Emerging equipment technologies are offering solutions to reduce labor costs. This includes big equipment, such as combi ovens, with self-cleaning features, as well as making use of certain smallwares to save effort on the mundane, time-consuming tasks. Examples include automatic glass polishers and food processors.

More and more back-of-house equipment have also started using touch screens with programmable features, such as recipe storage, that help maintain quality control and can communicate instructions in multiple languages.

Along these lines, robotics has been an emerging industry trend for a while now, and will be interesting to observe whether this pandemic results in a faster growth of this technological subset. The chain Calli-Burger, for example, uses a robotic machine, aptly called Flippy, to flip burgers, increasing productivity and efficiency among their locations.

6. Off-Premise Operations

Before the pandemic mandated restaurants close their doors to dine-in services and adapt instead to full-time delivery, carryout, and curbside pickup, the National Restaurant Association reported that 60% of all restaurant traffic was already off-premise. This is only going to grow. To meet this rising demand, harness technology to help organize, market, and efficiently execute these orders. This same report cites a rise in use of kiosks, texting and mobile, app-based ordering, and voice assistants. Consumers are embracing the ability to order ahead of time and track the entire progress of their order, as well mobile payment options. Furthermore, if you’re not already partnering with a third-party delivery service, consider doing so. These services help ensure delivery orders remain organized, and your valued patrons receive them fast and fresh.

Traditional equipment solutions are evolving to meet this rise in off-premise services. Delivery solutions are getting more sophisticated, like the introduction of heated to-go bags. We’re also seeing a rise in heated holding shelves to safely hold prepared meals until they’re picked up, and there’s a renewed focus on shelving to keep orders, and the supplies necessary to fulfill them (such as to-go boxes, bags, disposable cutlery packets, etc.) readily on hand. Vollrath recently introduced their new line of Delivery Work Centers that help enhance the speed and efficiency of delivery orders by offering a proficient work space designed with an inner-frame electrical conduit that enables LED lighting and heat strips. These delivery centers also include electrical outlets, a check rail, prep space, delivery bag storage, and shelving to keep all supplies readily available. They’re available in 36”, 48”, and 60” widths.

Tips for Success

Along with these emerging trends sweeping the industry to combat the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on businesses, here are a few more tips to set your restaurant up for success.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure patrons know what you’re doing to ensure their safety, and articulate what to expect when they come to dine in. Make use of digital means, such as email, social media, or mobile ordering to get your message across. Lead with facts and guide people as much as possible, making use of signage, floor mats, and safety barriers. Be flexible and able to pivot quickly, pending future local and federal guidelines.
  • Reduce your menu. Most restaurants now have orders coming in from multiple areas – either through delivery, pickup, or dine-in customers. Simplifying your menu can help better execute all orders in a timely, organized fashion.
  • Modify your space. This includes both front- and back-of-house layouts to best accommodate social distancing between parties and employees. Setup an efficient delivery prep space in your kitchen, keeping separate from the meal prep areas. Rethink community tables, avoid self-service, and provide condiments only upon request.
  • Establish a dedicated pickup area. This will help your delivery drivers, especially when using a third-party delivery solution, as well as customers placing carryout orders, to know exactly where they need to go. Many foodservices have started using pop-up tents to create a designated space.
  • Mobile ordering. Make it easy for your guests to set reservations and order ahead of time so their meal is ready by the time they arrive. The less time anyone spends onsite, the less risk of transmitting illness.
  • Overt sanitation. Proudly display your sanitation efforts and demonstrate your staff has been trained to prioritize the wellbeing of your guests. Install touch-free sanitizer stations in every common area, and consider setting up portable, touch-free sinks. Instruct your guests to wash hands after every interaction, and implement rigid cleaning and disinfecting protocols.