At long last, some sense of normalcy has returned. As the country emerges from the grips of a global pandemic and businesses resume operations at full capacity for the first time in more than a year, we’re left with one lingering question: what comes next?

The coronavirus pandemic forced businesses and entire industries, particularly the foodservice industry, to adapt to new concerns around health and safety. Now that vaccines have become widely available and the spread of COVID-19 has slowed to a crawl, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised that those who are fully vaccinated “can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance,” including the activities we all enjoyed prior to the pandemic.

Self-Serve Salad Bar

We’re back to crowded bars and adventurous nights on the town. Restaurants are back to high-volume dinner rushes. The pent-up demand from 2020 has escalated to an economic boom benefitting the foodservice and hospitality industries. These are positives worth celebrating, though they’re not without hiccups. This increased demand has resulted in insufficient material supplies and nationwide labor shortages. However, though the path back to pre-pandemic normalcy is full of hurdles, the destination is in sight. Bottom line: the future for foodservice is bright.

In addition to our favorite restaurants and businesses opening to full capacity, self-service is also making a comeback with hot food and salad bars back in operation. Industry experts weren’t positive of the fate of self-service during peak pandemic mode, with many assuming this segment was done for good. This theory was rooted in the effort to regulate adequate sanitation methods to ensure the safety of patrons and staff. However, it turns out this wasn’t the case.

It’s important to note that customer perception has shifted greatly in regard to sanitation practices, and that in order to continue to thrive in this post-pandemic recovery stage, operations will need to adapt to changing customer demands. This article reviews such changing perceptions and offers solutions for establishments to adapt, tailored to general foodservice and areas with prominent self-service stations, such as convenience and grocery stores with hold and cold food bars.

2020 vs. 2021: A Story of Resilience & Hope

It’s an understatement to say 2020 wasn’t an ideal year all around. Businesses, especially commercial foodservice establishments, took a major beating. Restaurants had to get creative to stay afloat with many adapting solely to delivery and curbside pickup operations. In the convenience store segment, foodservice sales were down 20%, according to Technomic, a research and strategy consulting firm for foodservice operations.

In 2020, 51% of convenience stores shut down self-service beverage machines to limit use and prevent the spread of illness. Of the other stats gleaned through Technomic’s research, we learned that the following apply, even with the limitation of self-service applications:

  • 50% of consumers trusted grab and go foods
  • 55% preferred packaged bakery
  • 45% consciously sought out tamper-proof packaging
  • 54% said they would likely order breakfast for curbside pickup
  • A mere 11% took advantage of curbside pickup at convenience stores

Flash forward to 2021 and we’re seeing a steady rise in sales, with foodservice sales growing 24% in the convenience store segment. Given the rush amongst competition to meet consumer demands, we’re actually seeing lower prices for higher-quality food products than we did pre-pandemic. There’s also a demand for healthier items, which complement nicely with self-service stations like hot food and salad bars.

Customer Demands for Self-Service Stations

As noted earlier, customer perception when re-entering the world and reintegrating into regular day-to-day routines has shifted greatly. They want to feel safe venturing out, especially when food is involved. It’s critical for establishments to continue with improved safety standards, and for consumers to actually witness frequent cleaning. In fact, the rise in contactless solutions to prevent any transfer of germs continues to grow.

Automats catering to pre-packaged products are making a comeback, and many operations are making use of different technologies to accommodate cashier-free checkouts. Ghost kitchens are also continuing to take up prominent share in the industry to continue catering to delivery and grab-and-go solutions.

Regarding self-service, a striking statistic obtained through polling from Technomic indicates that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 56% of shoppers considered self-serve bars to be safe. Post-pandemic, that number only dropped to 40%. This is not as significant a drop as once anticipated during the onset of closures. What has changed significantly is a business’s sanitation efforts are now always top of mind for the everyday shopper.

The key concerns that consumers have, which operators must address and ease to establish trust, include:

  • Lack of consistent visible cleaning of self-serve stations
  • Discomfort with other shoppers’ use of stations, given how quickly germs can spread
  • Lack of physical changes made to the area and serving equipment

Specific to salad, hot, and cold food bars, research conducted by Technomic sheds light on consumer demands that’ll help build trust in an operation’s ability to offer self-service in a way that prioritizes their health and wellbeing.

  • 76% of consumers polled indicate their desire for large sneeze guards or safety shields
  • 75% wish for increased frequency of visible sanitation by employees
  • 75% want a dedicated cleaning staff working these stations
  • 72% want social distancing graphics
  • 69% want posted instructions for customer protocols

Communication is key. Establish protocols and communicate what steps you’re taking to protect staff and patrons alike.

Tips for Safe Self-Service in a Post-Pandemic World

Understanding what your consumers want is the first hurdle. Once you have a clear idea, it’s time to implement more targeted training for staff to ensure they have the knowledge to follow cleaning and sanitation best practice, and a firm grasp of your policies around it.

In many instances, this results in added responsibilities for staff. To help ensure practices are followed and to establish a sense of accountability, some businesses have taken to creating new job titles centered specifically around sanitation, such as Sanitation Captain or Food Protection Manager. This role involves additional tasks for sanitizing, and often leaving cards to let patrons know the last time the area had been cleaned. This singular designation places the responsibility on one person who ensures all others are abiding by cleaning and sanitation standards.

The future of buffets and salad bars isn’t as bleak as initially expected, but it’s unlikely they’ll ever fully look like they did before the pandemic. The use of safety shields and sneeze guards to protect food from the transmission of germs is a must, and many self-serve operations have started setting up stations with protective supplies to build trust with their clientele and keep the self-serve process safe. These include sanitizer dispensers, gloves, and visible communication around what your business’s policy is regarding self-service.

The everyday shopper feels most comfortable with prepackaged items. If you can, consider prepackaging popular items and setting up a grab and go area to make the process quick and efficient. A vacuum sealer can greatly assist.

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