Few industries have been more challenged by the spread of the coronavirus and the subsequent economic shutdown than the restaurant and hospitality business. Independent restaurants’ revenues plummeted by over 70% year over year in the last two weeks of March and still remain 60% lower on average than last year’s levels, according to a report by Compass Lexecon, one of the world’s leading economic consulting firms. In turn, a staggering 5.9 million restaurant jobs have vanished within a matter of weeks. These big shifts in social norms will force restaurants to change—but this is a sector of the economy that also is ripe for innovation. (I should know: seven years ago I launched Farmer’s Fridge to provide fresh and healthy food via vending machines, essentially creating a new kind of dining category when skeptics felt there were no new ideas in food distribution.) The combination of necessity and invention will produce a wave of big changes in the business. Here are my 10 predictions on what to expect in the next five years.
1. Food safety as the new norm
Food safety terminology will become part of the average customer’s lexicon. Businesses will be a lot more transparent about their food safety practices and customers will know the questions to ask. We’re already seeing lots of marketing touting heightened food safety practices—this will become the norm rather than the exception. Expect “Tell me about your food safety” to become the new “Is it organic?” for discerning consumers.
2. A less diverse food scene—in the short-term
The past 10-15 years have seen a culinary renaissance, especially in metropolitan hubs. Post-COVID, expect a return to a less diverse food scene, at least at first. Many customers will have to trim their food-away-from-home budgets out of necessity, and the economics of running under socially distant protocols won’t make sense for many eateries. The reason to be optimistic is that the past boom has created an amazing wealth of knowledge and talent that will seed the next wave of innovation and growth.
3. Closing the kitchen to the public eye
The exposed assembly line is the accepted standard in quick service and fast casual establishments. I predict that in the future, we’ll see food prep moved into the back-of-house kitchen. Moving forward, it won’t be as easy for patrons to digest the visual of just how many people touch your lunch or dinner before it makes its way to you. It will also be easier to keep the food safe in more highly controlled environments, out of sight for customers.
4. No more “serve yourself”
Similarly, say goodbye to “serve yourself” salad bars, hot lunch stations, and buffets. The future is pointing toward individually packaged, contactless, grab-and-go food options in places like grocery stores, restaurants, and business and university cafeterias. Previously commonplace practices like touching the same serving utensils as the person before you (or worse, knowing that others had the chance to breathe or cough on food served from a communal platter) are unlikely to have a resurgence anytime soon.
5. Restaurants will get a face-lift
Expect other cosmetic changes in restaurants–think 50% fewer tables; dividers between cashiers and patrons; UV sterilization lights used over tables between seatings; antimicrobial coatings on most everything; face masks worn by front of house AND back of house employees; dedicated safety personnel; and separate handwashing/sanitizing stations for patrons to use outside of the bathroom.
6. Lines? No, thank you
Rather than a sign of success, crowded restaurants may be seen as poorly managed places to avoid. In the past, it was fun to opt to wait for a table at the bar; now seeing a line will be an invitation to keep walking. If customers do wait for a table, they may wait with a buzzer in their car or walk the neighborhood with a cocktail-to-go (and we may see a rise in states with open-container laws, as a result).
7. Embracing a more limited menu
As supply-chain interruptions become the norm, menu offerings will shrink and could change more often as certain ingredients fluctuate in price and availability. Meat, in particular, will be in short supply and more expensive, so it subsequently won’t take center stage as frequently on menus. Operating challenges will also mean that restaurants seek efficiencies by streamlining menus.
8. Tech dominance
In a post-COVID food scene, ordering through a touchscreen or with your phone will soon feel as normal as giving an order to a server or cashier does now. Other apps and advancements could become commonplace as well, like temperature checks at the door, a no-touch face scan payment option or a customer database that monitors customer contact tracing data for restaurants to check before accepting an RSVP.
9. The evolution of the server
Servers are the face of the restaurant–how does that change when that face is now wearing a mask? The old maxim that “the customer is always right” was one of the core tenants of great customer service. In this new world, their role as a guide for the customer will be critical as they are leaned on to orchestrate safety and direct customers through their restaurant journey.
10. Restaurants will be back
While these changes might seem daunting, I firmly believe that restaurants as we know and love them will be back. It might take time, but there is no replacing the energy, excitement, and buzz of a night out at a new–or beloved favorite–restaurant. And when our thriving, diverse restaurant community does return, I predict they’ll be even better poised to weather the next storm.
Luke Saunders is founder and CEO of Farmer’s Fridge, a network of more than 400 smart fridges stocked with fresh meals and snacks