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Operations

Should off-premise be the new default for restaurants?

Question:

After a very rough Mother’s Day (we had to totally shut down phone and online orders by 7 p.m. just to get through the backlog, and even then some people didn’t get their food), I realized I need to just focus on takeout and raise my game for the foreseeable future. I can’t keep getting calls that fries are cold and paying staff to drive replacement items to people. What are people doing to adjust to the new normal?

– Owner-operator

Answer:

When restaurant closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic started, I think many of us saw this situation as a terrible blip that would result in a few difficult weeks. Some restaurants closed outright, while others pivoted to offer takeout and delivery or even sell groceries to get through this time.

As weeks turn to months, I think many operators are moving beyond these temporary plans and wondering what to do once businesses reopen—and what reopening even means in various scenarios: bar, fine dining, full-service restaurant, club and so on. One thing that is clear is that reopening won’t be a simple return to early 2020 models. I would anticipate an extended decline in tourism, conventions and even regional travel, as well as a reluctance among many guests to fully return to restaurant dining. I expect to see continued demand for takeout and delivery (possibly necessitated by reduced dining room capacity as well) and affordable family meal solutions as people return to work and get back to routines. In light of these changes, my advice is indeed to use this time to strategize for how your dine-in to takeout/delivery mix may shift for an extended period of months.

Keith Taylor, chef-owner of Zachary’s BBQ and Soul in Philadelphia, shifted his retail from a fast-casual barbecue concept to heat-and-serve family-style meals, delivered cold with reheat instructions. He says:

“The stellar presentation that has always given customers the wow factor usually does not translate well with delivery times and packaging. Takeout and delivery is often a second thought for most operators. Looking to pivot in response to COVID-19 challenges means that we must reexamine what will wow customers in a box. Knowing your pre-pandemic menu mix and the most profitable items is one thing. Making them all travel well is a new set of challenges if you are going to meet customer expectations outside of the restaurant. Preparing new profit centers based on delivery means that operators must examine product integrity from the kitchen to the moment a plate is served at home. Our new Zachary's Kitchen To Kitchen delivery menu is all about meeting customers where they are at in the current and changing culinary landscape."

Like Taylor did, I suggest considering each menu item and how it can best reach your customer. Perhaps cold and reheated at home will give you better results than hot held and delivered. Perhaps some items that “wow” in the dining room need to come off the delivery menu completely. Perhaps a “sleeper” on the menu holds up particularly well in delivery.

Equipment manufacturers are also anticipating this shift. For example, if you continue to serve hot food, be sure it is leaving your restaurant well-thermed in the first place so that it has the best chance of surviving the delivery route. Unox recently launched its hot fridge, which could work well for a scenario like yours.

I recommend mapping out a new plan for your takeout and delivery so that you are not a full-service restaurant adjusting to doing some takeout during this difficult time, but rather a full-service restaurant providing great food in a variety of formats to meet guest needs. More on optimizing your operations for takeout here.

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