This blog post is the second in a series about the COVID-19 pandemic. To read the first piece, click here.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed practically every aspect of our lives, and the food service industry is no exception. We all know that COVID has affected the restaurant industry, but how? What trends can be directly traced to the pandemic, and are these changes permanent?
This summer, we’re looking back on the pandemic’s effects on the food world. It has been 2 years since most restaurants began reopening, and those two years have seen countless changes—closures, supply chain disruptions, the rise of ghost kitchens and delivery apps, just to name a few.
With all these changes in mind, how can we prepare for the future of food service, and what can we expect to see in the coming years?
What Work-From-Home Means for Restaurants
At the start of the pandemic, millions of Americans shifted to working from home. This change did not directly affect most people in food service—after all, you can’t exactly run a restaurant through Slack and Zoom. Certain administrative tasks can be done remotely, but preparing and serving food requires kitchen workers to be “in-office.”
But the rise in work-from-home has affected restaurants. People who once visited restaurants on their commutes or during lunch breaks were eating at home. Even after most businesses reopened, many workers continue to do their jobs remotely. Nearly 60% of workers whose jobs can be done remotely now work from home some or all of the time.
QSR Magazine suggests that restaurants will see more traffic at breakfast and lunch than they did at the height of the pandemic, but it will probably never return to pre-pandemic numbers.
The Shift to Delivery and Curbside Pick-Up
When lockdowns prevented people from gathering in restaurants to eat, many restaurant owners began offering curbside pick-up and delivery services. For weeks or months, delivery and curbside pick-up might have been your restaurant’s only way to serve customers.
What started as a temporary lifeline during lockdown has become a way of life for many. Workers, both at home and in the office, are more likely to order lunch than they were before. Customers acquired a taste for delivery, and they don’t want to stop. According to a JD Power survey, 71% of customers plan on using food delivery as much or more often than during the height of the pandemic.
Some restaurants have made permanent changes to the rise in delivery and to-go orders, such as rearranging their kitchens to accommodate Doordash drivers, creating a more delivery-friendly menu, and even closing indoor dining permanently.
Technology in Restaurants
QR codes instead of printed menus. Reservations and orders made through apps or online. “Ghost kitchens,” so-called because they only exist as digital brands for delivery, not dine-in. These are just some of the ways that restaurants have utilized technology to adapt to COVID restrictions and reduce the transmission of germs.
And though they aren’t a common sight (yet), robots could join ghost kitchens and QR code menus as post-COVID restaurant technology.
Robots delivering and even preparing food would do more than reduce the transmission of germs. In a landscape where finding and keeping well-trained staff members is difficult, robots could pick up the slack left by staffing shortages.
The pandemic has brought many flawed systems to the public’s attention, such as the fragile supply chain, stagnant wages despite inflation, and the ever-growing difficulty of owning a small business.
Consumers are more aware than ever of the economic and environmental impacts their food choices have. They know that it’s vital to support local restaurants and food sources—but in an uncertain economy, many consumers can’t afford to make choices based on ethics alone.
Fortunately, there is hope for systemic change. The USDA has announced a new framework for the food supply chain, using lessons learned from the pandemic to create a stabler, fairer food system.
As we collectively continue to recover from the pandemic, we can hope that more systemic changes and technological advancements will allow us all to make wiser, more sustainable food choices.