By Margaret Lindquist | June 2020
If his children have their way, one of the first places Simon de Montfort Walker will visit once restaurant restrictions end in his city is the local chicken place. “Like everyone else, we’re definitely going to want to get out. We miss our local restaurants. Delivery just isn’t the same – we miss the experience and the economics aren’t the same for the restaurateur. The list of great new and established places closing around us, and all over the world, is hard to read.”
de Montfort Walker, as senior vice president and general manager of Oracle Food and Beverage, has a broader view than most on the turmoil that restaurants and their employees have been flung into. Restaurateurs he talks with have pursued every avenue to keep their employees safe and stay afloat, from embracing takeout and delivery, to selling groceries and paper goods, to shutting down temporarily.
Those that have stayed open are experiencing change at a rate they’ve never seen before, as each day brings new directives from the government, new feedback from customers, and new ideas from restaurant leaders working to keep the business going. To give a sense of both what restaurants have been through and what they’re thinking about for the future, here are just a few of the insights de Montfort Walker has picked up from people on the front lines of the food service industry.
Takeout comes to the high end. Fast food and fast-casual restaurants already had well-defined takeout operations, but fine dining restaurants were generally wary, due to concerns about food quality and presentation. But many higher-end restaurant owners have given it a try. “We’ve really gotten a bachelor’s degree in delivery,” says Patric Yumul, president of MINA Group, which was founded by award-winning chef Michael Mina and has innovative restaurants throughout the US. “We’ve had to figure out which foods can travel in what radius and how can we provide a high-touch experience with as little touch as possible.” MINA Group embraced takeout in part to offer specialty meals to its loyal customers – the profits of which go to fund meals for its furloughed employees.
“We’ve really gotten a bachelor’s degree in delivery. We’ve had to figure out which foods can travel in what radius and how can we provide a high-touch experience with as little touch as possible.”
Menus change on the fly. Restaurants have had to accommodate shifts in ingredient availability, and customer demand. “Technology is going to help because we’re constantly making changes to our menu and need to be able to implement those changes rapidly,” says Dan Giraudo, CEO of Boudin Bakery, which has multiple cafes in California. “As we're rolling out new grocery items and prepared foods, we'll look at the sales data on a daily basis. If something isn’t selling, or something is selling much better than everything else, we'll change it to make sure we're doing the right thing for our customers and for the business.”
A touchless experience will become important. Once customers are comfortable venturing out to restaurants, they’ll be looking for a fully touchless ordering experience where the only thing they touch is their own mobile device. “Whether you're at a drive through, at a table-service restaurant, or a sports stadium, how can you accomplish the entire interaction, from ordering to receiving your food, completely on your phone?” asks de Montfort Walker. Cashless payment systems accessible through a brand’s website or app are the starting point. Some restaurants are looking at converting their point-of-sale systems into self-service kiosks, so that restaurant workers can take orders and bring food out without physical interaction.
Operations need fine-tuning. Operational excellence will be the deciding factor between success and failure, de Montfort Walker says, and he thinks technology has a role to play there. Restaurant operators should turn to their existing technology providers for help, and for answers to their problems. “Companies should take advantage of the people who support the systems they’re already using,” he says. “Often there are features they already own that can help fine-tune the business.” Running on-premises dining at whatever capacity is mandated by state regulations will stress margins, making it more important than ever for restaurateurs to make sure they can control inventory costs. For example, interacting with vendors across digital channels can help speed the supply chain. Using AI-driven ordering systems and voice control will help restaurants manage their labor costs in a recovering market. Restaurateurs should look to their tech suppliers to give them the kind of forward-looking analytics they need to better read consumer preferences, adjust menus on the fly, and predict and accommodate changes in behavior based on things like weather or day of the week.
Using AI-driven ordering systems and voice control will help restaurants manage their labor costs in a recovering market.
The disruption in the restaurant industry, to people’s livelihoods and their businesses, has been devastating. It’s far from over, but de Montfort Walker knows that restaurateurs are naturally entrepreneurial and optimistic. “Even if some places don’t come back, you’ll see the alumni of those places start up new places,” he says.
Yumul at MINA Group is among the optimists, despite everything, for one really big reason—because he knows that all of us are rooting for him and his fellow restaurateurs. We’re all just like de Montford Walker, pining for those chicken fingers with his kids.
“Restaurants provide our cities and our communities with a place to come together and be nourished,” Yumul says. “It’s where somebody takes care of you and somebody cooks for you. I think that the world really wants that and needs that and can't wait for that to be available to them. And because of that I'm optimistic.”
Photograph courtesy of MINA Group