With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to evolve each day, many businesses are struggling to keep up with the latest public health guidelines. Today, owning or managing a restaurant looks a lot different than it did even a year ago. And it's made even more difficult because some restrictions differ from location to location.

After more than a year of operating under uncertain conditions, you may not have had time to fully take stock of the long-term industry changes that were happening in the background.

Here’s our rundown on four pandemic-era restaurant facilities trends that are likely to remain permanent fixtures of the industry—what you can expect, and how you can prepare.

Delivery and curbside pickup

Back in 2016, the National Restaurant Association reported that three in five restaurant goers ordered takeout once per week, on average.

Throughout the pandemic, online food delivery orders more than doubled.

Hungry customers turned to app-based food delivery options at the onset of the pandemic, valuing the enhanced safety of reduced contact, the wide variety of local dining options, and the convenience of contactless front-door delivery.

And for many of the same reasons, increased demand for restaurant delivery is bound to stick around. Market research indicates that by the year 2024, the restaurant delivery industry is expected to reach a market volume of more than $32 billion.

Food pickup options are also projected to expand far beyond pandemic conditions. Diners value the option to skip the traditional drive-thru lanes, avoid food delivery fees, and get their meals quickly in a low-contact setting.

The phenomenon of ghost kitchens is fueling both contactless delivery and curbside pickup options for restaurants all over the country—and brands are betting seriously on their future. Chicago-based Wow Bao says it plans to expand from 150 ghost kitchens to 1,000 by the end of 2021.

As a restaurant owner or facilities manager, you can expect these evolving industry developments to change the way you approach facilities management at your locations.

Whether that means dedicating space for curbside pickup or relying on a second kitchen to support a greater number of delivery orders, restaurant operations will need to adapt to what appears all but certain to be a permanent and growing fixture in the industry.

Outdoor dining

In response to the pandemic, we saw restaurant owners and operators innovating to find new ways to serve customers safely, maintain interest, and generate revenue.

Restaurants converted purely indoor spaces to indoor-outdoor and even permanent outdoor spaces. Outdoor dining areas were fitted with plexiglass barriers and floor tape to encourage social distancing. Owners and operators built temporary “chalets” in which to house (and heat) customers during cooler weather.

Experts are saying that many of these changes will stick around for the foreseeable future.

Like the mid-pandemic consumer preferences responsible for expanding food delivery and curbside pickup options, restaurant owners and operators should be prepared to support a growing preference for outdoor dining even after the pandemic subsides.

Restaurant goers, health experts, and consumers at large have expressed concerns about new variants of the coronavirus, which appear to be considerably more transmissible than the original strain.

And according to a survey of scientists in the journal Nature, many researchers expect COVID-19 to become endemic. In other words, the coronavirus might be as common as the seasonal flu, or the common cold.

If COVID-19 does become endemic, restaurants may be required to maintain permanent outdoor dining options. But apart from adjusting to state and local mandates, restaurants can view this shift to outdoor dining as an opportunity to better connect with customers and serve their needs.

Shifts in local requirements and consumer dining preferences have led to some permanent facilities changes for a number of major restaurant brands. Owners and operators are eager to get ahead of consumer preferences, appear cognizant of new concerns, and better support employees.

Flexible staffing plans

Though restaurant customers are eagerly flocking to restaurants sporting looser capacity and social distancing restrictions, owners and operators are finding it challenging to properly staff their locations.

A recent National Restaurant Association survey showed more than 80% of restaurant operators reporting difficulties in filling staff vacancies.

For many longtime restaurant workers, threats to personal safety and job security throughout the coronavirus pandemic were clear signs to find what they considered to be safer, more stable sources of employment.

With the pandemic subsiding, many have opted not to return to the industry—contributing to a staff turnover trend that has already troubled restaurant operators in the years leading up to the pandemic.

Restaurant staff turnover can cost owners and operators thousands of dollars for every employee lost. To combat these costs and other uncertainties, restaurants will need to take a proactive approach to staffing in the months—and possibly years—to come. 

To prepare, restaurants can cross-train restaurant staff in essential restaurant functions, leverage current employees for trusted referrals, source and train outside staff for on-call needs, and boost restaurant staff retention by incentivizing tenure.

Enhanced sanitation

Even with the pandemic moving onto the back burner for many restaurant-goers throughout the country, customer concerns about restaurant cleanliness and safety remain at the fore.

Though the public’s general anxiety appears to have fallen since late last year, a substantial percentage of restaurant customers are still a bit nervous about dining out.

One of the determining factors in securing lasting customer trust now and into the future? Your restaurant’s sanitation practices.

Industry research shows that sanitation is even more important than menu prices.

According to a recent study, customers say that they’re willing to spend twice as much with brands that demonstrate high cleanliness standards at dining tables and areas commonly accessed by the public.

The same study concluded that customers were more likely to spend more with restaurant brands that made an effort to provide cleaner restroom facilities.

They say that nobody likes to see the sausage getting made. And while that might literally be true as far as sausages are concerned, it might be worth taking customers a bit behind the scenes to show more of your cleaning and sanitation efforts in practice.

Your customers care—why not meet them where they are?

The COVID-19 pandemic shook the restaurant industry to the core. Many local and regional restaurants struggled to remain afloat, and even larger, established brands took a hit as federal and local health guidelines kept consumers indoors and largely away from public gatherings. As the pandemic continues to evolve, your restaurant’s facilities will be more important than ever. Why not work with a trusted partner that really understands your business, your company’s vision, and your unique goals? Get in touch to learn more: weknowFM@smsassist.com.

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