Even an introverted work-from-home veteran like me is starting to get kind of daffy during this here quarantine. But I will say that being stuck at home has given me a lot of time to think (and write) about the state of the restaurant industry, and I catch myself imagining what eating out will be like once we’re past this pandemic. So when Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson posted a letter this week to employees about the chain’s future, it caught my attention.
In his letter, Johnson more or less said the chain is planning to reopen some of its locations and outlined a plan for doing so. To be clear: Johnson uses the words “open” and “reopen” several times in the text, but at no point promised that your local Starbucks will reopen overnight with the usual setup and operations that existed before the pandemic.
Which is why I’m singling out Starbucks in the first place. As an international chain that has already dealt with this recovery process overseas, and as a leader in digital business and operations, Starbucks’ plans for reopening stores give us a good hint of what we can expect restaurants to look like once the process of opening the economy begins.
Pulling from Johnson’s letter as well as numerous statements and activities from other restaurants, tech companies, and governments, we put together some predictions for what the post-pandemic restaurant experience might entail.
Note that most of these predictions are around operations and the customer experience. There are a host of other issues, from labor to food waste, I’ll be unpacking those over the next few weeks, so stay tuned.
More space, fewer tables. This is less prediction and more fact, with public figures like California Governor Gavin Newsom saying restaurants will have more space between tables and fewer seats, to ensure social distancing when eating out. Separately, the WSJ noted that restaurant chains may operate at half capacity going forward, and include things like plexiglass shields between booths. That could also spell the end of buffet-style dining and family-style seating. Golden Corral, that bastion of all buffet restaurants, has closed all units for the time being. Even before state-mandated shutdowns, other businesses were nixing community seating. And grocery stores are closing down hot bars.
Lots more mobile payments. Some restaurants are already pushing customers to use their mobile apps to order and pay for food, eliminating the need to touch a kiosk or swipe a credit card. Granted, you have to have a well-designed, easy-to-use app in order to do this, which means we’ll see a surge in smaller restaurant chains developing and/or improving their own mobile experiences for customers, whether in-house or through a third-party service. I expect we’ll also see an uptick in mobile-only locations (though it’ll vary based on state laws around cashless businesses).
Curbside delivery for all. Curbside pickup was once the territory of Sonic and the odd McDonald’s location. With dining rooms shuttered these last few weeks, restaurants have had to find other ways of bringing food out. And since not all of them have been equipped with drive-thru, curbside pickup has become the default option for many. This is one of the methods Starbucks has put into practice over the last few weeks, in some cases even taking it a step further to offer “entryway pickup” for locations without parking lots.
Contactless everything. “Contactless delivery” barely existed as a phrase before China implemented it during the peak of its fight against the novel coronavirus. Now, everyone from Instacart to Pizza Hut offers it, and I doubt we’ll revert back to the old way of handing goods off between courier and customer. For contactless to live up to its name, though, brands need to think about the technical logistics behind the operation. Restaurants’ online order systems need to have the option built right into the checkout process. They should consider providing additional features, such as push notifications to alert customers when and where their order is ready. Contactless will stick around permanently for delivery and curbside orders and, when companies figure out how, probably for in-store purchases, too.
More drive-thru lanes. Austin, TX-based chain Torchy’s Tacos explained to me recently that once the chain was forced to shut down dining rooms, it quickly opened drive-thru windows in locations that had always had the feature but had never utilized it. Many restaurants set up shop in locations that were once a Wendy’s or other fast-food chain. If they haven’t already, they could utilize that space to start offering drive-thru on the regular to customers.
Gloves and face masks for workers. Restaurants I’ve spoken with over the last couple weeks are quick to emphasize the steps they are taking to protect both customers and workers when it comes to health. Gloves and face masks nearly always come up in that conversation. They’re also part of Gov. Newsom’s plan for restaurants, and will definitely make their way into other states’ frameworks for reopening business.
Robot staff. Having said that, though, some might just opt for robots when it comes to who’s going to handle your food. My colleague Chris Albrecht recently pointed out that dining customers might prefer “the cold sterility of a robot” to a server wearing a face mask and gloves. Robots, of course, bring up the whole loss of human jobs angle. However, as Chris notes, with fears around the virus and human-to-human contact unlikely to subside for some time, for those restaurants that can afford it, robots might be an appetizing option, at least where city laws permit. Somehow I think they would come in especially handy for running curbside orders to cars.
Okay, wait a minute. Does all this mean my future restaurant experience will involve ordering food ahead of time via an app, then waiting at a plexiglass-encased table for a wheeled bot to roll up with my burger? That sounds lonelier than a month in quarantine.
I doubt it comes to that scenario, though. The COVID-19 situation changes daily, which mean so do expectations about what restaurants will look like when the economy reopens. Maybe all of these predictions will come true. Possibly none of them will. The most likely scenario is that a few of them, like curbside pickup and mobile payments, will become industry standards, and restaurants will use a mixture of the others based on time, money, and customer volume. As states begin discussions around reopening the economy and more chains like Starbucks start outlining their plans, we’ll get a clearer picture of what to expect in the the post-pandemic restaurant experience.
Thanks to Tech, Restaurant Employees Are Accessing Earnings Faster
One area that’s part of any good discussion about the future of the restaurant concerns employees — that is, the servers, baristas, drivers, managers, and others who make up the backbone of the industry.
How they get paid is something that’s fast changing as the industry grapples with dining room closures, mass layoffs, furloughs, and general economic tension. This week, we wrote about Domino’s teaming up with challenger bank Branch to offer employees instant access to their earnings via the Branch app.
Branch is one of a few apps out there that lets hourly workers — who often live paycheck to paycheck — get faster access to much-needed cashflow. DailyPay, which we’ve written about before, is another popular one.
I see an uptick in restaurants making it possible for employees to use these types of apps in future. As everything in the previous section of this newsletter suggests, the restaurant model is rapidly changing, and it’s hard to guess now which formats are most likely to be around next week, next month, or even next year. That means it’s also hard to predict how many people a restaurant will need on staff, and how many hours those individuals can work.
With so many questions up in the air, the least restaurants can do is integrate with one of these apps to get their employees paid faster.