States and cities across the U.S. have imposed new restrictions and in some cases lockdowns that will once again shutter indoor dining. As they’ve done in the past, these restrictions once again call into question how restaurant tech can help restaurants pandemic-proof themselves and stay in business.
A stay-at-home order for Chicago residents goes into effect today. Restaurants must close by 11 p.m. each night and may only offer delivery, takeout, and outdoor seating. The city didn’t completely shutter indoor dining; it’s allowed so long as tables are within eight feet of an open window. But given Chicago’s typical wintertime temperatures, neither that nor patio seating will likely be popular options for diners right now.
New Mexico, and Oregon have imposed far tighter restrictions. Effective last week, Oregon restaurants and bars must return to takeout- and delivery-only service. New Mexico has similar restrictions as residents shelter under a two-week-long stay-at-home order.
Likewise, restaurants in Washington State and Michigan must halt indoor dining and stick to takeout and delivery models. Other states, including Minnesota and New York, have imposed curfews on restaurants, and for everyone, the threat of another lockdown looms large.
One difference this time around is that unlike in March, restaurants have more tools at their disposal when it comes to fulfilling off-premises orders. Since the early days of the pandemic, most restaurant tech companies have offered so-called “contactless” solutions that minimize human-to-human contact. Some parts of those packages, like QR-code-based ordering for the dining room, will be of little help right now, since there is no dining room in many places. But other features, such as software to power online order processing, could help restaurants fulfill takeout tickets faster and in a more organized fashion. Elsewhere, delivery integrators a la Chowly and ChowNow are now more widely used than in March and help restaurants manage delivery orders coming through multiple sales channels (DoorDash vs. Uber Eats vs. Caviar, for example).
The option to go virtual is also more widely available. That point was underscored recently in the massive $120 million sum Ordermark raised for its NextBite platform, which pairs restaurants with kitchen space to help them develop and operate virtual restaurant brands. Along those lines, countless options for ghost kitchens have sprung up from the likes of Zuul, Virtual Kitchen, ShiftPixy, and many others. Still others, like restaurant chain Wow Bao, offer creative takes on the ghost kitchen/virtual restaurant concept that could benefit not only themselves but other local restaurants.
These and other tech solutions will undoubtedly help restaurants as they navigate new lockdowns and restrictions. The unknown factor is whether they will be enough. Big-name QSR brands have the deep pockets to turn their drive-thrus into digital innovation centers and reinvent their physical footprints, and restaurants with a certain level of demand will find ghost kitchens useful for pandemic-proofing operations.
The indie restaurants will, however, struggle more than any other restaurant type. These are businesses that have neither the money to invest in sophisticated tech solutions nor the demand to justify a big ghost kitchen operation. Fee caps may help as far as delivery orders go: cities across the country have implemented mandatory caps on the commission fess third-party delivery services can charge these businesses, and if stricter lockdowns ensue, other municipalities may do the same.
None of this guarantees a future for independent restaurants. One thing that hasn’t changed, not yet anyway, between previous spikes in the pandemic and this one is that off-premises remains a lifeline for restaurants, not the lifeline. Many restaurants still grapple with the fact that they were built — from the food they serve to the atmosphere they provide — for an on-premises experience. Developments to turn on-premises experiences into those suited for takeout and delivery are moving fast. Unfortunately, the pandemic is moving faster. Seen in that light, restaurant tech’s big priority right now should be helping smaller restaurants complete the transition from the dining room to the living room.