Opinion

By Emily Newton
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the restaurant industry, but it hasn’t ended it. Thanks to quick reactions and a willingness to adjust, establishments of all sizes, locations and niches have managed to stay afloat. With more restaurants reopening, it’s become clear that some of these changes will last.

Amid the chaos of COVID-19, restaurants adapted because they had to. As 110,000 establishments closed permanently, the industry quickly learned that it must adapt to survive. Now that the sector’s lived with these adjustments for some time, their long-term potential is more apparent.

Many of these changes will linger after the pandemic fades. Restaurants have learned their lesson and will shift to prevent or weather future crises. The industry will emerge from the pandemic an entirely different animal, and here’s what that will look like.

The most obvious change to come to reopening restaurants is a renewed stress on health and safety. During the pandemic, increased health measures are a government-mandated necessity in some areas. After the pandemic, they’ll be an optional but critical part of preventing future risks.

Some measures, like wearing masks and mandating a six-foot distance between seats, will likely fade with the virus. Others, like frequent hand washing, hand sanitizer stations for guests and regular disinfection, will persist. Overall, the industry will take cleanliness more seriously, going beyond meeting FDA regulations and taking a proactive approach to disease prevention.

Restaurant health and safety protocols may reach a scientific level. Some operators may look into metallic nanoparticle coatings to sterilize and disinfect kitchen equipment.

Technology has proven an indispensable resource for restaurants amid the pandemic. From QR code-based menus to app-based reservations and ordering, technology has sustained the industry throughout the past year. These tools can continue to help restaurants outside of the pandemic, too, so the industry will grow increasingly tech-centric.

Technology like digital menus don’t just make restaurants safer, but more efficient. As more restaurants start reopening and customers flood back in, these efficiency gains will be crucial. Even lower-volume establishments will streamline dining through technology, as it creates a more gratifying customer experience.

After some time, the industry will move past digital services and embrace automation. Robots are already crucial in food packaging plants, but they could see service in restaurants too. Robotic cashiers, cleaners and even cooks will augment the human workforce, helping businesses serve more guests, and do so faster.

Ghost kitchens — restaurants that deal exclusively in carry-out and delivery — predate the pandemic, but are now far more enticing. Online delivery orders alone generated $45 billion in 2020, and it will likely take a while before in-house dining regains its place of dominance. Ghost kitchens capitalize on this trend, so they’ll remain valuable long after the pandemic subsides.

Even as restaurants reopen, the public may not feel safe dining in. Online ordering has also made getting take-out or delivery easier than ever before, which will carry this trend further. Dine-in establishments can’t meet this consumer segment’s needs as efficiently or effectively as ghost kitchens.

It’s also impossible to ignore the economic benefits of the ghost kitchen model. Since it typically requires less space and fewer furnishings, it reduces overhead expenses. Experts warn that full-service restaurants may not recover until 2025, so many businesses may turn to ghost kitchens to recover faster.

The pandemic has been a learning experience for the industry, especially when it comes to inefficiency. When business dropped and money became tight, the ways in which the sector has been wasteful became painfully apparent. Reopening restaurants may take the opportunity to move toward a circular economy, virtually eliminating waste.

Proponents of the circular economy typically highlight its environmental benefits, but there’s an economic case as well. Circular food systems could generate $2.7 trillion in annual benefits across the nation. Since this approach eliminates resource waste, it makes restaurants as efficient, and therefore, profitable, as possible.

The industry won’t likely shift to a complete circular economy at once, as that takes time and initial disruption. Many restaurants and chains will move in that direction, though, recycling, reusing or upcycling their waste. This approach will ensure that struggling restaurants get all the value they can out of their resources.

When people back on the COVID-19 pandemic, it will represent a turning point in history. As the outbreak put the status quo to the test, it became increasingly evident that restaurants haven’t been as resilient or efficient as they could. After a disruption as substantial as that, the industry won’t return to normal once the outbreak subsides.

The post-COVID restaurant environment will look entirely different from before, and for the better. Establishments will be cleaner, safer, more efficient and profitable than ever before.

About the author: Emily Newton is the editor-in-chief of Revolutionized Magazine, an online publication covering the latest innovations in the industrial sector.

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