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Transforming 2021

The pandemic changed restaurants. They'll never look the same again.

Digital menus, ordering apps and separate delivery windows are just some of the features that will outlast the health crisis.

The pandemic changed restaurants. They'll never look the same again.

A more common sight moving forward.

Photo: Gavriil Grigorov/Getty Images

Shelter-in-place forced a nearly overnight transformation of the restaurant industry as businesses struggled to find a way to survive this pandemic. But at some point, hopefully soon, we won't all have to remain six feet apart anymore, and people will want to go back to eating with friends at their local haunts. The experience won't be identical, though — thanks to technological and structural changes the pandemic forced upon the industry, as well as plans that were in the works well before we all went into lockdown.

Tom Buiocchi is the CEO of ServiceChannel, a company whose software tools help businesses manage facilities by matching work that needs to be done, like plumbing fixes, cleaning and repairs, with local contractors. It works with some of the largest chains in the restaurant industry, including Chipotle, Panda Express and Sweetgreen. With 150 million transactions to date run through ServiceChannel, Buiocchi said the company could see patterns emerging when the coronavirus started to take root in the U.S., based on the work orders flowing through the system. "Many of these trends were already in motion, but what COVID did was accelerate our evolution," Buiocchi said.

Buiocchi recently hosted a Zoom panel with facilities managers who shared some of the big changes they were seeing firsthand. The most common one was the intense focus on safety and cleanliness. "If you don't have that, you're probably not going to get any customers in," Buiocchi said.

Gone are the days of a simple wipe-down after a customer leaves a table — now servers are sanitizing tables and wearing masks and other protective gear. Companies are investing in new HVAC filters, electrostatic disinfection fogging machines and autonomous robots that blast germ-killing UV light as they roam around. Although many critics argue that this is "hygiene theater," since the virus propagates more effectively through the air than on surfaces, it seems like a growing customer expectation, and restaurants desperate to lure diners back view it as a better-safe-than-sorry choice.

Other changes coming to restaurants go deeper than a scrub-down, touching all aspects of operations. For luxury or high-touch restaurants, there likely will be a return to highly personal table service. Everything else is up for automation.

For many customers, a wariness of being too close to strangers isn't going to fade overnight. In some cases, that'll mean more businesses sticking with mobile ordering setups they put into place over the last year. Companies like Bbot, Toast and Presto are combining back-of-house order management software with customer-facing services like digital menus, ordering and QR codes. This means customers can sit down at a table, scan a code for a menu, pick out what they want and potentially even pay for it, without ever having to talk to a server. And unlike paper menus, digital ones don't have to be reprinted or amended for specials.

Quick-service restaurants that have cribbed the Chipotle assembly-line approach to completing people's orders also want to be able to recreate that experience digitally, according to Buiocchi. "As you scroll down the app, it needs to mimic you walking down the line, adding things to your burrito," he said.

While most companies have been investing in mobile experiences, some have also pushed ahead with in-person ordering systems that still don't require customers to talk to anyone to place their order. McDonald's and Taco Bell have added large touch-screen kiosks to the fronts of their stores, reducing the number of staff required to take orders, while freeing them up to work on fulfilling them or other jobs that need doing around the restaurant.

Even the physical structure of restaurants is changing. Buiocchi said that many chains are now targeting suburban locations with smaller dining rooms and larger kitchens. The restaurants are expecting that a large percentage of their orders will be slated for pickup or delivery. "They want to be closer to the ultimate consumer," Buiocchi said. "These are micro-distribution centers."

Some are extending that approach to layout in-store, as well, hosting several "lanes" for customers. Chains like Chick-fil-A and Cava had dedicated pick-up zones or lines for mobile orders prior to the pandemic, but that's been supercharged during the pandemic. People want to get in and out of stores as quickly as possible, and restaurants are changing to reflect those needs. "The parking lot is a dining room now," Buiocchi said.

Some restaurants are trying to build the uncertainty of the future into their restaurant layouts, too. That could mean swapping from takeout to order-in lines at different times of the day, but also something as simple as being able to move the furniture around. Buiocchi said that many restaurants bolted their tables and chairs to the floor in the past, but to accommodate more pickup lanes, or ever-fluctuating state regulations on how many people can dine indoors in a given month, they're now looking to put everything on wheels. Depending on the situation, staff can then just roll out what's needed. "You don't know what the configuration is going to be next week," Buiocchi said.

But even as companies are increasingly turning to digital channels to manage the relationship they once had with customers in person, there's still a strong likelihood that people will want to come back into restaurants, once it's safe, even if the post-pandemic layouts are unfamiliar.

Even Chipotle, which has found success with its mobile ordering during the pandemic and added separate drive-through lanes to its stores for mobile order pickups, sees the promise of in-store sales. People shop with their eyes, Chipotle CTO Curt Garner told Protocol in October. "There are a lot of people at Chipotle that walk in and they hear the chicken on the plancha, and they smell the adobo; they know they want Chipotle, but they make up their mind looking through the glass at the food and smelling the smells and interacting with the crew," Garner said. "That's a really important part of our experience."

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