The Evolution of Eating Out

Manmit Rai

No matter what else has occurred over the last few months, the food industry hasn’t let us down.

Closeup of two takeaway paper bags with sticker seals over each opening

Many have been supplying our frontline workers, supporting charities and the homeless and somehow or other, a few have managed to provide Michelin-starred meals in little cardboard boxes, ready to be served up at home.

They’ve been delivering takeaways, providing recipe videos for us to make ‘fakeaways’ (they really don’t taste as good) and generally making sure that we are still being served up lots of delicious meals that lockdown would have been far worse without.

Leon, which was quick off the mark to turn its restaurants into stores, has now evolved its offering again to provide chef-quality readymade meals through the Feed Britain website. Athenian and wagamama have launched home cookery lessons to keep their loyal customers, and wagamama has been offering a successful click and collect service that should see all of its stores open by the end of July.

Bakery, PAUL, offers a click and collect service for its usual favourites but has also launched The Grocery Market, which delivers bundles of bread, groceries and more straight to people’s homes. Alongside this, OpenTable, which is usually a reservation service, has teamed up with Deliveroo and Uber Eats to support restaurants in switching to takeout.

All this positive news aside, the restaurant industry has still suffered an unprecedented and disproportionate decline in business and profits, being some of the first businesses to close and likely – according to the UK hospitality trade association, the last to fully recover.

Their flexibility, adaptability and creativity has kept many afloat, but as lockdown starts to ease, businesses big and small, will be looking at how to open in an alternative way to start safely upping the volume of business to pre-lockdown levels.

Visualisation for Restaurant with Perspex Screens

Most customers are wondering what that will mean for them and their favourite places? Will there really be Perspex everywhere? We’ve spoken to contacts within every area of the industry and the primary goal right now is opening in a safe way for both employees and diners, in a manner that still creates the relaxed and comfortable environment we have all come to expect. No one wants to open offering the sterile, uncomfortable experience that the media suggests.

"Many businesses are already constructing screens which will support social distancing, but disappear into the overall design, rather than being a sorely obvious, new addition. Depending on the type of restaurant, they are also developing apps that will allow people to order and pay online or hold their place in a queue when they are actually off shopping,” Our Operations Director, Manmit Rai, said. “The IT is already there, it’s just a case of looking at how best to use it."

To support adequate distancing zones, they are also looking out for physical choke points where the volume of people naturally increases - such as entrances and delivery waiting zones. Many are using larger ‘order-ready’ boards to combat this issue.

The Hospitality Trade Association predicts that it could take six months to return to 70% of pre-lockdown volume.

The new ways of serving customers have caused a variety of challenges that the businesses have never had before. Things like efficient booking systems, safe places for drivers and customers to check and collect orders and easy and secure payment options have needed some ironing out. As we enter the fourth month, however, it’s started to work well enough, that many restaurants might well continue to offer these options even as ‘eat-in’ diner numbers start to rise.

This is particularly likely for the short-term at least, since the hospitality trade association is predicting that it could take six months to get back to 70% of the pre-lockdown volume. The surge in demand for click and collect might mean it remains as a viable business option regardless.

The likelihood is that restaurants will open on the 4th July, and where possible, will introduce and promote outside eating areas. Those frequented by the younger generation may bounce back quicker than venues with a traditionally older clientele, but this will no doubt be led by the impact of lockdown on their disposable income. Unless businesses start to repopulate their offices, customers will also, no doubt, continue to buy close to home, rather than work, like in the past.

With this in mind, the businesses who will keep one step ahead are those collecting and analysing data to really get to know who their new, potential clientele are and deliver what they need. With less ability to offer customer service in-house, many will need to deliver an enhanced, online experience, likely delivering more than ease of ordering and delivering or collection.

Businesses should be leveraging data from social channels to maintain communication and identify loyal customers and then, once reopened, analyse the first through the door. Are these the same loyal customers or a new breed of clientele? Technologies like intelligent Wi-Fi data analysis will allow restaurants to interact with these guests and send specialised offers and incentives, made for them, right to them.

Consumer using a mobile device

With the introduction of more apps and software to the new ways of working, the quality of each business’ network will play a far larger role in its success.

Ensuring connectivity is robust, reliable and fast will mean that new ways for customers to do things like queue, browse, order and pay will feel seamless and be a less noticeable addition to the employee experience.

And of course, regardless of the hardship they have faced, one thing that restaurants absolutely do have on their side is that we’re all willing to travel that extra mile for our favourite dish.

Whatever the future, smart industry leaders will not be quick to forget what they’ve learnt so far. Rather than changing step, as lockdown eases, they will integrate what’s worked so far into a new and better business model.