COVID-19 and Commercial Kitchens
Will COVID-19 Change the Way Commercial Kitchens Do Business?
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has massively influenced individuals and businesses alike. For those fortunate to work online, business has continued as usual. But few industries were hit as hard as the food and beverage sector. While many commercial kitchens closed their doors (either temporarily or indefinitely), others decided to get innovative. But how exactly, and to what extent, has this pandemic affected restaurants or catering businesses? And will it have a lasting effect on the way they operate?
Without a doubt 2020 has been a year like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt deafening blows to the food and beverage industry. According to Yelp, more than 15,000 restaurants have closed their doors permanently since July. And the statistics aren’t any better for catering companies either. Commercial kitchens that decided to keep their doors open, were faced with a whole new set of challenges. For restaurants, the challenge was to attract an acceptable number of customers, yet still create a space in which their customers could feel safe and comfortable. Caterers, on the other hand, were faced with a different type of threat to their business – weddings, graduation parties, and other celebrations were suddenly cancelled. No events meant no catering, no catering meant no income. And unfortunately, due to the new normal of remote working, those who provided corporate catering services didn’t do much better. Their usual customers were now working from home, so there was no one to make breakfast or lunch for. This led to a massive drop in sales (up to 90%) and the layoff of several employees.
Many food businesses are now trying to navigate through this new and unfamiliar territory in the wake of the pandemic, hoping to come out on top in the end.
How Restaurants Are Responding to The Challenges Facing Them
Restrictions on the number of patrons and curtailed trading hours have increased the pressure on restaurant owners to still turn a profit, even if it is just to barely keep afloat. Potential customers are also hesitant to resume their normal routine as before the pandemic, so ensuring their safety is now the restaurant owner’s number one priority. By implementing safety measures in a visible and obvious manner, they can actually gain a significant edge over their competitors. That’s because customers are more likely to dine at a restaurant where safety measures are taken seriously and implemented correctly. So, having their staff wear proper masks (or shields), applying social distancing when doing floor planning, and implementing adequate hygiene measures, could help them to attract more customers to their restaurant. Some of the measures include:
- Contactless ordering – many restaurants are doing away with menus as a means to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Customers can order via smartphone, or can order and pay upfront at the cash register before sitting down. Not only are many fine-dining restaurants offering delivery options, but some are even looking to “drive-through dining”. Few examples are as impressive as Atelier, who condensed their famous 12-course blind tasting menu into a 5-course menu available via drive-through!
- Clearing the clutter – in order to make the cleaning and sanitizing process quicker and easier (between customers), table-tops are now emptier than ever before. Flower pots or candles are removed, salt and pepper are provided in sachets, and even tablecloths are done away with.
- In order to create space between customers and close off some tables, some restaurants have become rather creative. Instead of simply taping a big X on the table, some place mannequins and even soft toys on the dining chairs, making them look like ‘patrons’. This not only creates a fun environment, but it also takes away some of the eeriness of being isolated by empty tables.
- Using technology – this has led to an increase in the use of apps like DoorDash, GrubHub, and Uber Eats. Customers can still enjoy their favorite restaurant food, but in the comfort and safety of their own home! Thus, those businesses that are not yet on board with implementing these technologies might be missing out on a significant opportunity to boost their sales.
Don’t own a restaurant? Here’s how other commercial kitchens are coping…
Unlike restaurants, catering companies do not have the same type of expenses, especially when it comes to rent. While they do pay for the use of commercial kitchens, they don’t need to compete for a space in a desirable location in the same way a restaurant does. But this also means they don’t have the foot traffic that these locations offer. So, what do you do if you’re stuck in a commercial kitchen far from the action? You make a plan, of course!
Caterers are known for their adaptability and imagination, and these traits have helped them during this time. This is especially true for logistical challenges. Obstacles that arose because of the COVID-19 pandemic, simply gave them another opportunity to develop new strategies to get ahead. Here are a few ways in which caterers have stepped up to the plate (pun intended):
Meal delivery services
Caterers can churn out meals like it’s no one’s business. In other words, they operate on sheer volume. Thus, whenever large events (like weddings and festivals) are cancelled, they lose a great deal of business. But besides the cancellation of large events, office closures also have a big effect on commercial kitchens. Prior to the pandemic, many caterers provided office lunches, with a large chunk of their revenue stream coming from such corporate catering services. When those offices switched over to remote working, that income stream dried up. But even though customers are no longer office-based, they still exist. And many caterers have now decided to take the meals, such as breakfasts and lunches, straight to their home, by creating delivery routes.
Working from home can become tiresome and many agree that their working hours have actually increased since they started working remotely. But this has only given the caterer another opportunity – providing ready-made dinners. Some provide cooked and frozen meals (which simply need to be thawed and heated), while others put together meal prep kits (for easy assembly and cooking at home). This not only provides the customer with convenience, but it also reduces the tediousness of having to decide what to cook after a long day of working from home. Moreover, it enables the customer to diversify meals without actually having to go to the store and risk exposure to COVID-19.
Bringing festivity to the customer
While some restaurants are gradually opening, many customers are still cautious to resume their dining habits as before. That said, they also want to experience the sense of community, and this exactly where the caterer can meet their needs. If you have a food truck, go into neighborhoods and bring the food to their streets. This will be a welcome break, especially for those who’ve been stuck at home for months.
Selling their signature food items
If you always get compliments on your cupcakes, dips, or sauces, why not package them and sell it to local stores? Many caterers are now offering their best-sellers through local stores as a way of keeping their business afloat.
Getting tech savvy
Now is not a time to shy away from the internet and social media. This is where you need to be to see what people want and what they’re doing, and how you can adjust your marketing campaign to reach them. Some caterers are providing virtual gift cards which can then be redeemed for catering an event in the future. Other bigger companies (like Panera) have an online platform where customers can look at the range of meals, nutritional info, and the price. Caterers can use these platforms to their benefit. The easier it is for a potential customer to customize a menu, and know what it will cost, the more likely s/he will use your company.
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the door for more opportunities in technology. Whether you own a restaurant or run a commercial kitchen, it is an absolute necessity (in fact, non-negotiable) to be on social media, to connect with your customers on a personal level, and to use mobile apps to make ordering effortless.
Life in a restaurant after COVID-19
We can be sure that masks and social distancing will be done away with when COVID-19 is finally over. But while social distancing and other safety measures might pass, customers will likely continue to demand many of the convenience features that resulted as a by-product of the pandemic. This is just human nature: as soon as we become accustomed to a certain level of service, then we expect it to become the norm. This will therefore likely become the new challenge for those who make their living in a commercial kitchen.