'All restaurants shouldn't go to a Nando's or a Mcdonald's model, people would still like some kind of interaction'

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th July 2020

What will restaurants of the future be like - in a post covid-19 world?

Whatever evolutionary course restaurants were on before the pandemic hit, changes were either stopped dead in their tracks, or precipitated. From higher technology adoption to better, more efficient and hygiene practices, we spoke to experts in the field about how they envision the future of the UK restaurant scene.

Change for confidence 

Just a few days after reopening, Emily Keogh, owner of hospitality comms agency Palm and founder of Shelter & Co -  which creates and supplies bespoke screens and hand sanitiser stations matching people's colour palette and interior design - says her clients have reported higher customer confidence than expected, as well as higher revenue. 

She said: "There's a renewed appreciation for how things work. From a communication's point of view, restaurants have been so brilliant at taking consumers on a journey with them." 

Consumers, old and new, are showing levels of support which didn't exist prior to the mandated shutdown of restaurants. 

"We're starting from a good place," she said, adding that "we're going to see a shift in customer loyalty, which will go up when they see that restaurants are doing their best for their staff and their guests." 

Founder and managing director of EP Business in Hospitality, Chris Sheppardson, however, is of a different opinion - he believes that customer footfall is going to be very hard to get back to previous levels. 

"One of the real problems," he explained, "is the risk and the reward. People are very risk averse at the moment." 

People will need convincing to return to restaurants, and even more so into city centres, despite a spike last weekend when businesses reopened. 

"Coming out is going to be far more challenging than anything you'd expect so far."

Will restaurants as we know them survive?

With almost 50 percent of restaurants either facing major debt or permanent closure, according to Chris, it is reasonable to expect the landscape to change drastically - possibly seeing talent moving away from independent restaurants and into hotels, "which would be much more safe locations," he said. 

For him, the biggest perceived risk comes from casual dining restaurants.

He said:"If you're going to take a risk, are you going to do it with a casual dining restaurant, or will you do it with a normal restaurant?"

For Asif Muhammad, CEO of Main Course Associates, which offers consultancy and accounting services to hospitality businesses. what is needed is a sustained and steady growth in people's appetite for dining out. 

He believes that encouraging a trickle of consumers to return could, as it has in Italy and Spain, be effective for restaurants to survive - and the first weekend of operating was a good example of that necessary balance.

He said: "What we didn't want to hear was a huge influx of people breaking rules - but at the same time, if they didn't turn up, that would be an issue too." 

A cleaner, more efficient, seamless experience for guests?

As could reasonably be expected during a pandemic, Nick's company, Mechline Developments, which supplies the foodservice and hospitality sectors with water, gas, hygiene, safety and environmental products, has seen a large uptake in all things sanitary - such as hands free wash basins and cleaning products not only for the kitchen but also offices and front of house. 

But while customers might expect high levels of hygiene, they may be less drawn to restaurants with obtrusive screens between every table. 

This was the reason for the products created by Emily's company, designed to look like they're part of the restaurant.

She said: "People have been really relieved to see that there is a product out there that isn't going to interrupt the dining experience." 

Asif agreed, and said that "one of the things that we feared was that restaurants end up looking a bit like crime scenes." 

During lockdown, his company helped restaurants seek the government aid they needed, as well as to draw up plans for reopening. To this end, they designed a QR code app for customers eager not to touch menus - and restaurants keen not to print single-use ones. 

As well as being able to display menus, the app allows restaurants to embed videos - such as informative clips on where ingredients were sourced and how they were processed, or how particular dishes were prepared.

The app doesn't enable ordering, however, as Asif explained that he still believes "all restaurants shouldn't go to a Nando's or a McDonald's model," and that people "would still like some kind of interaction." 

"You can have the code, it's on your device, you're not having to touch anything else, but you're still able to interact with a waiter," he added. 

Chris observed that the increased use of technology is unavoidable - not only given the circumstances, though certainly precipitated by them. 

He said: "How we find a balance between technology and service is going to be a really interesting journey and quite a positive one." 

"Some things like pre-ordering, ordering from tables via apps, coffee machines you can almost do self-serve without even touching the machine. There's so much innovation going on at the moment - which I think makes it quite exciting." 

Michael Eyre, culinary director at Jestic Ltd, said that in recent years, "we've seen an awful lot of move towards technology-based ordering systems," such as Wetherspoons'. 

"I think it's just been sped up, and it's going to improve a great deal as well." 

What will kitchens of the future look like?

Much consideration has been given to the customer experience and how safe an environment is perceived to be. But inside kitchens, often cramped spaces must be rethought to account for fewer staff and less interaction between them. 

For Michael, each type of kitchen will be different, but adapting kitchens "will be far easier than front of house."

In quick service restaurants, team members are "pretty much segregated already," he said, and are bound to strict hygiene rules including frequent handwashing and wearing PPE. 

As for keeping people separated in smaller spaces, he added, "there's a few products on the market." 

"We're seeing a lot of interest in hot holding equipment," adding that "people seem to want to prep and hold or be able to hold for deliveries." 

And to compensate for lower footfall, he said: "The biggest thing in kitchens is going to be trying to produce a Deliveroo/JustEat type delivery area to despatch food rather than the physical making of it." 

Is Covid-proofing restaurants too costly for most restaurants?

"Undoubtedly the cost is going to be bigger than most people expected," Chris said, expecting costs in the realms of 30 percent above current forecasts. 

"The real danger is that a lot of people can run out of cash quite easily," he added, "particularly if it takes time to re-engage audiences." 

Nick agreed, and said that so far, while his customer base in the restaurant sector is eager to get going again, it is largely a trade off. 

"There are some companies that are happy to invest in innovation, but there are also those for which cashflow is a real issue." 

At least from a component and service product point of view, he added, "a lot of businesses are having to make do with what they have - repairing rather than replacing."  

And while some are taking a DIY, open the doors and improve later approach, others are bound to an image which would make that impossible. 

Emily said: "A lot of people are looking at the next few weeks and taking a measured step," but nonetheless she is aware of the reluctance to spend too much on work and has made the screens she sells as cost-effect as possible.

"It's a balancing act," she added. 

Asif: "If you don't invest, you may not build up that customer confidence that you need for them to return to you.

"At the same time, if you end up investing too much at the forefront, you might run out of cash a bit too soon." 

Silver linings 

Despite a rough few months and the ongoing effect of risk-averse customers, Chris expects that they will be drawn back in for the spirit of hospitality: good service. 

"The one thing we've seen over the last few months is the importance of community," he said. 

"I think service will take off in a whole new way - it'll become more important even than it was before in how we create those personal connections." 

Emily said: "Restaurants have been brilliant at that - showing the people behind the walls of the kitchen, showing that their staff are human and all the efforts that they're doing to make their space safe." 

Seeing the outpouring of support from customers on social media, she said, "it's such a great opportunity for people to really understand the passion and the care and the people behind these businesses. 

"With the rise of Deliveroo, people are becoming a bit disconnected from that - unless you're in the industry. I'm hoping there's a renewed appreciation when people go back into a restaurant." 

This awareness of the people behind restaurant food goes further, Asif notices, to the producer level, asking "where the food is from and the amount of effort that people do." 

"I think that's a fabulous thing - it really brings this whole humanitarian thing to the foray." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th July 2020

'All restaurants shouldn't go to a Nando's or a Mcdonald's model, people would still like some kind of interaction'