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Restaurant owners share how the pandemic is changing the customer journey

Published March 3, 2022

Think back to April 2020, when it seemed as if the entire world shut down. Dining out with friends or trying new local restaurants was impossible. Figurative tumbleweeds were rolling down previously well-trafficked thoroughfares. Restaurants had to think on their feet and get creative to adapt to the effects of the global pandemic. A lot of this involved redesigning the customer experience.

Now, many of those changes are still in place and it seems customer preferences have changed for good. For example, the James Beard Foundation cites that 89% of consumers don’t trust others to act safely once restaurants reopen. Fortunately, there’s still a large contingent of diners - 70% to be exact - who think eating at restaurants will help them feel normal again.

We asked local Atlanta restaurant managers to share the lessons they’ve learned in the wake of the pandemic — including how they’ve managed to continue to grow a strong customer base.

Getting creative with menus

The pandemic has placed extraordinary pressure on the food supply chain, which continues to impact restaurants today. Lead times for certain food and beverage products can be upwards of multiple weeks, creating a major challenge for restaurant owners, managers and operators. That said, restaurants across the country have been forced to adapt. Creativity continues to prove vital to the long-term success of the restaurant business.

Customers have responded positively to restaurants’ resourcefulness and perseverance. Seeing that your favorite local eatery is making every attempt to stay open and produce a full menu means more to someone than whether or not the restaurant is out of one particular item. Customers see the lengths to which restaurants are going to serve them, and they appreciate that effort.

Since the pandemic began, there’s been a significant push to support local businesses, specifically restaurants — likely because most of us don’t realize what we truly have until it’s gone. Local restaurants will no longer be taken for granted, and their continued commitment to staying open by any creative means necessary has further renewed and strengthened the sense of loyalty and gratitude many customers feel toward them.

Juan Fernando from La Parrilla in Atlanta spoke to his restaurant’s ability to roll with the punches. “This week, there is no Coca-Cola; there is no Coke syrup. Our provider just called me to say he has 30 cases but that's not enough for my whole company,” he said. “You get to a point where you don't worry, you don't get mad. You just say ‘Okay, let's do it, let's try to buy bottles. Let's try to solve it with whatever.’”

More than any other business, the restaurant industry is flexible enough to adapt — partly in thanks to the support and loyalty of its customer base.

Evolving to avoid extinction

The first change we saw to the dining experience as a result of the pandemic was the need for outdoor dining space. The value customers place on health and safety at restaurants has increased tenfold. More specifically, their behavior has changed. Early on in the pandemic, restaurants were faced with two options: adjust the guest experience to accommodate customers’ health concerns or perish.

Some individuals still won’t eat inside an establishment out of an abundance of precaution, but they likely still want to enjoy their favorite local cuisine. So how can restaurants cater to those individuals while still retaining the customers that want to dine at their establishments? Simple: they evolve their operating model.

Previously, restaurants might have been doing 80% in-person orders versus 20% online or takeout orders. Now, it’s likely an even split between the two. As a result, many restaurants have had to rethink their staffing models to hire more drivers or staff to work the curbside pickup option.

Related: Learn how Fresco's evolved with online ordering.

Many restaurants are also changing the physical layout of their stores to accommodate these consumer preferences by decreasing the size of their dining areas and increasing their kitchen space to prepare more orders. And some restaurants have increased and enhanced their outdoor dining experiences too. Understanding these pain points and overhauling the restaurant experience is the way forward.  What may have started as a temporary solution to serve diners safely during the pandemic has evolved into permanent changes to restaurants and the way they serve their food.

Placing new emphasis on technology

Like most businesses today, restaurants have faced rapid digital growth. The pandemic accelerated this expansion into the digital space, giving rise to increased online ordering, a greater need for mobile apps for delivery and other technological opportunities. Even in the darkest parts of the pandemic, restaurants that had a strong digital footprint were able to maintain and build customer loyalty — especially those that offered online customer loyalty programs with points incentives for return orders.

Moving forward, the need for digital infrastructure will only grow as consumers continue to rely heavily on online ordering. Technology won’t simply affect the customer experience from home, either. Inside of restaurants, we’re likely to see more digital ordering systems and QR codes to scan in order to access menus. Technology is pervasive even in the restaurant industry for understanding and meeting customer goals, and the key to improving the customer journey is harnessing the power of digital tools.

Related: Learn how Blu Jam Cafe uses QR code ordering to reduce labor requirements.

In addition to technology, restaurants are leveraging social media to promote themselves, interact with current customers and attract new ones. At La Parrilla, Juan Fernando said, “We definitely have had to get more creative, especially [with] social media during that time when people couldn't come to the restaurants.”

Having a strong digital footprint is more critical than ever to enhancing the customer journey and building brand loyalty for your restaurant, especially when combined with a good rewards program or loyalty app.

Adaptability is the key to success in the restaurant business. Establishments that are able to stay flexible by offering new or alternative menu options show their customers that they really care. Evolving the way you, as a restaurant owner, do business in the wake of the pandemic will be key to maintaining your share of the consumer market. Whether you opt to increase your out-of-store purchase options or expand your restaurant’s dining space to accommodate new health and safety concerns, it’s important to remember that customers want to feel catered to and valued.

No business today is successful without the help of technology. Increasing your restaurant’s digital footprint can make your brand more accessible, help attract new patrons and build long-term customer loyalty.

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