Published November 22, 2021
One of the most accurate words to describe the challenges the world has faced since March 2020 is “unprecedented.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced our entire global society to reconsider nearly all aspects of life. An activity as simple as grabbing a bite to eat at a restaurant was suddenly cause for anxiety and an abundance of caution.
Restaurant owners were forced to wear even more hats than usual. In addition to serving food to customers, they had to play moralistic roles as arbiters of safety and sanitation. Someone on the restaurant staff testing positive for COVID-19 could mean shutting down the restaurant for up to two weeks—not to mention extensive contact tracing and the inherent risk of severe illness.
Operating in such a tight financial bind with days or weeks of sunk revenue caused many restaurants to prematurely and permanently close, putting dozens of employees out of work.
With so much on the line, the vast majority of restaurant owners were determined to avoid this outcome and take their well-being into their own hands.
Most have turned to innovations around contactless experiences in order to maintain their bottom line and keep staff and customers safe. But implementing these new practices and disrupting traditional modes of doing business hasn’t been easy for everyone.
Fred Castellucci, president and CEO of Castellucci Hospitality Group, a major restaurant group in Atlanta, spoke to the perpetual state of confusion and fear caused by the pandemic. Each of his restaurants had to begin navigating changing public health regulations right as the crisis began.
“[We were] always trying to figure out the safest possible ways to serve the guests, and that evolved over time,” he explained. “While things were frequently changing, certain low-risk adaptations became commonplace all across the restaurant industry.”
The first safety precaution that restaurateurs took was shifting toward a model that prioritized to-go orders and curbside pickup. While this format has been commonplace in fast-food and fast-casual restaurants for decades, many spots that typically prioritized on-premise dining have now adopted new methods to allow customers to swiftly and safely pick up food on-the-go while minimizing their risk of exposure.
Many restaurant owners never intended for diners to eat their food in any way other than on-site for peak freshness. But when the pandemic struck, they realized they needed to incorporate new practices at their establishments.
For many restaurateurs, implementing operations that were completely new to their business models required a fair deal of creative problem-solving. While many may think that pivoting to focus on takeout and incorporating touchless experiences are simple changes, they actually require a complete shift in the approach to work.
In addition to changing the way meals were enjoyed, restaurants were also forced to update how these meals were paid for.
One of the early Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study recommendations concerned limiting the use and exchange of cash. It became commonplace for restaurants to reduce touchpoints that could potentially transmit the virus. This included introducing contactless payment options.
The use of cash had already been steadily declining over the past decade, so implementing cash-free transactions was not a big departure from the natural shift of using credit cards and mobile wallets. With existing mobile wallet tech, like Apple Pay or Google Pay, customers didn’t even need to pull a card out and could instead pay using only their phones.
Another form of contactless payment came from the introduction of QR codes to the ordering and transaction processes. These unique barcodes can be generated for free and link directly to a website, such as an online menu or even an ordering platform. The use of QR codes allows restaurants to conduct business without needing to repeatedly expose servers to customers or handle physical menus and checks.
Related: Is traditional service on its way out in hospitality?
Health officials made it clear early in the pandemic that spending time outside versus indoors substantially reduces the odds of transmitting the virus via respiratory droplets when paired with other safety measures such as mask use and social distancing. Thus, many restaurants closed their indoor dining areas and switched to outdoor dining. Some already had patios and tables, while others had to prepare outdoor spaces for customers to dine.
Fred Castellucci had trouble kicking this off for his restaurants. “Some people are lucky,” he said. “They have these parking lots they can turn into big dining rooms, but we just didn’t have that.”
Alex Brounstein, owner of Grindhouse Killer Burgers, had to make several additions to each of his six restaurants to accommodate this shift to outdoor dining.
“At first we had a tent outside in the parking lot,” he explained. “But it’s not great when it’s cold or raining, so then we reserved two seats of the bar for pickup at specific time windows.”
A surge of new diners made this challenging as well. “Now we can’t handle the takeout window, so we set up tables right in the middle of the patio.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has incited a plethora of reactions: fear, doubt, cynicism. However, despite the negative effects, it’s also inspired a surge of creativity and bravery. It forced restaurateurs across the world to maintain steady business while also protecting themselves, their employees and their customers. By facing these challenges head on, many were able to bounce back even stronger with safer customer experiences and new ways of handling dining, ordering and transactions.