What can restaurants learn from the 2008 financial crisis?

Published March 24, 2021

Coming out of the 2008 financial crisis, financial institutions were facing a recovery. The shattering of the housing “bubble” had shaken the industry to its core, introducing new legislative reforms. But it also became the catalyst for progress toward a more modern, more digital, more customer-centric banking industry. Financial institutions were thrust into a new world…by a new world. It wasn’t necessarily “a strategy” as much as “a survival.”  

As we look back to the financial crisis nearly 10 years ago, could it bring any clarity to the restaurant industry in a post-COVID world? I think you'll find the catalyst to change and the specific response to the crisis to be uncannily similar. 

In the post-apocalyptic years after the financial crisis, banking trends and strategy shifted from lip-service to “GO!” overnight. Industry pundits and banking CIOs were all saying the same thing:

  • Digital! Digital! Digital! The financial crisis didn’t confirm the already growing importance of digital in the financial industry—it cemented it. Of course, the drive to digital existed before the crisis, but mobile, online and digital disrupters like PayPal/Square were changing the space at a much more rapid pace. Emerging all-internet banks were forcing financial institutions to give more than lip-service to their strategy. Progress had to happen NOW! NCR enabled contactless payments using QR codes with Mad Mex’s Aloha POS system. This digital capability allows Mad Mex to offer customers a completely contactless payment option.

  • Omni-channel – The number of channels were increasing and that was good, necessary and frankly critical to the future of banking. But no matter how you bank (web, mobile, branch, online, ATM, phone) the experience had to be consistent and seamless. “Consumer Experience” had to become an everyday focus as opposed to a consulting buzzword. 

  • Marketing analytics – Financial institutions had always used analytics to detect fraud, so that was table stakes. Then they had to start using analytics for segmenting, targeting and conducting customer-centric, personalized marketing. Once again, the days of quoting books on “1:1 marketing” were gone, replaced by the need for immediate progress. 

  • Branch design – Smaller footprint branches, designed to fit modern customers, integrated with technology. Your grandfather’s branch is not the branch of the future. Brick-and-mortar branches had to experience exponential progress in new design concepts that had previously been unseen but often talked about.

  • Self-service – Labor costs continued to cause concern and technology had advanced to allow greater control of the consumer experience. It was critical to offload low-value tasks to self-service while enabling staff to focus on higher value tasks.

Related: Top 10 self-service banking trends for 2021

Sound familiar? It should.

That’s because in 2020, roughly 12 years from the start of the financial crisis, we saw another event, entirely unpredicted and external, that turned another industry on its head: the restaurant industry. Of course the catalyst is the pandemic. And once again business concepts, strategy, operational models and ideas are thrust forward not by corporate strategy – but by corporate survival. 

And once again, the themes of the recovery are very similar:

  • Digital! Digital! Digital! That was the biggest shift and biggest no-brainer of the pandemic.  Mobile ordering, online ordering, contactless menus, contactless order/pay, curbside and delivery, the growth of ghost kitchens…it all went from idea to execution seemingly overnight. 

    If you don’t have a crisp vision of how your restaurant will function with these solutions, it's time to “adapt or perish.” Because these aren’t fads or capabilities that will slowly disappear as vaccines are distributed; these are channels that are here to stay—forever altering dining experiences. 

Related: It may be a new year, but digital ordering will continue to be crucial for restaurants


  • Omni-channel – In banking in 2008-2013, as in restaurants in 2021, the number of partners, providers and solutions to enable new channels and revenue is mind-numbing to restaurant operators. Just navigating the delivery marketplace alone feels like a maze of directional decisions with no compass to help. And selecting solutions that open new channels without looking like the solutions came from 7-20 different companies is a test in patience.  

    To grow your business in the new restaurant world, not only do you need strategy to enable these channels, but you also need a strategy that looks like one company produced it. Choose vendors that can help you serve guests seamlessly and consistently across multiple channels.

  • Marketing analytics – The days of marketing your restaurant as having “delivery and online ordering” doesn’t cut it in the new world. To flourish, marketing in the post-COVID world must be targeted and specific to your customer. You need analytics to expose the segments, preferences and details of your intended recipient. There are plenty of vendors that offer sophisticated marketing and loyalty engines (that are SaaS-based and reasonably priced) that help accomplish this goal.   

  • Restaurant design – Not unlike banks in 2013, restaurants are exploring different physical layouts to accommodate new digital customers. These include smaller dining areas, multiple drive-thru lines, digital-dedicated drive-thru lines, curbside pickup areas, in-store pickup areas, dedicated digital make lines and even dark or “ghost” kitchens that only handle digital orders. While a complete redesign of your physical space isn’t always practical, having a strategy for the unique constraints of your space and budget is a necessity.

Related: How restaurants can use innovation to engage with customers in contactless ways


  • Self-service – Again, not unlike banking, labor costs and government talk of increased minimum wages are causing a desire to use technology to assist with low-value tasks while employees focus on high value tasks. Of course, online and mobile ordering are steps in the right direction, as were self-ordering kiosks in the pre-COVID world, but what’s next? Is the next generation of restaurant technology going to see expanded kiosk or ATM-like devices that offer video interaction with an order-taker? The answer will differ across segments, fast casual versus quick serve versus dine-in—but, rest assured, the space will evolve faster in the post-COVID landscape. 

Finding the opportunity buried in disruption

In 1959, President John F. Kennedy was quoted in a speech in Indianapolis that said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for ‘danger’; the other for ‘opportunity.’”

The quote was later deemed an incorrect interpretation of the language—but it’s a great way to illustrate the two-sided coin of a crisis. And it's an apt summary of both the financial crisis of 2008 and the pandemic of 2020.

These events shoved, pushed, threw, thrust, drove and heaved financial institutions and restaurants into a new world and new kind of industry. It forced organizations to turn theories and goals into execution and results—fast.  

We can see that the immediate strategy for restaurants looks eerily similar to that of banks shortly after the crisis. But, what insights from that crisis can we carry over to the restaurant industry, beyond the immediate near-term? It’s hard to say, but we know that after 2012, banks:

  • Increased spending and focus on security – as digital solutions became predominant 
  • Began replacing legacy “core” solutions that were built on decade-old platforms in favor of modern architectures that were nimbler in the digital age
  • Explored and deployed open-API architectures that gave them the flexibility to adapt

Will we see the same acceleration of these concepts in the restaurant space in coming years?

I wouldn’t bet against it. 

When your restaurant is backed by NCR, it's simple to stay out front.

Whether that's literally up front with your customers, or out front of your competition.

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