Posted: January 22, 2021 Author: Ryan Kukuruzovic, Corporate Chef
Ryan has 20-plus years of R&D and foodservice experience. His focus is on the design and implementation of diverse and innovative culinary visions with the highest standards of excellence.
In May 2020, I examined the immediate implications of the pandemic on the food and beverage industry, noting the changes to menu and service that had rapidly affected foodservice. At that time, there was a glimmer of hope that with summer sun on the horizon, we were gazing into a period of recovery for the industry and expecting a return to pre-pandemic ‘normalcy.’
Instead, seven months later, what we now know is that these short-term changes evolved into a new way of doing business for restaurateurs. We saw businesses get even more creative with menu and service offerings – bringing us a new form of entertainment in the home.
Here are a few of the most notable changes I observed that are now sustaining foodservice businesses:
- Expanded delivery services: Prior to February 2020, food delivery systems like DoorDash and Postmates were gaining traction, delivering local food right to your doorstep. The prevalence and uptick in these offerings are astounding to the point that most dining establishments now have some delivery partnership. The speed at which this proliferated is quite amazing.
- Bolstered takeout and delivery services for chef-driven, fine dining establishments: For many fine dining restaurateurs, the experience of dining in the restaurant was a large part of the allure. This experience led the ever-entrepreneurial chefs to find other avenues of success in the last year.
- Curbside pickup: Pre-pandemic, these offerings were often associated with casual dining or Starbucks. The curbside revolution is one that has fast become a table stake for restaurants of all types.
- Food safety – and expanded sanitary practices: Food safety has always been a top priority back-of-the-house, but the advent of increased adherence to safety practices has customers seeking out dining establishments that provide transparency about their practices.
- In-store/no-touch ordering reimagined: Handheld credit card machines, partitions, gloves, sanitized bins – there have been many (sometimes quite creative) solutions to create no- to minimal-touch environments. This has affected everything from fine dining to drive-thru.
- Refined, higher-quality, tamper-proof delivery/takeout packaging: Providing curbside and delivery options is one thing, but providing high-quality takeout is a completely other concern for restaurateurs. Neat, tamper-proof packaging that maintains food quality is the gold standard.
- Outdoor dining: Streets became sectioned off, tents and domes were raised, and restaurants invested in outdoor comforts. In some ways, dining became a fun, new experience for patrons who wanted a socially-distant dining experience.
- Ghost Kitchens: Underutilized restaurant kitchens were able to have a resurgence with the popularity of “ghost kitchens” or “shadow restaurants,” which are delivery-only outlets without dine-in space or even dedicated storefronts.
Certain restaurant trends will fade as life slowly returns to what we used to consider “normal,” but a few of these new ways of operating will remain. I believe most notably outdoor dining is here to stay through the proliferation of private dining domes/pods in colder months. The private dining domes are well insulated and ideal for various climates. Also, the dining domes alleviate continuing anxiety because of COVID-19, allowing customers the comfort and safety of yesteryears, pre COVID, while creating a private, more intimate dining experience.
In addition to dining out, “Ghost Kitchens” or “Shadow Restaurants” are most certainly here to stay. The prominence of these virtual kitchens that ultimately function like food trucks, allow chefs/restaurateurs to test new food concepts without having to commit to a full-scale operation. It also allows non-food brands to create digital restaurant exclusives. For example in November, the popular YouTube personality, “MrBeast” launched an online burger restaurant that utilizes local eateries across the nation to deliver its signature sandwiches.
Whether it is a virtual wine tasting or “Zoom” cocktail parties, the reimagined means of COVID-19 era entertainment has evolved into what’s being called “hometainment.” From virtual concerts and operas to Netflix “watch parties,” the collective social desire to “keep calm and carry on” has provided many opportunities for dynamic growth within hometainment, especially within foodservice.
Specifically, COVID-driven hometainment has caused fine dining establishments to rethink how their customer base accesses their beloved fare; ultimately this turned into the rapid acceleration and real-time evolution of “Pop Ups” or “Ghost Kitchens.”
Recently, Chicago’s own, Grant Achatz of Michelin-starred Alinea opened a pop-up restaurant in the Milwaukee area, allowing a broader reach to those interested in experiencing his masterful creations. Customers choose from five meals associated with his Chicago restaurants, each of which is $34.95:
- Alinea’s roast half-chicken and turtle cheesecake
- Alinea’s seared scallops and bread pudding with eggnog sauce
- Next’s The Alps, pork schnitzel and chocolate cake with cherry compote
- Next’s Sicily, braised pork shoulder and ricotta cannoli
- St. Clair Supper Club’s country-fried prime beef rib-eye steak and grasshopper pie
What would have cost a couple dining out several hundred dollars, Chef Grant made available for a fraction of the cost. Of course, there are several implications, but the gist is, the food. The food first – never sacrificing the quality while acknowledging the shift in the dining experience. Again, in my opinion this format is here to stay and will continue to evolve.
In the big picture, and the ultimate for me would be more chefs, notable celebrity chefs and restaurateurs crossing over into the retail space – expanding upon the “Ghost Kitchen” concept in a way that allows for greater access to their cuisines. Essentially, high-quality take-and-bake meal kits accompanied by a weblink for a virtual cooking or rather preparation course for the meal purchased. Ultimately, it’s providing a virtual cooking class detailing the components or ingredients involved in the meal and regional backdrop/origin.
Certainly, there are many nuances to what I am suggesting here, nonetheless I believe a great underlying opportunity awaits!
Rebalance and Refresh
I believe 2021 is a year to rebalance.
At this point folks just want to regroup, gather and be social again. That is where comfort foods, regional, and childhood favorites reimagined come into play. Nostalgic experiences of our youth enable a broadened sense of safety, security, and comfort.
It’s with a heavy heart I reflect on the events and circumstances of 2020. The restaurant industry, despite its innovation, is down nearly $240 billion in sales with almost 2.5 million employees out of work at the time of this writing. So much unforeseen misfortune for so many in a condensed interval of time. One thing I know wholeheartedly; food is a universal means of attaining unity. It’s something we can all agree on and share with one another. This knowledge gives me hope we are headed towards a brighter future in the industry.
When you’re ready, Wixon is here to provide your brand with custom taste solutions for the new foodservice landscape. Explore how Wixon can help your brand craft culinary-inspired creations.