We’re more than 8 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and owner-operated as well as chain restaurants like California Pizza Kitchen and Le Pain Quotidien,have gone bankrupt or out of business altogether. Many other chains are on the brink or worse.
For the entirety of the pandemic, people have been encouraged to support their local restaurants first by ordering take-out, and then visiting the restaurant itself when restrictions were lifted. While the second surge of Covid-19 is coursing through the U.S.,many of the restaurants that have been able to survive have managed to adapt to new behaviors on the part of their customers.
It’s impressive for the ones that have made it this far but there’s much more that restaurants can do. One thing that is endemic of restaurants has been a pet peeve of mine for years. Why is the price of a take-out meal the same as what it costs when dining in the restaurant? Even if the portions are similar, (they are sometimes and sometimes they are not), the experience eating in the restaurant has to be a higher value one, right?
At the restaurant you get …served! And the dishes are picked up by other people and washed by other people. There are often cloth napkins and tablecloths. Complimentary bread service (although that is slowly dying away) is offered and your water glass is filled and re-filled. On the few occasions I’ve dined out since March (less than 5), the experience of eating out has been special, a treat, and I’ve enjoyed it very much.
When the pandemic began and we all knew restaurants were seriously in trouble, when ordering take-out meals, tipping the restaurant seemed to be a way to help people that were really just trying to hang on. Paying the same price for take-out did seem unfair to me and I rationalized it as just another way to help. Eight months after the real start of the pandemic there are restaurants that have adapted their menus and pricing to reflect the new reality. Yet too many are doing the same old thing. They appear to just be counting on the customers to keep on supporting them out of the goodness of their collective hearts.
There are some restaurants that have actually flourished during the pandemic. Particularly those that were primarily take-out oriented before the pandemic began. Think small Chinese restaurants, pizzerias and even taquerias. Coincidentally, there are full-service restaurants who’ve been able to survive on the combination of take-out as well as restricted dine-in establishments. Some of these restaurants have seen their share of revenue in take-out climb to 30% or even more. Take-out will be essential to their future prospects as people will going forward eat more take-out meals from ‘sit-down’ restaurants at home. Take-out is still overall less expensive for the customers since buying alcoholic drinks from the restaurant is less prevalent. But now all the focus is on the food quality if repeat visits is the goal (it is). So why not have a take-out menu that has different prices than in the restaurant? Why not be straight-up about portion sizes on the take-out menu (how many people does an entrée serve?). Fancy bound menus are not being printed nearly as much anymore (finally a use for QR codes!), and if menus are online they should be dynamic, updated constantly, and…interesting! There are brand stories available to tell. Why not tell them? It’s not like you are going to run out of space!
The other development that I’ve anticipated and has started to occur with the renewed restrictions is the increase in restaurant ‘seating’ times. If we all really want to support restaurants, we might not all get to eat at the same time. I’m not referring to the times between 5:30 and 9:30. (Why is it that popular restaurants when you used to call for a reservation would only have time at 5:30 or 9:30?. I am not usually hungry at either of those times.) But in the age of a pandemic, I, like so many people, don’t do anything the way that I used to and that includes when I have my meals. Since social distancing is paramount how about having dinner with friends at 3:30? Or 4:30? The few experiences I have had going out to eat with real other people (besides my lovely wife), have been nearly exhilarating since we are not seeing many people other than in passing while we walk. We can adapt and should since there’s still six to nine months left before vaccines will be available to enough people to make going-out to eat feel completely safe again.
Having seating times and limiting the time you can spend there (2 hours maximum and maybe less than that), will help restaurants serve more people safely. It also may serve to change the way people think about going out to eat at restaurants once this pandemic has passed. One thing I am fairly certain of, things will not go back to being exactly the way they were before the pandemic began. But I am a big fan of eating out in restaurants and only wish them success. Doing things the same old way is unlikely to contribute to future success for restaurants.