March 26, 2021

My best idea: Operators share their pandemic innovations

Famous Dave’s cleared entries for social distancing, partitioned POS counters and placed hand sanitizing stations throughout.

The 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Report (the Report) identifies the data on COVID-19’s impact on restaurants, the operational and menu trends that have helped struggling restaurants survive the year, and the intentions of operators and consumers going forward.

Looking at operations across the country, the Association pulled together a roundup of some of the best efforts and clever innovations independents and multiunit operators put in motion to keep serving customers.

Get more information on these data points and other findings in our 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry report

  • Clear and present cues: Famous Dave’s franchisee Mike Cain says his company’s best idea was redesigning the service model and customer traffic flow to maximize social distancing between customers at the takeout counter during the pandemic. Outdoor directional signage, cleared entries, partitioned POS stations, and hand sanitizer stands were all part of the plan. According to the Report, 68% of adults (up to 73% of millennials), say they’re more likely to buy takeout from a restaurant now than they were before the pandemic.
  • No Boo, just Bao in this ghost kitchen: Arizona-based fast-casual pizzeria Fired Pie made a deal with Chicago’s Wow Bao brand to offer the latter’s Asian street foods out of Fired Pie kitchens, including fluffy steamed bao buns. Also on offer are steamed dumplings, pot stickers and Asian-style bowls. Wow Bao countertop production setups were adopted into nearly 300 kitchens of other restaurant brands, including chains and independents, helping to generate additional revenue through menu variety.
          Additionally, Fired Pie rolled out curbside pickup for the first time, gaining many new customers. Both moves were “necessary in the given environment,” says company co-owner Fred Morgan. That’s true; 77% of fast casuals and about the same proportion of full-service restaurants rolled out curbside service after the beginning of the pandemic according to the Report.
  • Farm-to-table concept sprouts farm-to-grocery offshoot: When seven-unit D.C.-area Founding Farmers had to shutter at the beginning of the pandemic, the company was forced to lay off 1,100 employees. The very next day, co-founder Dan Simons decided to turn the farm-to-table restaurants into grocery stores. The move got the business through those tough first days, allowing him to hire back many of the laid-off restaurant staff, and it gave customers and neighbors a way to access sought-after items like flour, meat and fresh produce that had disappeared from supermarket shelves. The Report finds more than half of all consumersup to 69% of millennialssay they'd be likely to purchase groceries like meat, dairy or produce at a favorite restaurant.

When waits got long for to-go orders at the beginning of the pandemic, Fazoli’s moved cashiers outside to take orders on tablets in advance of the order screen.
  • Something extra in the takeout line: When waits got long for to-go orders at the beginning of the pandemic, Fazoli’s moved cashiers outside to take orders on tablets in advance of the order screen. Another staffer handed out fresh bread sticks to those customers waiting in their cars—a “surprise and delight” move that paid dividends, according to CEO Carl T. Howard. It was one item on a long list of successful, pivot-to-off-premises moves; Howard reports AUVs are up $300K YOY systemwide as of March 2021. Roughly half of fullservice, fast-casual, and coffee and snack operators say they devoted more resources to tech including online or in-app ordering, mobile payment and delivery management since March 2020.
  • Haute to homey: Only 14 restaurants in the United States have earned three Michelin stars for their elevated cuisine, and Chef David Kinch’s Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., is one of them. The restaurant, famed for its multi-course tasting menus, did a 180° when the pandemic hit, pivoting to comfort-food-style family meals for takeout featuring a selection of expertly executed dishes like braised short ribs, egg noodles, garlic Parker House rolls, and cornmeal cake for dessert. Many consumers say they’d be more likely to purchase food from a restaurant over the next few months if comfort foods were added to the menu: 38% would order comfort food for takeout, and 33% say the same about dine-in occasions.
  • Coffee all the time: Just as the world was shutting down in early 2020, Panera Bread introduced the MyPanera+ coffee subscription as part of its loyalty program. For a monthly fee, customers can come in for all the hot coffee, iced coffee or hot tea they want. Presumably, they purchase a snack or meal with their beverage on at least some of those occasions. More than half of consumers (up to seven in 10 millennials) say they’d be likely to participate in a meal subscription program if their favorite restaurants offered them, according to the 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Report.
  • From tacos to testing. By tapping an existing relationship with an internal medicine doctor, Sam Sanchez, owner of Third Coast Hospitality Group and chair of the Illinois Restaurant Association, turned his two Moe’s Cantina locations into COVID-19 testing facilities after Chicago’s second indoor dining shutdown last October. The inspiration hit after he learned it was taking his staffers up to two weeks to get tested and get results. Moe's Cantina was open to all for a fee, but hospitality workers received a discount. With on-premises capacity limited—and sometimes nonexistent—during most of last year, restaurant operators had no choice but to focus on their off-premises business, according to data; Sanchez was able to both change his on-premises purpose and maintain off-premises restaurant service, serving his employees and community.
  • Tapping tech to speed service: In 2020, Roy Rogers Restaurants invested in new technology to streamline its drive-thru. A timer system now tracks how long each customer takes for each step in the process. The real-time data goes up on the leader board inside the restaurant so staff can track it. The chain cut nearly a minute from transaction times, according to executive vice president Jeremy Biser. Roy Rogers also upgraded its POS system to link it to mobile payments and the loyalty program. Some 40% of operators across all six segments in limited- and fullservice say they added a contactless or mobile payment option since March.
  • Dining in—in a dome: Detroit’s East Eats, a restaurant born during the pandemic, is comprised entirely of 10 ventilated geodesic domes, each seating up to eight guests, with orders served from a food-truck kitchen. Report data found seven in 10 consumers amenable to eating a restaurant meal outdoors in a temperature-controlled enclosure. Accordingly, 62% of fine-dining restaurants, 56% of casual-dining brands and 37% of fast casuals reported devoting more resources to establishing or expanding outdoor dining in 2020.
  • Perfect packaging: Garry Kanfer, owner of Kissaki Omakase in New York, spent $50,000 to design and produce distinctive recyclable packaging, customized to transport sushi and other traditional Japanese dishes and offering a visual callback to the concept’s interior design; he notes that food presented beautifully is more likely to be photographed and posted on social media.  More than three quarters of full-service restaurants, including 86% of fine-dining establishments, report that they have upgraded their takeout packaging since the pandemic began, according to the Report.