Tight margins and an increasingly competitive landscape may have given the foodservice industry cause for concern year after year, but nothing could have prepared it for the sweeping impact of COVID-19 in 2020. The seismic shift to off-premises channels as restrictions on dine-in service and prolonged suspensions of onsite dining took hold brought a feast of challenges and opportunities, changing the direction of foodservice for years to come.
“Simpler is better” seems to be the mantra of foodservice these days. The pandemic has not only put prevention center of plate, but also it has created a hunger for optimal convenience as consumers seek safe and simple options to address their foodservice needs.
The pandemic hasn’t just shifted the focus to takeout and delivery; it’s driven foodservice down a road of constant twists and turns, with no path back to business as usual. A vaccine is on the horizon, but COVID-19 has forced approximately 17% of U.S. restaurants to close,1 and concerns over its spread continue to have a negative impact on the bottom line. While the holiday season is normally a time when operators can expect a business boost, in 2020 eat, drink and be merry became eat, drink ... and be very careful.
The pandemic-propelled shift to off-premises is reshaping the restaurant landscape, literally, as smaller-footprint stores designed for digital and drive-thru orders emerge. In August 2020, the Mexican food chain Taco Bell served up the hot news of its new store format, Taco Bell Go Mobile, which will cater to customers hungry for the speed and convenience of double drive-thrus, contactless curbside pickup and digital integration.
Curbside pickup may have seemed like a pitstop on the road to a post-pandemic return to normal, but it continues to gain ground as a viable off-premises channel. Popular for its safety and convenience (allowing consumers to leave their homes and consume their food in the safe haven of their homes or cars), curbside pickup is becoming an entrenched pattern of behavior that's likely to continue after the outbreak subsides.
According to the market research firm Technomic, 40% of consumers surveyed have used curbside pickup during the pandemic, and 66% expect to continue using it once dine-in service returns.1 “While curbside pickup may have been introduced as a temporary solution during the pandemic, there is demand for this service long term as consumers become accustomed to it,” Technomic reports.2 As a result, curbside pickup is an area of opportunity for foodservice establishments. “Operators can consider whether or not they plan to offer curbside and, if so, invest in the service.”2