“Some pandemic trends, consumer behaviors are here to stay.”

Cristin O’Hara,  Managing Director and Head of the Restaurant Group, Bank of America.

Cristin O’Hara’s article makes some striking points when discussing the impacts COVID-19 have had on the industry, among them staffing shortages; the growth of new business models;  increased reliance on technology and digital solutions; increased consumer demand for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies; and opportunities for 2022 and beyond. 

Staffing shortages

Staffing shortages have been an issue throughout the pandemic and I expect it will remain this way for some time. Staffing is not necessarily a new issue in the industry either. Restaurants strive for a low turnover rate and owners put expectations on their managers to have as low of a rate as possible. With seasonal staff being something most restaurants tend to steer away from. This may change now due to the urgency of finding staff at all.  As someone that has worked in the industry for most of my career, I understand and recognize what feels like the fragility of such jobs. On top of seeing how quickly the industry has changed — how wide-reaching the effects — I find myself wondering when and if things will be the same again. 

Understandably, this inspired some to look outside of the field, to follow new career paths. I have seen many former employees and co-workers go back to school and look for positions with a steady hourly rate instead of relying on tips and the $3.40 hourly rate restaurants in Massachusetts provide. 

As the article notes, “Restaurant owners and managers will need to adjust their approach to attracting and retaining talent, including by offering more competitive wages.” As a result, many restaurants have found themselves offering benefits packages to attract and retain talented and reliable staff, the latter of which has never been easy to come by. 

Ghost kitchens

Then there’s the matter of ghost kitchens. And outdoor dining. Both are likely here to stay. In the case of the former, take out and delivery has become a way of life and will no doubt continue to be the day in-person dining returns in full. In many restaurants, most takeout and delivery orders come from third-party platforms and it is expected that the servers and bartenders will confirm, pack and ensure order accuracy before it is sent out. This is a lot of extra work for staff members who also have in-person patrons to tend to. I’ve seen more restaurants now have designated staff who instead are solely responsible for this job and they are paid an hourly rate. This is the best way to handle online orders instead of relying on waitstaff to handle both. To ensure dine-in patrons have the best dining experience you need wait staff who can be attentive to them instead of trying to handle too much at once. 

Outdoor dining

Meanwhile, restaurants that offer outdoor dining have always been popular, but in some major cities that business model has expanded exponentially — and rightly so. In Boston, for example, every neighborhood created space for outdoor dining, allowing those areas to stay in place for most of the year (thank you, space heaters). In New York City, many restaurants built their own outdoor dining areas, a fact that helped keep some afloat. There’s an appetite for this now, and I don’t anticipate the trend will ever see an end. 

As I reflect on the last two years and look to the one ahead, I believe in order to stay ahead of the curve, restaurant operators need to unravel several aspects of the industry’s complex challenges: attracting and retaining talented employees; adapting to consumer preferences; and investing in the right technology to automate, reduce operational costs and maximize their ability to serve consumers.

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