Social Distancing: Short and Long-Term Implications for the Foodservice Industry

How social distancing is impacting the foodservice industry, and what new trends and innovations operators can expect to see in the coming weeks, months and years.

Social distancing: not just a trend, but a new pattern

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, government-mandated closures and social distancing measures have heavily impacted the foodservice industry on a global level, forcing many businesses to re-strategize as they fight for short-term survival. But what will happen in the long run? Experts predict that the new containment measures – and in particular, social distancing – will last well beyond the next few weeks, as governments look to guarantee safe socializing and avoid the onset of a second wave of chaos.

Here are some of the long-term changes we could expect to see.

Digital tracking, everywhere and anywhere

MIT believes that digital tracking is going to become increasingly popular, as governments move to develop more sophisticated, digitally-enabled methods to identify who’s a risk and who isn’t. They predict that tracking services will be used to check not only where people have been, but whether they’ve been close to known infected people or disease hotspots. Venues – such as restaurants, government buildings or public transport hubs - might screen people at entrances, checking for recent locations as well as vital signs. Digital monitors and temperature scanners might become more commonplace in public locations, and some establishments might even ask for proof of immunity (or vaccination) before entry, through the use of an ID card of digital verification. We might soon see the rules and limitations of data privacy go out of the window, as greater transparency and data sharing become a small price to pay for our safety and freedom.

The rise of automation & robotics

In recent years, the hospitality & foodservice industry has increasingly come to rely on automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. Self-service technologies have been adopted in extremes, from robotized hotels and restaurants to unmanned grocery stores and drone delivery. It’s no surprise then, that in times like these, integrating automation into service operations offers the ideal solution for establishments looking to reduce social interaction, and offer both their patrons and employees greater safety and security. It’s likely that even after social distancing measures have been lifted, consumers will still be wary of engaging in close social contact with one another, which includes standing next to strangers at a bar, interacting closely with service attendants or touching menus or other surfaces. Some may have gotten so used to ordering their meals online and interacting with service robots that they will even prefer autonomous machines to human interaction. As long as automation is implemented cautiously so that it brings value to both the consumer and the business, there’s no limit to what you can do.

Social dining experiences

As more people are opting for in-home dining, there has been a growing opportunity for media-savvy chefs to cater to their customers through digital experiences. Social media channels have never been more saturated with consumer photos of their latest cooking exploits, so there’s clearly a market for chefs and restaurants to not only share their expertise and know-how, but also connect with their customers on a new, more experiential level. Many restaurants, from fast-food chains to Michelin-star chefs, are turning to food blogs, streaming channels and podcasts to cater to their customers. Take, for example, Chipotle. While their social media presence was already on-point pre-pandemic, they decided to up their game with Chipotle Together sessions on Zoom and Instagram. The sessions, featuring celebrities and musicians, not only provide entertainment to their customer base and help them stay top-of-mind, but also drive sales by issuing promo codes for free entries throughout the broadcast. Other innovators, such as wine, whisky or cigar bars, are offering their customers virtual tasting sessions through live streaming sessions, where discovery sets can be picked up or delivered and then enjoyed together with an expert.

How to stay relevant

From now until the foreseeable future, we can expect to see drastic changes in the foodservice industry – whether it be through regulations, shifting consumer habits or new technology and innovations. Here are some tips on how you can keep your offering relevant to your target audience in the coming weeks, months – and even years.

  • Stay transparent: It’s important to be completely transparent and open about what actions you’re taking in light of the latest developments. Be honest about your limitations and communicate what you’re doing to respond to the latest issues – including what you’re doing to improve safety and security for your customers, how you’re adapting your offering and what they can expect to see in the coming weeks or months.
  • Stay ahead: Make sure you’re offering your customers something your competitors aren’t. Right now, this means offering take-away of your top-selling items or even adding in some staple items that are short on-hand in grocery stores – like bread, cakes, eggs, pastries, even toilet-paper and soaps. For every new roadblock there’s a solution and an opportunity to tap into new revenue streams, so keep thinking outside of the box.
  • Stay flexible: Government recommendations and regulations are changing by the day, and with it are consumer habits and trends. Make sure you and your team stay flexible and quick on your feet. Set up daily or weekly strategy sessions with your team and continue to brainstorm and adapt your business model and offering. Being agile and responsive has never been more critical for business survival.
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