How Restaurants Can Remain Competitive in 2021

How Restaurants Can Remain Competitive in 2021
D.J. Costantino

By D.J. Costantino

Table of Contents

    2020 was a year that the restaurant industry won’t soon forget. From a projected record growth at the top of the year to a decline of nearly $240 billion in sales and 2.5 million out of work, it was nothing short of devastating.

    Through it all, we emerge from the year as an industry in evolution—and our restaurants need to evolve with it. We’re not talking about just surviving the pandemic—but thriving through 2021 and beyond, and setting new standards. There are new technologies, new ways of doing business, and new consumer habits, too. Ordering online, paying with mobile phones, scanning QR codes for a menu, and a ton of takeout, are just a part of dining out now. It takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit, and the ones we adapted to during the pandemic are not only here to say—but ripe to be developed and iterated on.

    The big chains and national brands may be more well equipped than independents to embrace the evolving industry, but independents can thrive with a bit of strategy. By embracing these new consumer habits, and utilizing new tech, independent restaurants have all of the tools they need to stay competitive in this rapidly shifting restaurant landscape.

    Here are some of the top ways to make sure you’re ready for what’s next—whatever it is.

    Embrace Digital Hospitality 📲

    Far-and-away the biggest change for the hospitality industry has been the widespread adoption of technology, which has gone from a luxury to a necessity for restaurants to operate. According to a study by Panasonic, the percentage of restaurant businesses that consider themselves “tech-forward” doubled from 13% in January 2020 to 26% by August 2020.

    "The technology that is available to restaurant owners just in the last year is exponential compared to what we've been working on the last 13 years,” says Shawn Walchef, owner of Cali Comfort BBQ in San Diego, California. He also operates Cali BBQ Media and hosts the Digital Hospitality Podcast, and is an advocate for digital hospitality as a means to grow your business.

    There are many ways to  digital technology into your business. Here are a few ideas:

    Contactless is King

    While contactless cards, drop off delivery, app-based payments, and QR codes have been around, the pandemic has made them more popular than ever. For both safety and ease, there isn’t a better option. Even after the pandemic, QR codes are here to stay. According to a study from Appetize, 45% of U.S. diners prefer to view menus, order, and pay for their meal using their phones rather than interacting with servers during the pandemic. 40% of those surveyed will want to continue once we are on the other side of COVID-19. In addition, emerging tech that diners would like to see at restaurants moving forward are:

    • Tap-to-pay at checkout at the counter (43%)
    • Mobile ordering directly from their car in the parking lot (40%)
    • Curbside pick-up (38%)
    • Servers with handheld devices (34%)

    In addition to being popular among diners, going as contactless wherever possible can improve both safety and operation efficiency at your restaurant. With mobile ordering, there are no menus to pass out and back around, no germed-up credit cards to swipe, and no cash to handle. For fast-casual and quick-service restaurants—no more lines. All of this adds up to significantly less touches between your staff and guests and a much safer environment. Less time on payment processing and menus leads to faster turns—a necessity with caps on indoor capacity. And when customers are empowered to handle these tasks, dining room staff can take extra care to do what they do best—give guests memorable dining experiences.

    Contactless technology can also be used to help cut down on contact amongst your team. Kitchen display systems (KDS) eliminate the need to bring tickets back to the kitchen or handle a printer. Time clocking software like 7shifts’ 7punches lets staff use their own device to clock in and out of their shifts. Reducing contact on high-touch devices in your restaurant is a difference-maker for its cleanliness and safety of your team.

    Go All-in on Delivery and Takeout
    The forced closures that swathed the restaurant industry last spring—with some back in place—delivery and takeout became the only way for diners to get restaurant food, and the only way for restaurants to drive revenue.

    According to our recent survey, delivery and takeout accounted for nearly a third of all restaurant revenues. This increased reliance on delivery revenue has also shed light on the high commissions that delivery apps charge restaurants—with 30% of restaurants as 30% or more in fees.

    Restaurant owner Shawn Walchef of Cali Comfort BBQ chooses to view each delivery platform—be it first or third party—as an investment in his customers. “Our #1 thing is that we don’t want to discriminate how people get our food. If people want us to be on DoorDash, we need to be on DoorDash. If they want to order directly through Toast and pick it up, we want to offer that too. Entire consumer journey needs to be memorable, removing all the friction.”

    Once you’re making yourself available on as many delivery platforms as you can, it’s time to zero in on ways to make your business stand out in the digital space. Restaurants across the country are coming up with unique selling points for their takeout dishes, and crafting memorable experiences for diners at home.

    Make It Special

    With delivery and pickup being the only option for many diners to get your food, you have to make sure you’re doing everything you can to stand out. When a majority of restaurants are using generic bags, containers, and flatware, look at ways to separate yourself. Here are a few examples of stellar off-premise branding.

    Once alcohol was legal to serve via takeout, Cali Comfort BBQ took to their audience and polled them as to what kind of offerings they’d like to see. The result was a resounding yes in the name of cocktails. Not just any—fishbowl cocktails. The restaurant soon started selling batched-and-bottled cocktails to go with fish bowls and rubber ducks to serve them in.

    The bar team also capitalized on the immense popularity of Netflix's Tiger King and its star, Joe Exotic, by offering a “Tiger King” growler cocktail to go.The cocktail generated top sales, an award from Restaurant Hospitality, and even a Carole Baskin impersonator to stop by and pick one up.

    On the opposite coast , NYC Chinese takeout concept Nice Day created unique packaging for it’s Shake Shake shrimp. The dish of crispy fried shrimp has sauce on the side and a sticker on the top with simple—yet fun—instructions: Pour Sauce, Shake Shake, and Enjoy!

    The first step in creating a special off-premise experience is to identify what makes your business unique—and double down on it. If you’re known for having great margaritas, make them available for a takeout special. If you specialize in homemade pastas, make those available for delivery as part of a dinner kit. If you're known for your island vibes, try including fun items like cocktail umbrellas in your takeout packaging. If you’re not sure what your customers are looking for, don’t be afraid to take to social media and ask them.

    Off-premise dining growth has accelerated during the pandemic, it’s cemented itself as a huge part of the dining experience of the future. Treat it as an extension of your dining room, and make sure it’s just as special and memorable—if not more.

    Engage Your Community 🏙

    A distinct advantage of independent restaurants is that they have a community to embrace—and one that they can understand better than any national brand. Your restaurant exists far beyond its four walls. With the right digital tools, you have unfettered access to your customers—make sure you use it.

    Treat Online Interactions as You Would In Real Life

    As the line between the digital and physical worlds becomes increasingly blurred, it’s important to treat your customers online as would in your restaurant. Shawn Walchef likens each online platform to another room in your restaurant. You wouldn’t ignore a full room of guests in your restaurant, and not responding to them online is effectively the same. So respond to and like those Instagram comments, and if a customer leaves a negative review—reach out to them and make it right.

    Another tip that Walchef advises restaurateurs to do is to do a quick ego check when it comes to online platforms. “We have a prejudice about each platform, how I feel about Yelp as a business order. Remove the logo and just think of it as real estate,” says Walchef. “That person could order $5000 worth of catering one day.”

    Be Discoverable

    In this restaurant age, digital real estate can be as important as your physical location. As restaurant discoverability moves from foot traffic to web traffic, is it absolutely essential that you have as much information out there as possible for potential diners.

    “The number one thing you need to fix is your website,” says Walchef.

    By starting with your website and making sure it’s optimized to be mobile-first (as of October, nearly half of all web traffic in the US is from a mobile device), you’re opening up a number of possibilities for guests to find you. Check that all of your links to delivery platforms, hours, and dining information are accurate and up-to-date.

    To keep yourself accountable, Walchef implores owners and managers to download the apps on their phones and devices. In addition to the traditional social media platforms—you know them by now—it’s essential to add the business social media platforms to your repertoire, and check them often. Here are a few you should be focusing on for your business:

    The best part? All of these platforms are free. So make sure you’re signed up, logged in, and making the most of what’s at your disposal.

    Market Like You Never Have Before

    You’re putting a lot of time and energy into making great food and crafting memorable experiences for your guests—and you should be sharing it on social media as much as you can. If you haven’t already, set up a basic posting schedule and plan for your social media accounts. Social media is more crowded than ever for restaurants. Like delivery platforms, it's important to give hungry diners as many opportunities to see you stand out. Types of content that guests love include:

    • Photos of popular dishes
    • Behind-the-scenes looks at how your run your restaurant
    • Seasonal specials and takeout packages

    The social media platforms you should absolutely be on for restaurant growth are Facebook and Instagram. If you have the resources, try and create some content for newer platforms like TikTok or Snapchat.

    Make sure you’re logged into all of your accounts, and when in doubt, take out your phone and post, post, post!

    Optimize Your Labor 👩‍🍳

    With all of the above changes we’re seeing, from diner habits to how we run our restaurants, our approach to staffing must evolve, too. The traditional lineup of front of house and back of house is shifting, and will likely not go back to how it was before. Fast-casual concepts, with leaner staff, are recovering at a much faster rate than traditional full-service restaurants—and owners will have to evolve their business as such. We're looking at a dining future when the traditional full-service experience will become more of a luxury, and that a hybrid approach will be the most common moving forward.

    Front of House vs. Back of House

    According to our latest study, the share of front of house shifts have dropped 7.6% since March 2020. Before March of 2020, front of house shifts made up 34% of all shifts. Since then respondents reported that number is down to 26.4%. There is simply less front of house staff right now. With customers ordering online and picking up, or using their phones to order and pay while dining in, new roles have opened up outside of the kitchen. Some front of house staff has picked up on doing local delivery, facilitating and packing takeout orders, and picking up with extra cleaning and sanitizing efforts. By thinking outside the traditional boundaries, you can find new tasks, fill new roles, and create more opportunities for your team to take your business to the next level.

    Labor Management

    Not only is it important to make changes on how you staff your restaurant, but also how you manage them. Keep communication open and frequent. Check in on your team. And make sure that they have the resources they need to do their jobs well. Here are a few tools to do it:

    Close and tight-knit teams are one of the biggest advantages to your business that will help keep you competitive moving forward.

    Health First

    As the pandemic has taught us, you can never be too careful when it comes to your health. Make sure you implement a system to track your employees' health, trace their contact with other employees, and verify which of your employees are eventually vaccinated against coronavirus, if they choose to do so. Nothing can derail your business—and your staff’s livelihood—more than an outbreak amongst your team that can spread to guests. Do everything you can to safeguard your employees and your team. You don’t want to end up like Chipotle and having to close stores because your entire staff is sick.

    Use Data

    If you’re not integrating your sales data from your POS alongside your labor now it's the time—and 7shifts can help. Make sure that you’re allocating the right people at the right time based on when you’re busiest—like keeping extra staff on hand to help pack orders on Sunday nights. You can also use data to track how engaged your employees are—to see what staff may need more attention or coaching.

    Closing Thoughts: How Restaurants Can Remain Competitive in 2021

    The changes that the restaurant industry has seen this past year have been on their way—and 2020 was the pressure cooker that made it happen. With these changes come new opportunities, and new ways to evolve your restaurant for whatever comes next. Independent restaurants may not have the resources that national chains have, but by embracing digital hospitality, marketing aggressively online, and optimizing labor, they can remain competitive and thrive in this rapidly changing industry.

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    D.J. Costantino
    D.J. Costantino

    Hi! I'm D.J., 7shifts' resident Content Writer. I come from a family of chefs and a background in food journalism. I'm always looking for ways to help make the restaurant industry better!