The Pandemic Forced Restaurants To Get More Creative Than Usual This Year

Jan 11, 2021 | COVID-19, Restaurant Marketing | 0 comments

The upshot is that many of the solutions worked so well they’ll probably outlast the virus. Here’s a look at a handful of winners.

Curbside Pickup

Count curbside among the many old-fashioned services that found new life amid the pandemic. Restaurants quickly realized they could turn their parking lots into de facto drive-thrus with the help of technology and a little creativity.

Roughly 70% of restaurants added curbside during the pandemic, up from 15% before, according to research firm Incisiv—and many plan to continue it. Fast casuals are building curbside capabilities into new prototypes, and full-service chains such as Texas Roadhouse are working to improve the service with things like two-way text messaging.

Virtual concepts

Pandemic dynamics—reduced dine-in traffic, a shift to off-premise and a need to generate revenue, fast—created the perfect environment for virtual brands to proliferate in 2020.

Thousands of restaurants began adding these off-premise-only concepts that exist solely online, often producing multiple of them alongside their existing menus. One estimate pegged their total number at more than 100,000.

Most focus on popular delivery items like wings and pizza. And some have performed quite well. Pasqually’s Pizza, which became a bit of a laughingstock when the internet found out it was a Chuck E. Cheese offshoot, was accounting for 10% of CEC Entertainment’s sales in July.

The concepts do face questions about marketing and kitchen complexity. But with such a low barrier of entry and delivery still booming, the trend appears to be just getting started.

Family and Holiday Meal Bundles

With people stuck at home, restaurants began offering family meal packages designed to easily feed entire households, streamlining the menu and easing operations in the process. When the holidays rolled around, restaurants used the same concept to offer large-format feasts for groups ranging in size from two to 10.

The idea appears to have legs with consumers: Delivery provider Postmates reported that orders of family meals increased by 175% year over year. And 73% of diners said they’d be likely to order a family meal bundle even after restaurants reopen, according to Technomic’s 2020 Delivery and Takeout Consumer Trend Report.

Subscription programs

Multiple restaurant brands ventured into subscriptions in 2020, none more successfully than Panera Bread.

The chain’s $8.99 monthly unlimited coffee program boasted 500,000 paid subscribers as of October, and 90% of that business was incremental, Panera said.

Perhaps catching wind of that success, Dickey’s and BJ’s launched subscriptions of their own, for meal boxes and beer, respectively. And in the delivery sector, DoorDash and Grubhub were both bullish on their membership programs offering unlimited free delivery.

Outdoor dining

Persistent limits on indoor dining meant restaurants had to look outside their four walls to serve customers on-site. In addition to existing patios, they made creative use of parking lots and other spaces—Cracker Barrel, for instance, replaced the rocking chairs on its old-timey covered porch with tables and chairs. Some municipalities helped out by closing down streets or devoting other public spaces—and funding—to outdoor dining.

In cold-weather areas, outdoor heaters flew off the shelves, and a variety of contests and grants looked to help restaurants fund outdoor operations through the winter.

For many restaurants, including The Cheesecake Factory and BJ’s, the added capacity had a significant impact. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see some of those dining room extensions become permanent where weather permits.