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The Definition of Restaurant Forever Changed

Dining out has been forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the industry has suffered tremendous losses, restaurants are using creative approaches to provide the services customers want.

“The definition of a restaurant in America is changing,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association.

Riehle shared his insights during the Jan. 15 webcast CFI NOW: The Future of Dining Out, sponsored by The Center for Food Integrity.

This year will be a year of transition as the industry looks to recover.

“Over the past 10 months, the industry has basically lost six years of sales growth. It is a substantial gap to be regained, particularly in certain segments and certain operators,” Riehle said.

Neil Russell, senior vice president of corporate affairs and chief communications officer at Sysco, said as restrictions on dining vary across the nation, so does the impact on Sysco’s client base, which includes many restaurants. He sees signs for optimism in the industry.

“We believe that there is ‘food at home’ fatigue. There are people who have been waiting to go out to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays and other events,” Russell said.

Restaurants have made many changes to adapt to changing consumer preferences and regulations and many of these changes are expected to continue.

“The fact is, many of these changes were actually in place in the industry prior to the onset of the pandemic and the pandemic has basically accelerated the rate of adoption of many of these,” Riehle said.

Consumers continue to see takeout as the safest choice for dining away from home, according to the latest digital ethnography data in a CFI Illuminate report on dining out, said Charlie Arnot, CEO of the organization. Restaurants are adapting to new consumer preferences.

“There have been advancements in that a lot of restauranteurs have adjusted their menus and product offerings to ensure the food travels,” Russell said.

CFI’s research also shows consumers are interested in variety in menus and outdoor dining. Expect to see restaurants continue to offer multiple points of access, Riehle said. Instead of just on-premise dining, they’ll expand options such as outdoor seating, easier curbside service and digital ordering.

In addition, both experts predict new technology put to use in recent months will be further advanced to help the industry.

“Pre-pandemic, the restaurant industry was one of the most labor-intensive industries in the country. Sales per employee were just roughly $60,000,” Riehle said. “Technology integration was beginning before, but this has really piled on the investment in resources. Going forward, whether it’s the front of the house, back of the house or remote ordering, it really has facilitated and made the typical American consumer much more familiar with how to order online or through their smartphone.”

A recording of the webcast is available online. For news on upcoming CFI NOW events and other CFI research, programs and insights, subscribe to the CFI newsletter.