By Jinsy Blend
To say that it is a difficult time to be in the food and beverage industry is an understatement. With headlines, rules, and regulations changing as soon as we have eased into previous recommendations, we are struggling to keep up. Torn between abiding by guidelines and wanting to proceed with business as usual, today’s commercial kitchens must make necessary compromises to retain the integrity of their institutions while following the implications of the new normal.
As many restaurants have had to pivot, at the start of lockdown, dining in was out of the question. Restaurants had to rethink their operations entirely while closing up shop. Numerous institutions opted for takeout and delivery to stay afloat while continuing to serve patrons. Now, restrictions are loosening up and dine-in options are becoming available once again – albeit with reduced capacities. Over the course of a few months, you might have had to drastically edit your budgets and evaluate the most important aspects of your business.
Naturally, you may already be taking the proper sanitation measures to keep your establishment safe and clean. In going beyond sanitation, here is a checklist for commercial kitchens that may fly under the radar.
Consider paperless menus
Leather-bound and laminated menus are taking a hiatus while consumers prefer to minimize exposure through contact. Many restaurants have decided to print single-use menus, which are ideal for regular updates of daily specials, but can be taxing resource-wise. Printing costs can add up, and throwing away stacks of paper leaves an unnecessary carbon footprint. Individually disinfecting menus after every use could also pose potential risks for servers. Instead, commercial kitchens can opt to go paperless.
QR codes are becoming more mainstream now, as guests can simply scan the barcode with their smartphone cameras to have a personal menu right at their fingertips. For those who prefer a paper menu for a more authentic dining experience, you can still keep some disposable menus on hand. You can save resources in printing limited quantities of menus, and maximize the potential of technology with the QR code options.
Do an inventory of your equipment
In pursuit of the less is more ethos, streamlining your operations can also mean decluttering your commercial kitchens. You may have already loosened up your dining areas to keep guests reasonably spread out for social distancing, but you should also do this in the kitchen to maintain space among restaurant staff. This is also the prime time to do an inventory of your kitchen equipment in order to make room for simple and efficient operations.
Since you may have fewer hands on deck if you downsized your business, it makes sense to only retain the essentials – or equipment, tools, and appliances that can perform multiple functions. Case in point, instead of buying two items, you can opt for small rice cookers that can serve as steamers or slow cookers. These also take up less space, so you won’t be squeezing in alongside your coworkers. Similarly, your food processors should remain in your kitchen arsenal to avoid frequent touching of ingredients. When thinking about what equipment is essential, consider what will make your lives easier and safer at the same time.
Expand your payment options
Online banking made waves over the lockdown, and it may be here to stay. Minimizing contact in dining establishments can be facilitated with cashless payment methods. If this is something that you had not quite grasped prior to the pandemic, you have no time to waste in catching up. Many restaurants that have been reopening have requested that customers pay with credit or debit cards, mobile payment portals, and digital wallet apps to make transactions stress- and germ-free.
Although similar to the point we raised with disposable menus, you don’t have to ban cash entirely. This could shun away or discriminate against potential customers who do not have these financial resources or smartphones, and simply need to pay in cash. Instead of a blanket ‘no cash’ policy, make sure that your customers know that you’ve expanded your payment options so that they get more inclined to use them, if they are able to do so.
Extend your creativity with new ideas
While you may have curious customers who are willing to get a peep at your new anti-pandemic equipped establishment, some may still be hesitant to set foot inside – let alone dine in. To ensure that you are serving the varying needs of all kinds of customers, make sure that you have an array of options to cater to all. You may still carry out your dine-in operations, but you can also give patrons an opportunity to experience your restaurant without dining in it.
You can assemble meal kits or picnic baskets that give customers a chance to have a taste of their favorite dishes from the comfort and safety of their own homes. A little bit of creativity can go a long way in extending your commercial kitchen to those of your customers’ home kitchens. This may also be the time to boost your social media presence and engagement, so you can have your kitchen staff star in livestreams of cooking demos to keep your restaurant at the top of mind for loyal customers once they are ready to venture back out.
This pandemic is truly testing the tenacity and adaptability of today’s commercial establishments. Although we can’t predict how long these changes will last, we can find peace in knowing that these temporary fixes are solutions nonetheless. While it’s a far cry from previous operations, it’s still a reasonable and fair compromise if it means keeping our doors open.
Alan Moore runs nearly 50 restaurants. Just a few years ago, this would mean millions of dollars invested in real estate, labor and other capital expenses, not to mention a complex operational strategy to keep things running smoothly. But in today’s day and age, this restaurant tycoon can oversee this myriad of brands with little more than a commercial kitchen, a strong marketing eye, and of course, a slew of delivery services that brings them to life.
“We created 4 brands 18 months ago and launched them. Burgers, tacos, pizza and the like. We came up with some cool names and launched them on Postmates and Doordash. That snowballed,” begins Moore, who not only runs these virtual restaurants but also commands a brick-and-mortar establishment, Cheebo in Hollywood. It was experimenting with the delivery platforms through Cheebo that led Moore to start these virtual brands and ultimately lead a consulting business for the space, Virtual Restaurant Consulting, with his brother, Paul.
“It’s a seismic shift and it’s consumer-led,” Moore said. The passion in his voice resonates through a thick English accent. “The delivery companies are taking over the whole world.”
He’s speaking to the rise of ‘virtual restaurants’ or restaurants that don’t actually sport dining rooms or even pick-up counters. Their physical presence is limited to a commercial kitchen space, and do 100% of their business through delivery platforms, such as Grubhub, Uber Eats, Postmates and DoorDash.
Moore sees virtual restaurants playing a pivotal role in the foodservice industry, and the delivery platforms completely changing the way that traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants structure their menus and operations.
“Running a virtual restaurant is no different than running a traditional restaurant, where you go to work everyday and nurture your business,” Moore said. “It’s not just creating a name and throwing it up on Postmates. You need to create the recipes, cost the menu, handle the photography, build it out of social media, and truly bring the virtual restaurant to life. You have to monitor sales, pull up product mix reports, look at your pricing. It’s not just fire and forget.”
But while complex, significantly lower up-front costs open the door to many aspiring restaurateurs looking to break into the field. And Moore has perfected the process of opening a virtual restaurant, to the point of creating a step-by-step guide for new and prospective owners.
“In 6 weeks, someone will come out with hands-on knowledge of exactly what needs to be done and will have 1 – 2 virtual restaurants ready for launch,” Moore said. He also noted that it was easier to manage multiple virtual restaurant brands rather than just one, claiming that a kitchen is better utilized when several concepts are online.
Virtual restaurants typically take an In-n-Out style approach, with hyper-focused menus that of revolve around a shortlist of core products. So instead of creating a single restaurant that serves burgers, fried chicken, sandwiches and mac ‘n’ cheese, you’d create four restaurants that specialize in each of those categories.
Of utmost importance, however, are several factors. Being transparent about the restaurant being a virtual restaurant, viewing delivery drivers as servers, and engineering your food for delivery are at the top of the list.
“You have to serve food that doesn’t just taste good out of the dining room, but also looks and tastes good after riding in the back of a Ford Fusion for 40 minutes,” Moore said. “Crispy fries will phase out. Crinkle-cut will become more popular because they stay good longer. We’re producing more spinach dishes than broccoli, because broccoli doesn’t last as long.”
This kind of engineering includes balancing beautiful photography and managing expectations.
“All the photography on the delivery platforms is on a plate, but course your food isn’t delivered on a plate…customers often feel like they’re getting less food than what they see in the picture, even though it’s the exact same amount. We’ve been playing around with how to package food so that customers are satisfied with portion sizes.”
Moore says the name of the game is high-margin items that deliver well. This formula helps mitigate the logistical challenges and costs of delivery.
“The old model of food costs of 30 – 35%, labor of 35 – 40%, etc. has gone out the window. A traditional restaurant is going to struggle working with the delivery apps,” Moore said. “Food cost and packaging together needs to be 22%.”
And it’s not just the cost structure that will change, in More’s view. He sees a future where in addition to virtual restaurants, brick-and-mortar restaurants will have entirely separate menus solely dedicated to delivery.
“Restaurant food wasn’t necessarily designed for delivery,” Moore said. “The restaurant will offer a menu for delivery that…will be designed differently and conceived differently.”
Find out more about Virtual Restaurant Consulting at VirtualRestaurantConsulting.com.
Big food companies across the country have been hit hard by what can only be described as a serious loss of trust by their consumer base. Coca Cola, Kraft, Nestle and Mondelez [parent company of Nabisco] are just a few food giants that have seen their CEOs resign. Granted, these companies are alive and well and likely to perform just fine moving forward, but their age-old model of mass-scale, low-cost production is not resonating like it did decades ago, back in the day when all you needed at a baseball stadium were hot dogs and nachos.
So what does this mean for restaurants? Big things, all revolving around modernization. All consumer trends right now point to the little guy, the mom-and-pop-ish, locally sourced, small-scale production center where business is made up of guests who know and trust the product. To many, ‘big food’ is synonymous with chemicals, additives, fillers and other elements that consumers are sick of putting into their bodies. A growing clientele is ready and willing to pay a premium for ingredients they trust. This means going to restaurants that embody these same qualities.
Each of these big food companies has extended great effort in building their product portfolios to include more ‘trusted’ brands. Kellogg, for example, recently purchased RX Bar, the ‘No BS’ protein bar maker, for a whopping $600 million. Why? In all likelihood, to help modernize the Kellogg brand with a product that has clearly resonated with a newer-age clientele. For restaurants, this means you may want to take a look at your menu mix and assess whether your approach truly appeals to your guests today.
Does this mean that as a restaurant you should drop everything, revamp your menu and change out your suppliers all at once? Of course not. Coca Cola will never relinquish its soda business because that’s the core of the brand—they’ve simply built onto that brand by acquiring names such as Odwalla and Zico. As a restaurant owner, this means taking a step back, assessing what’s truly at the core of your business, and finding simple ways to modernize so that you can retain your identity while coming across as new and revamped.
This may not always be a food-related change. I recently visited what many would call a local dive in Santa Monica. The place was sitting on prime real estate, just steps from the ocean, and served a modest-yet-comprehensive menu of quality food at low prices. A true gem amidst its over-hyped and over-modernized neighbors, but the atmosphere here was akin to a run-down Irish pub. What an outdoor patio and natural light would do to this place! Yes, this would entail a significant remodel, but at the end of the tunnel would emerge a new, improved version of this restaurant that nobody would consider a dive. A transformation like this leads to higher demand, and a resulting lift in the bottom line.
This restaurant is the exact kind of seasoned mom-and-pop establishment that stands to benefit the most from an internal assessment and immediate action steps to bridge the gap between product offering and consumer needs. Moving the focus back to the menu, if you see that an item, or even an entire category, isn’t selling like it used to, then it’s time to revise the ingredient mix or even just your guests’ overall perception.
If you hand-grind your burger meat and roll the patties daily, then promote the heck out of that process by detailing it on your menu and table collateral. If you source locally, make sure your guests know. If you notice that more and more guests are subbing out American cheese for gouda, then you’ve found a good replacement or upsell opportunity. The list goes on.
If big food companies relied on classic soda flavors, ready-made mac ‘n’ cheese and processed snacks now like they did ages ago, they’d be going the way Sears and K-Mart have gone by not innovating with the rise of online retail. To put it bluntly, it’s just a matter of getting with the times, but thankfully it can be done quite handily. It’s all a matter of observation and small steps to follow what your guests are looking for.
Next time you’re at the grocery store, browse through some of the healthier brands you’ve become familiar with and look to see if you can find a name like Mondelez or Kellogg nestled on the package. Another example of small steps and necessary modernization.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.