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March 24th, 2020

Navigating Hospitality’s “New Normal”

By Jeff Philbin

When the word “unprecedented,” is replaced with the word, “norm,” we have a problem. Right now, that problem is becoming a reality as we try to navigate what many are calling, “the new normal.” 

Grocery store shelves are empty, restaurants are closing their doors and jobs are being furloughed. Although the road ahead is bumpy, businesses and consumers are quickly adapting. As Jeff Goldblum eloquently puts it in Jurassic Park, “Life, uh, finds a way.” From a fellow Jeff with shared optimism, I already see us evolving to meet these new challenges.

THE SHOPPING EXPERIENCE

Grocery stores are announcing new hours, setting limits on purchases, regulating customer capacity and space between shoppers in lines, as well as designating senior-only shopping hours to protect their most vulnerable patrons.

Stores are giving team members more time to restock shelves, sanitize, and rest in preparation for the next day. Stringent policies by the CDC and common-sense measures are taking effect as stores are being sent additional cleaning supplies for use on frequently touched areas such as registers and shopping carts.

People are proving that compassion and empathy can go a long way by bringing store employees thank you cards. Just as we should be practicing social distancing, we should also be practicing gratitude for those performing services that keep us functioning during these stressful times.

MOBILE-FIRST

With the increase of mobile grocery delivery, automation will become more utilized and accurate based off of items a consumer purchases regularly. We have seen this in play to an extent, but with increased online ordering, tracking specific data points and user habits, coupled with algorithms to determine the shelf life of items, it’s likely to become a stronger focus. I expect to get the nudge for more milk shortly because my son drinks a ton of it on a regular basis.

Increased mobile app and loyalty programs can be the perfect vehicle to reward those beloved diners and guests with decreased pricing and incentives. Some brands such as Domino’s are already doing this by giving 50% discounts to their rewards members. Now is an opportune time to thank their fans who have continued to stand by them. 

HOME-GROWN. (LITERALLY).
Plant-based diets will likely continue to rise as well. Each time I visit the grocery store, animal proteins seem to be in short supply, giving an opportunity for meat alternatives and plant-based products to meet the upswing of demand from both the grocery stores keeping their shelves stocked, as well as consumers. 

If international tensions rise, things could shift to more locally-sourced options. Trade will begin to move with increased standards and supply chain models that yield greater control for U.S. interests; this will shift to domestic production and delivery of raw and finished goods. One significant and negative outcome of this could be potential deforestation to accommodate demand with more land needed for crops, production and logistics, should this become a long-term approach. 

DINING OUT

Social distancing has made it impossible for us to enjoy meals or grab an adult beverage the way we did just a week ago. Counties and states right now have different observances for occupancy and crowd size. But there are still options for us to be a part of this. As we work from home or adapt to a new home life, we can still exude confidence in our financial market. If you have the disposable income to support local, small businesses, then I implore you to do so as many restaurants are seeing this as an opportunity and are rising to the challenge.

Restaurants that haven’t organized for mass to-go orders are finding ways to expedite processes and abide by CDC recommendations. They’re investing in materials to allow guests to bring their meals home, and providing them with quality food to replicate the consistency of their in-restaurant experience from home. Family-style meals offering different pricing and quantities will likely be adopted at a larger scale, as families look for value and variation.

This puts QSRs and fast-casual restaurants in an opportunistic scenario,  as they are equipped with the pedigree of casual dining but have fast food proficiencies. Guests will be seeking these options more frequently, allowing casual and fine-dining to be a treat and upgraded experience.

Restaurants with a drive-through, have always been driven by efficiencies in speed and quality but will be tested with increased volume as social distancing may be here for a while. Drive through operators will need to bolster these critical touchpoints because there will be limited traditional dining options for the brand to interact with the consumer; it will come down to brand ambassadors. People are the foundation to lay their strengths on. 


FROM CHALLENGE TO FRESH START

With all of this uncertainty, we still need to find new ways to get through this with long term opportunities. Many chefs see this as a chance, that when the doors reopen for Social Closeness, (yeah, I just coined a new term), offering brand new ways for guests to enjoy their favorite restaurants. Owners and chefs will see this as an occasion to highlight beauty and creativity within the storytelling for their ingredients.

Established restaurant groups will do their best to intervene with acquisition and consolidation of locations. Still, in that spirit, I see ghost kitchens filling the niche audience of brands that may not get through this or minimize their footprints, but with a tip of the hat and flip from the grill. Ghost kitchens may be able to bring loved menu items and brands alive from another restaurant kitchen. This will be the single greatest area of growth opportunity.

While eating at home is the safest option for the time being, there are many ways we can keep positivity and hope at the forefront. Although doors and dining rooms are closed, kitchens are open and offering creative ways for us to enjoy delicious meals with our families during this tough time. Let’s do our part to show them our appreciation.

 

About the Author
Jeff Philbin is the Restaurant & Hospitality Specialist for PPK, an independent advertising agency based in Tampa, FL that helps leading and high-growth brands accelerate the way they capture and grow their market share. He has spent nearly 15 years in the industry and has been featured in national publications and television.