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How Dining Out Has Changed in 2021

Ready to eat out again? Craving a deep bowl of queso with chips, frothy margarita or juicy burger with family or friends? Restaurants are opening their doors again after coming back from the brink of desertion.

But the scene has changed—it’s no secret that the practice of going out to a restaurant has been transformed dramatically by COVID-19. The past year has been tough on the dining public, as well as the industry. Many restaurants in areas coming out of the pandemic have reopened their dining rooms to various degrees, and it may take time for the industry to fully recover. Here are ways that restaurants are changing their routines to survive.

PRACTICAL CHANGES

Fewer restaurants and higher prices.
As a result of the pandemic, approximately 14% of the country’s restaurants shuttered for good. Estimates of that number vary, but it’s clear that there will be a lot fewer restaurants once all is said and done. Market trends are showing significant jumps in food prices, as feed and grain are costing farmers more, and those costs are passed down to consumers.

Expanded takeout and delivery.
The restaurant industry, like many others, was hit hard when states across the country first went into lockdown. Many of their patrons stayed home and cooked. Businesses had to rely solely on takeout and delivery to continue to attract customers and stay afloat.

More drive-thrus are coming. Fast food mobile pick-up surged during the pandemic. You’ll be seeing more “Chipotlanes” as the digital-strategy window-experience has proven to be fast, popular and convenient. A number of popular chains are altering their designs to facilitate more drive-thru ordering.

Ghost kitchens. No storefronts, no waiters, no dining room and no parking lot. Tailored specifically to apps like GrubHub, Postmates and DoorDash, these professional food preparation and cooking facilities are set up for delivery-only meals. These also go by the name of shadow kitchen, delivery-only restaurant, virtual kitchen, commissary kitchen, cloud kitchen or dark kitchen. Stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and celebrity chef Guy Fieri have all ventured into investing in this new type of restaurant experience.

Doubling Up.
Some establishments have gone beyond just takeout and delivery offerings, doubling as food shops, having an add-on bakery, or selling other wares like rice, pasta and milk; and even do-it-yourself meal kits. Another new trend is the offer of virtual cooking or cocktail classes.

Outdoor dining is here to stay.
Many patrons enjoy warm breezes, fresh air and the sounds of the outdoors in the background while dining—as well as the boost in Vitamin D. If you live in an area with great weather, this is a welcome change. Regardless, note that seating capacity to allow for social distancing is still common in many places.

Patio eating. Al fresco venues popped up everywhere during Covid. Soft lighting, chill music and lush greenery all make for the perfect atmosphere suitable for a laidback dinner. Reminiscent of European cafés, your choices run the gamut from swanky roof decks to backyard patios.

Private dining pods. Cozy weather-insulated bubbles, tents and glass cabins are proliferating, allowing guests to dine outdoor all year round while keeping warm and dry.

TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGES

According to the hospitality management firm EHL, “Technology and innovation are what have helped, even saved, restaurants as they transform how they operate to not just survive, but thrive, in this new connected and contactless era.”

These are some of the top digital tools being used by the industry:

Online ordering systems and delivery apps.
New digital ordering and payment systems are quite simple to use and efficient. From the business side, they allow servers to do their jobs more quickly and focus on other elements of hospitality.

Contactless payment.
Customers prefer the speed, convenience and security of touchless payments via smartphone, smartwatch or smartcard. According to Juniper Research, 53 percent of global transactions running through Point-of-Sale systems will be contactless within five years, compared to just 15 percent this year.

Online table reservation systems.
Top tech providers in this field are Eat App, Tablein or OpenTable. Guests can book a reservation using a mobile app, web widget, or website interface. Many of these platforms have features such as seat selection via detailed floor plans, the ability to send notes on your preferences and even send a text if you’re running late. They can capture details such as your birthday, food restrictions or allergies.

Automated inventory management software.
Artificial intelligence (AI) tracks the supplies of a restaurant’s foods and beverages. The end result is a more sustainable and time-efficient kitchen that cuts down on waste, and saves on food costs.

Digital kitchen boards.
This technology has replaced traditional signs and posters. Taking advantage of video and animated gifs, the board entertains and educates people waiting in line or walking by the restaurant. Businesses can more easily update their menu or promote new features.

QR codes.
Many restaurants dropped printed menus during the pandemic in favor of QR codes sending diners to online ordering platforms.

The restaurant industry has weathered the pandemic by pivoting and adjusting. Similarly, consumer expectations will go to a new level as 2021 continues to take shape. There are plenty of exciting changes happening in an eating place near you…and most likely, more to come.

Resources: www.indystar.com, MoneyTalksNews, USA TODAY, Vox Media LLC, CNBC LLC, Bloomberg.com, Open Table