Friday 19 June 2020 8:00 am

Covid hits hospitality: Restaurant brands will need to go back to basics to get punters through the door

Gemma Mc Aloon is Director of Culture & Hospitality at W Communications

It is the little things, isn’t it? The familiar greeting from a favourite waiter. A glass of pinot overlooking the Thames. Bread baskets upon chequered cloth. The first coffee of an early morning brunch; the spontaneous late night pizza. The people watching. The buzz of conversation.

It all feels so long ago. As normality, or some semblance of it returns to other aspects of family and working life, it feels disconcerting that our beloved restaurants, cafes, and food halls remain shuttered. 

Venues for laughter, community and pleasure, that are specifically designed for us to socially gather are now looking for to operate as venues where we socially distance.

What’s a restaurant to do? “No earlier than the 4th of July” is the hospitality industry’s provisional independence day. But even when they reopen, dining will never be the same. Enhanced sanitary measures and safety protocols on one hand; socially-distanced kitchen and dining areas on the other. 

There will simply be no way to fit in as many guests as before – which assumes people will actually return in pre-pandemic numbers. Put off by strangers handling food, the closeness of fellow patrons, the unfamiliarity of social settings, bookings are expected to drop by half.

Which measures will these businesses need to take to provide an offering unique enough to draw the (socially-distanced) crowds? We need to go back to basics. 

Operating in the hospitality sector for over decade has seen us help drive change and trends in how and where we eat. As an agency, we spearheaded the birth of the street food scene following the financial crash of 2009 and launched a new wave of casual dining concepts such as Pizza Pilgrims and Rita’s – taking over a dozen start-up vendors from food trucks to bricks and mortar.

This time around will be no different. Brands will need to reevaluate their place in the culinary landscape; to refresh their outlook. Necessity is the mother of invention, and reinvention. 

Lockdown has proven a critical point for our brands diversifying their models. Turning off the lights and boarding up sites simply wasn’t an option. The new wave of dining concepts – from KERB to Pizza Pilgrims and Grind – pivoted within hours, bringing the restaurant experience home, keeping fans engaged with content, and fuelling social media with #foodporn. 

It is this sort of innovation that has kept brands in a state of suspended animation during the pandemic, and will see them survive the year. To thrive, long-term, they need to think about business success without the PR pitfalls. Here’s how. 

  1. Authenticity will be key. Out with carbon-copy gentrified restaurants in pseudo-piazzas, in with humble outdoor eating in areas where social distancing is a given. 
  1. Bin the gratuitious stunts. Chasing potential punters round in a chicken suit isn’t going to sell your restaurant. Thinking of doing a giveaway to the first 50 punters to arrive? Think again. 
  1. Don’t look back in anger. The innovations born of covid are here to stay. Sure, it’s not the same experience eating hors d’œuvre in front of the telly; but the DIY kits and produce hampers are extra income, and worth their weight in social marketing gold. 
  1. Don’t stand so close. Adapting to this new normal will accelerate innovations many had already begun to introduce prior to covid. Contactless or prepayment for a meal. A limited menu. Fewer waiters doing the rounds. 
  1. Keep it clean. Customers could be must as likely to share a picture of hygiene lapse than what’s on their plate and that could have disastrous reputational consequences 

The only constant in our industry is change, and there’s a lot of that around the corner. Our food brands are in a state of readiness for adaptivity. No one is saying it will be easy. But as others turn away from the chaos, we see more opportunity than ever to deliver real value to all involved. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.