The pandemic is changing the way restaurants do business – and it could be for good

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Beckta, an upscale restaurant in downtown Ottawa, was buzzing recently, but it wasn’t because of the diners. The second-story dining room was converted into an assembly line where staff packed three-course dinners into paper boxes.

Dozens of these kits – with candied lamb shank, shrimp lettuce wraps and espresso pies, as well as a food and wine pairing – were ready to be delivered to diners’ homes by one. internal restaurant drivers.

Beckta started offering them in May 2020. They are making so much money that the restaurant canceled its lunch service and reduced opening hours. It now operates five days a week and employs a record number of people.

It even kept the restaurant running, usually a grueling affair with long hours, something with a certain work-life balance, owner Stephen Beckta said.

“For me personally now my workday is probably eight to six days most of the time,” he said. “I used to spend a lot of evenings at restaurants, so I see my family a lot more than before. “

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Like other restaurants devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Beckta has had to adapt. And like other restaurants, he found that takeout and delivery helped keep his business afloat, mitigating losses suffered due to bottlenecks and capacity limits. Coupled with a full return to indoor dining, he said, that meant pulling out more money than ever.

“Full-service restaurants are embracing the take-out mentality,” said Jacob Mancini, associate vice president for restaurants and breweries at the Canadian Western Bank, which lends money to restaurants.

“We are seeing specialized menus specifically for take-out. We are seeing foods that are easier to prepare or have higher margins. These are efforts to encourage customers who cannot come to the restaurant. “

As the pandemic continues, with new variations and restrictions that send Canadians back into lockdown, it is changing the way restaurants operate and plan for the future, according to restaurateurs and industry watchers.

And it heralds big changes in the dining experience, such as smaller restaurants, dedicated takeout counters, and a move towards more stylish experiences to draw diners inside.

Meal delivery kits are so profitable for Ottawa restaurant owner Stephen Beckta that he’s currently phased out the lunch service. (Michel Aspirot / CBC)

Restaurants are coming back … but differently

There is good news for restaurants: After a brutal crisis and numerous closings, sales across the country are almost back to pre-pandemic levels last summer. Limited-service restaurants, such as fast food and takeout counters, have reached all-time highs.

But the costs of doing business have also skyrocketed. Devices and ingredients are more expensive due to a bottleneck in the global supply chain. Providing workers with protective equipment and enforcing vaccination passports also costs money.

A severe labor shortage, especially in low-paying jobs, is also pushing restaurants to raise wages and offer incentives to attract waiters and cooks.

On top of that, Canadian restaurants have a combined $ 15 billion in debt due to the pandemic, according to Vince Sgabellone, food industry analyst for NPD Group, a market research firm.

“It’s a big hole. Restaurants were already a low-margin, single-digit business. Now it’s even thinner,” he said.

The switch to meal kits has allowed Beckta to continue offering paid sick leave and employee benefits after three months on the job – something he believes is important for the industry.

“Everyone is improving their game through higher wages, increased benefits and better working conditions. It’s wonderful to see because it was long overdue in our industry,” said Beckta.

But not all restaurants are in the same position; many are saving costs where they can. In his surveys of sit-down restaurant owners, Sbegallone has found that many are in no rush to reopen to eat inside.

“They say they’re doing fine with the delivery, that it’s not worth rehiring staff. Why even bother with a sit-down meal?”

Take-out redesign

With a greater emphasis on delivery and take out, restaurants no longer need to rely on large spaces with many tables to make money. As a result, more restaurants are turning to smaller venues with cheaper rents, Mancini said.

This was already happening before the pandemic, but it accelerated the trend.

“The need for huge boxes was already less,” Mancini said. “I don’t think it will go back to how it was before.”

To make the take-out experience smoother, sit-down restaurants are rearranging floor plans to create dedicated take-out windows. According to Restaurants Canada, an industry advocacy group, some establishments are adding multiple drive-thru lanes to ease bottlenecks, with lanes reserved for delivery drivers.

A glimpse of that future is evident in downtown Toronto at Box’d, a concept of high-density office towers from the Paramount chain of the Middle East. Customers order with a mobile app, and cooks prepare food behind a wall of lockers. Customers are notified when the order is ready and they take their food from one of the lockers. Throughout the process, the customer does not speak to anyone.

Box’d owner Ahmad Daify calls it Canada’s first automated restaurant experience. He says he gets a lot of inquiries around the world for franchising.

“Once there is some predictability in the downtown area, we would like to continue developing the brand,” said Daify.

A customer waits for an order to be delivered to a cubby in Box’d in Toronto’s financial district. The whole experience of ordering and picking up food can be done without speaking to the staff. (Albert Leung / CBC)

The ghost of the kitchens to come

In a nondescript building on a lackluster street in Toronto’s Etobicoke neighborhood is one of the hottest restaurant concepts. There are no tables, no waiters, but it’s full of delivery drivers staring at a screen like an arrival sign in an airport, waiting for their orders to ring.

Three dozen cell phones and tablets are ringing constantly, recording new orders from delivery apps.

Kitchen Hub is Ghost Kitchen, a service that prepares food for other restaurants only for delivery orders.

“We get rid of a lot of the initial headaches [for restaurants]”Said CEO Adam Armeland.” We take care of the infrastructure. We sign the lease, we finance, we build everything. All they do is bring their chefs, their food and their brand. “

Employees at Kitchen Hub in Etobicoke, Ontario receive orders from several delivery apps on a wall of mounted shelves. (Albert Leung / CBC)

The company raised $ 10 million to expand this concept. The company’s goal is to open 50 facilities across Canada within five years, Armeland said.

This model will only gain popularity, according to food industry analyst Sgabellone, allowing restaurants to serve customers beyond regular business hours.

“It’s for people who want what they want when they want it,” he said. “They are activated by digital controls. “

Attract guests with the experience factor

Does this push towards small restaurants which favor delivery to indoor meals sound the death knell for restaurant meals? Barely, analysts say. There will always be a place for celebrations and romantic dates.

But the dining experience will not be limited to the food alone. Restaurants, especially full-service ones, will need to set themselves apart by offering other sensory experiences, Mancini predicts.

Cineplex announced in 2017 that it was replacing all of its old theater chairs with reclining seats to enhance the cinematic experience. (Cineplex)

“They’ll need to have an engaging environment, whether it’s a trivia night or a patio with games, or some kind of engaging activity indoors.”

What’s happening with restaurants is, in many ways, what has happened with theaters over the past decade, as streaming services took over and big screens became affordable. Theaters were to deliver an enhanced experience with rumbling chairs, 3D, and immersive sound.

“When you’re at home there are a million ways to get great food,” Mancini said. “To encourage people to go out you have to give something they can’t get.”


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