The Great COVID Reset

How you can no longer rely on your pre-COVID years of experience

In 2020 dining in restaurants virtually stopped overnight in cities and states as social distancing guidelines took effect, and your customers got it, they got the message loud and clear.

As time progressed and we started following social distancing, and mask guidelines, your customers understood. They did not like it, but they understood.

As cities and states start to loosen social distancing and masking guidelines, your customer started noticing changes in service, long wait times, short staffing, favorite restaurants shifting to take-out only, or cutting their hours. Many of your customers tolerated these changes.

You may be asking why did they tolerate these changes and remained loyal?

  • In 2020 your customers said: “We get it – it’s COVID.”
  • In 2021 your customers said: “Still COVID – we understand your challenges.”
  • In 2022 your customers said: “We tolerated your challenges, but we don’t like them.”
  • In 2023 your customers are ready to say: “We are done tolerating and we are now making the, YES, NO, YOU GOT TO GO! Decision!”

A trend you can no longer ignore. Sure, in 2020, this, “COVID thing” was new. In 2021 your customers pitied you, in 2022 you were getting back on your feet and your customers supported you, but, in 2023, your customers are tired of your inability to change with the times.

This is no longer business as usual. The Great COVID reset means that all those years you have been in business are a thing of the past. You can no longer rely on the “We have been in business for 35 years.” In 2023 your customers don’t care.

They are looking at your business through the lenses of, “It is 2023, why am I waiting so long for a table, why is my waiter taking so long to greet me at my table, why is the table next to me still dirty and they left 30 minutes ago, why did I wait 20 minutes for my check and 20 more minutes for the server to swipe my card?”

The restaurant industry will likely never return to its pre-pandemic state, according to the National Restaurant Association.

The trade group says 2023 will be a, “New normal” for the sector as it struggles to rebound and as competition for workers remains intense, according to the association’s 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry report.

“Restaurants and their patrons have found themselves in a “New normal.” Given emergent technology, changing consumer behavior, dining preferences, and the extraordinary challenges of the last two years, the industry is unlikely to ever completely return to its pre-pandemic state,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research and Knowledge Group at the National Restaurant Association.

Recruitment and retention are top issues. Seven in 10 restaurant operators say they don’t have enough employees, and about 50% note that will be a top challenge this year.

A full return to employment is not expected in 2023 and competition for employees will remain, “intense.” The group estimates total industry employment will reach 14.9 million jobs. That’s up just 400,000 from 2021 as job openings remain high and still a million fewer jobs than pre-pandemic levels. Just five states, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and Arizona have the same number of restaurant employees as they did pre-pandemic.

Some restaurant operators are turning to technology to ease staffing shortages. 38% of adults say they would be okay with a robot delivering their meal at a restaurant this year. Ghost kitchens (offsite delivery-only kitchens for restaurants) remain a small part of the landscape, but 50% of quick-service operators expect it to grow in 2023.

Employment is just one issue facing restaurants. 90% of restaurant operators say rising costs will likely continue through 2023, and 96% of operators do not believe supply chain issues will be fixed this year.

Working from home (WFH) changed the game for the restaurant industry. 54% of work-from-home employees say they go out to dinner less frequently than they did before the pandemic, while 47% of WFH employees say the same thing about lunch, according to the report.

By Juan Vega