What’s next for the restaurant industry?

Newswise – When the coronavirus forced much of the country to shut down last March, millions of people lost their jobs and some of their long-standing livelihoods. One sector of the economy that felt this loss immediately and deeply was the restaurant industry.

According to a recent report by National Association of Restaurateurs, more than 110,000 catering establishments closed in 2020, temporarily or permanently, and 2.5 million restaurant jobs have disappeared. In Erie County, restaurants experienced two state-imposed closures while also investing in modifications and safety supplies last year. Capacity reductions and curfews ensued.

At the same time, the pandemic has prompted restaurant owners and operators to get creative – offering curbside pickup, delivery, expanded alfresco dining in parking lots and even patio heaters – in order to stay afloat.

Kathleen o’brien, lecturer and president of Buffalo State College’s Hospitality and Tourism Department, shared his thoughts on the state of the restaurant industry and what the future may hold for us as we emerge from the pandemic in the coming weeks with more vaccines available.

What is the current state of the restaurant industry, particularly in western New York?

Nothing has been more devastating for the industry than what we experienced last year.

Sue McCartney, Campus Director Small Business Development Center, and I gave a free virtual workshop for restaurateurs in June to help them get through that. The owners told us about their need for education and training on the new and more stringent sanitation and safety mandates, technology, and evolving business and financial planning. Some were concerned about stabilizing their situation once allowed to reopen.

However, the immediate future may not be bad for local restaurants. Once people get their shots and want to go back, they can stay fairly close to home – they can’t go to Canada yet and may not feel comfortable with other travel. They will go out to eat, especially if they have become loyal to certain restaurants. This loyalty is a common occurrence in Buffalo.

Restaurant owners, on the whole, are creative individuals, and they must have been really creative during the pandemic. Some have been more successful than others. TO Coco Bar and Bistro in downtown Buffalo, the owner suspended dining indoors and moved on to pickup and delivery services, as many restaurants have done. But she also built a Swiss-style chalet outside with heaters, where they served pancakes. It worked. And The place, a former restaurant on Lexington Avenue, has used a parking lot with a fire pit to safely serve additional people, along with more and more take-out options.

A few new restaurants are opening right now while others are closing their doors. It is the life cycle of the restaurant.

What are the indicators that a restaurant will be successful?

Committed ownership, a strong partnership and a fighting spirit are all required for a successful business, now more than ever. For independent restaurateurs, this can be part of their heritage. It is not easy to throw the keys to someone outside of the family. If someone is at the end of their career and has no one to take care of the business, they could quit in difficult times like these. On the other hand, if someone is mid-career and has a strong partnership, it can work. While a bad partnership can dissolve a business, a good one can strengthen the business.

Previous financial conditions, of course, count in a restaurant’s success. If the restaurant was oversized at first, it may not be now.

And, finally, the timing. If a restaurant opened right before COVID hit, owners had to work even harder. Long-standing restaurants with loyal customers are in a better position to weather the crisis.

What changes will restaurants and other hospitality need to make in the future?

Already, restaurants followed strict safety protocols and disinfection standards that exceed the demands of health services. These efforts only accelerated during COVID. Increased hygiene habits are here to stay. The concern for the safety of employees and customers must be the priority.

If they haven’t already, hospitality professionals need to take a new approach to their customers. They must have empathy for the suffering that everyone has been through. Customers are eager for human interactions, which in many cases restaurants have not been able to provide. At the same time, expectations may have changed. Will restaurants continue the take-out and delivery service they added during COVID, for example? They all have to study the market and see what the customers want.

Hotels will have to continue to evolve with their approach to contactless service. This will get us into the future a little faster than expected with more automation. We are just skipping a few steps that we hadn’t planned.

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Cecil N. Messick