With the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, over 100,000 restaurants in the US were forced to close in 2020. Some food establishments closed only temporarily while many eateries shut their doors permanently. Millions of food service workers lost their jobs or were furloughed overnight. Due to the public health crisis, the food service industry found itself having to evolve rapidly, and many of those changes seem to be here to stay. This article will walk you through a few ways the pandemic altered the food delivery sphere for good.
Demand for Off-Premises Dining Is Here to Stay
Due to the shutdown of indoor dining, the only lifeline for bars, restaurants, cafes, and other eateries that remained open was take-out dining. Many restaurants had to shift their focus to offer more takeout options due to the limitations on in-person dining.
According to the State of the Restaurant Industry Report released in 2021, about 64% of customers surveyed preferred ordering takeout delivery directly from the restaurant versus using a third-party delivery vendor. Customers were concerned about supporting their local food joints; in fact, about 72% said they wanted to support a local restaurant that they could visit in person to pick up their food versus a ghost or virtual kitchen.
More than half of restaurants surveyed said that they focused their operations to expand their off-premises side of the business. Customers responded well to the change—about 53% of adults surveyed in 2021 responded that takeout or delivery options are essential to the way they live.
By 2022, it’s clear that expanded takeout and delivery options will be here to stay. About 68% of respondents said that they are more likely to continue ordering takeout from a restaurant than before the pandemic. For millennials, that number rises to 71%. The demand for food delivery services is here to stay and is only increasing.
Changing their Menu to Meet Takeout and Delivery Demand
Many restaurants also changed their menu to meet shifting customer demand. With so much unknown surrounding the pandemic, many people turned to comfort food. The demand for comfort foods of all types increased—including pizza, lasagne, fries, mac and cheese, pastries, ice cream, and more. In 2021 alone, customers ordered 7.6 billion burgers compared to 2.9 chicken sandwiches. The top ten most ordered menu items were, in no particular order, fried chicken, mac & cheese, burgers, pizza, bowls, salad, sandwiches, tacos, wraps, and parmigiana. Restaurants responded by revamping their menus to offer more comfort foods for their customers. Almost a third of fine dining establishments and one in five family and casual restaurants have added comfort food items to their menus since the start of the pandemic.
Takeout comfort food was not the only type of consumption customers craved – many dining establishments responded to customer demand and shifting laws to begin offering alcoholic beverages “to-go.” At the height of the pandemic, 39 states legalized alcohol take-out and delivery for customers to consume off-premises. While some of these looser liquor laws were temporary, some jurisdictions made these alcohol-to-go exceptions permanent. Offering this new to-go option also helped restaurants bring in extra money to support a larger staff, and many restaurants found themselves able to bring back an additional bartender.
The alcohol “to-go” trend is likely to stay. About 35% of all customers responded that they will likely continue ordering alcoholic drinks as part of their take-out and delivery foods and for millennials, this number was even higher, at 53%.
Adapting to Contactless Food Delivery As the New Norm
At the height of the pandemic, person-to-person contact had to be limited to 6 feet or zero contact with outside members of a household to reduce viral exposure risk. Unsurprisingly, contactless food delivery and take-out services increased drastically. As demand skyrocketed, more dining establishments began to offer contactless delivery services in 2020—almost five years’ worth of growth occurred within the first five weeks of the pandemic. Nearly 50% of full-service restaurants said they introduced delivery options to get more customers. In the US, the food delivery market more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic, whereas before it grew at only 8% per year.
Many restaurants took increased delivery options further and began offering contactless food delivery. While pickup from local restaurants was often still an option, customers could also choose to get their pizzas, burgers, and other food delivered through a low-risk, contactless system that got food to their door without interactions with another person.
Contactless food delivery helped keep both the delivery service employee and the customer safe with safe handoff practices and sanitation of packaging. Many eateries opted for third-party delivery service options, such as Uber Eats or Grub Hub, rather than hiring their own employees. Restaurants also had apps available so the customer and the delivery person could communicate to ensure a safe handoff. Contactless food delivery and take-out options enabled restaurants to stay open, employ workers, and satisfy customers’ demands for food as well as maintain health and safety measures.
With the implementation of pandemic health and safety measures, the adoption of technology became critical for contactless ordering, takeout, and delivery options. While the technology for contactless food delivery and takeout support was always available, the pandemic spurred restaurants to adopt this technology at an accelerated rate. Since March 2020, most food establishments have devoted their resources to purchasing and installing online or in-app ordering (Blink or ChowNow), mobile payment options (Square, PayPay, Apple Pay, or Google Pay), and delivery management options (DoorDash or Postmates). In the past, offering digital menus or contactless ordering and payment options would’ve been seen as a luxury—now it is a necessity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed how eating establishments do business, especially for take-out and delivery options. Customers have embraced contactless food delivery and takeout services and their demand is not slowing down anytime soon. Now that we’re here, in a world with fast, on-demand food delivery, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever go back to relying on in-person dining in the same way.