In an industry where ambience and customer service have traditionally reigned supreme, restaurateurs of a post-pandemic future must find a way to embrace “contactless chic”— healthy, purpose-driven luxury without all the face-to-face contact.

A demand for fewer indoor and human touch points will take a little technology and a lot of creativity. Transparent and innovative dining experiences that reflect a slick and tightly branded offering with an online storefront will be the new winners of the restaurant industry.

Here’s where contactless is heading in 2021 and beyond.

Package Deals

In the future, boxes will be the new plates, to-go will be the new dine-in and packages will be the new a-la-carte. According to Baum + Whiteman, homemade pantry items have been a major trend emerging from the pandemic. To-go meal kits have also taken off. Toronto-based Mexican restaurant, Good Hombres, for example offers a build-your-own taco kit which is available for both pickup and delivery. Family dining packages have become “a thing” as evident by the massive success of the to-go family dining trend during thanksgiving, as have couples’ dining boxes for date night. Avli Taverna restaurant in Chicago has created a chic prix fixe Valentines meal box deal that includes a choice of entrée as well as the option of sending a “Cocktail Gram” that arrives with an alcoholic beverage, housemade truffles and a card.

Al Fresco Dining

In 2021 and beyond, restaurants will be looking to maximise outdoor bar, patio and lounge spaces and seeking creative ways to make use of street fronts, parking lots, side walks and gardens. For those restaurants that aren’t capable of offering outdoor dining, a picnic themed offering provides an excellent option and branded pop-ups in outdoor spaces will provide extra brand lift. James Beard Award winning restaurant, Frenchette’s twice-a-week packaged picnic at the Rockefeller Center ice rink in New York is the perfect example of this trend.

Helping People To Dine At Home

In addition to packaged offerings, successful restaurants of the future will have a well-integrated delivery strategy with an online storefront. According to August 2020’s Oracle Food and Beverage study, 86 per cent of diners prefer to order directly from a restaurant rather than using a third-party app or platform, with 65 per cent of those diners opting to order either via an app or website.

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Local, Transparent and Unique Dining Experiences

Harvest dinners, farm to fork, eat local… Whatever you call it, this is one experience that is not going anywhere. Diners want to know where their food is coming from now, more than ever before. A friendly waitress can be replaced with a letter from the chef, stating how the food was made or where it was sourced. Diners are willing to pay a premium for nutritious food and information on the health benefits of a meal can go a long way. According to Innova Marketing Insights’ top 10 food trends for 2021 survey of consumers in 10 countries, restaurant transparency has become critical. Limited-time, occasion-driven offerings as well as themed experiences and curated offerings will also provide an added lure for diners.

Slick Branding and Messaging

Gone are the days of the single use doggy bag and to-go styrofoam containers. In the future, ‘to-go’ packaging will be the new ‘ambience.’ Beautifully branded containers made of environmentally friendly materials will be the new restaurant couture. Merchandise, packaging and online service will provide a ‘clean and tight’ brand experience and labels and product placement will be the “interior design” for the to-go crowd.

Technology Enabled

Whether in-house or delivery, contactless dining means technology-enabled. The use of QR codes linking menus to smart phones is a trend that has been rapidly adopted during the pandemic and it might just be permanent. According to August’s Oracle Food and Beverage study, 40 per cent of diners in the US and 39 per cent in the UK said that they would feel safer if they could view a menu from their mobile device, while 35 per cent in the US versus 31 per cent in the UK would like to be able to pay in the same manner. Apps that reduce human contact will become more prevalent. OhWaiter, for example, which launched in August 2020, is the first text-to-order customer service platform for restaurants, geared for in-house dining.

Telecom company KT, in Seoul, South Korea, has partnered with restaurant chain Mad for Garlic on a pilot program using an artificial intelligence serving robot named Aglio Kim, to reduce human-to-human contact.

In the future, food orders will be driven by online menus and payments that are well-branded, convenient and clean. That means that app-enabled ordering, with one-time entry of credit card information to make repeat orders more convenient, will be more important than ever before.

Communication via email lists and social media (especially instagram) will be readily embraced.

The Way Forward

Restaurants of the future will be forced to re-imagine the words customer service, experience and ambience. While in-house luxury will never be fully replaced by food retail, to-go or delivery, and human interaction will never be made redundant by a slick online delivery channel, in 2021 and onwards, the balance in preference will shift… significantly. High value, well branded restaurants that have the foresight to transition to low contact touch points will be the winners of the future.

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