New year, new challenges: Is the restaurant industry ready?

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By Mya L. Koch

Look at you! You did it. As the owner of a restaurant, coffee shop or other business, you dipped your toe into the waters of the new year and decided to dive on in – to make a go of it again despite all of the obstacles lurking just beneath the surface.

As we welcomed 2022, we couldn’t help but reflect on the past two years – and just how stormy those waters have been. Between the global pandemic, a stifled supply chain and lack of materials needed to keep your business in its best shape, you forged ahead. You’re ready to do whatever you can to keep your doors open and your customers happy.

There are brighter skies ahead, they are telling us, and we are seeing signs of that.  COVID cases are dropping as medicines become more available and more folks get vaccinated. Shipping backlogs seems to be easing a teeny bit – albeit at the pace of the tortoise rather than the hare. And folks are more willing to get back out there – to patronize eateries, bars, boutiques, entertainment venues and all manner of small businesses again.

But yet, challenges remain – folks are just learning how to adapt to them and be more creative and resourceful. In many cases, those business owners are making peace with the “new normal” and learning new ways to not only survive, but thrive.

A Restaurateur’s Take

Michael Passalacqua, whose family has owned Angelo’s Italian restaurant for 80 years near Pittsburgh, Pa., has been a voice for others in his business as he fought to keep his doors open during the pandemic. I asked him how things were going – and where he sees them going from here.

Passalacqua, a board member for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, echoes the worries of his contemporaries. “Finding and keeping employees, keeping those employees safe from COVID, supply chain issues and pricing all will be occupying a lot of time this year,” he said.

He said that many restaurant owners are finding it most difficult to recruit and retain quality workers in this time when fears – and mistreatment by patrons – grow along with the virus. “I wish I had an answer to that,” he said. “Having a successful restaurant and a happy staff help, but that’s not a strategy.

Passalacqua believes the shift to dining off premise that grew as a result of COVID is here to stay. “Take out, curbside and outdoor dining will continue to uptick,” he said. “Training, providing a good culture, paying people well and good leadership cure most of those things.”

Trends to Watch

QSR, an online restaurant industry publication, recently heard from restaurant experts on trends that will take hold in 2022. Here’s what some of them had to say to QSR reporter Danny Klein:

Frances Allen, CEO for Checkers & Rally’s
Allen reiterates Passalacqua’s predictions, stating that the demand for a “frictionless” drive-through model will continue to grow. “We anticipate operators redesigning several facets of their business in order to stay competitive and functioning at high capacity,” she said. “Customers have painted a pretty clear picture of what they want and restaurant companies will have to adapt in order to meet their needs and provide convenience.”

She also believes more brands will invest in the technology necessary to help their teams streamline tasks and perform more efficiently.

Scott Lawton, CEO and co-founder at Bartaco Mexican restaurant chain
Lawton said that as third-party delivery (think DoorDash and GrubHub) continues to grow and more restaurants are faced with staffing issues, it is “imperative” to put the guest experience above anything else and focus on ways to maintain and improve hospitality.”

He believes that more people will become increasingly discerning regarding where they choose to dine. And, with the supply chain issues continuing, he says its absolutely vital for operators to “think creatively and avoid raising prices to the detriment of the guest experience.”

Clinton Anderson, CEO at Fourth (products and services for restaurant industry)
Anderson says that while labor has always been a priority for restaurant owners, the stakes are higher than ever for brands to find, hire and retain talent. “Not only are restaurants feeling the effect of direct costs, but the labor crunch is also impacting top line revenue as understaffed locations are being forced to close certain hours, operate at limited capacity and, ultimately, serve less people.”

He explained that some franchises have enacted perks such as high starting salaries and sign on bonuses in an effort to build their staffs.

Noah Glass, founder and CEO at Olo (links digital ordering and delivery programs)Glass told the magazine that brands will continue to welcome digital technology across all service models – delivery, drive-through, takeout and on-premise. “We expect this trend to pick up steam in 2022 and beyond as brands capitalize on technology to automate processes and streamline operations,” he said.

He expects brands will focus on analyzing data about their customers  — a means to understand their markets, build customer relationships and help with “high-level decision making.”

And like his contemporaries, he believes off-premise dining will only continue to grow.

Restaurateurs’ Reality

The fact is, restaurant owners like you are facing challenges like never before. Just this week, CBS News reported that many restaurants face “extinction” in the wake of COVID-19, inflation and critical staffing shortages.

Nationally, 91 percent of restaurants have reported they’re having a tough time hiring and 89 percent have had to raise their prices, according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, as reported by CBS online. Up to 80 percent reported they fear they’ll have to close without assistance.

“We are on the verge of an extinction event for this industry,” Independent Restaurant Coalition executive director Erika Polmar told CBS News. “It’s that dire.”

Franchise owners and restaurant teams who want to succeed will need to focus on new methods of delivering their goods, new technologies for both their staffs and patrons, new methods of packaging to protect their wares and – above all – new ways to keep their customers feeling secure and happy long after COVID-19 is pushed back from the forefront of our minds.

That’s something to chew on.

Mya L Koch is a Sales Order Specialist for who has vast experience as a journalist, writer and editor for publications such as The Wilmington Star-News and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, where she managed staffs of young writers and photographers and helmed daily, monthly and annual publications seen throughout the region. Her writings have been published in magazines, newspapers and most recently in a hard-cover book for the national Bring Music Home initiative. She has extensive experience as an editor, manager and in retail sales. She welcomes your ideas and suggestions for her blog post as part of the BABCOR Packaging / team.

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