When David Bowie wrote those lyrics in his hit song “Changes” it’s highly doubtful he did so with the foodservice industry in mind. But that’s where the industry finds itself roughly five months into the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s time to face the strange.
In a business environment nobody wanted nor could anyone have predicted, one could argue the foodservice industry has been facing the strange for months. Full-service restaurants became glorified ghost kitchens. Dealers became distributors of more plexiglass products than they could have ever imagined. And factories shifted to make everything from protective barriers to masks to hand sanitizer. Those ripples of change keep the stream of industry commerce floating as operators and their supply chain partners try to have some control of an uncontrollable situation.
It’s the beginning of a change-oriented mindset that will continue to shape the successful members of the foodservice industry for the next year — or longer.
Take, for example, pop-up restaurants. Once a flashy way to test a new concept, noncommercial operators now adopt this approach as an innovative way to solve some unique challenges brought forth by the pandemic. Joe Urban, director of Food and Nutrition Services for South Carolina’s Greenville County Schools, and the School Food Rocks BBQ Team brought authentic barbecue experiences to children throughout his district. Through a series of unannounced pop-ups, the team provided such barbecue staples as smoked turkey, pulled pork and brisket sandwiches to children 18 years old and younger. Urban and his team could have simply stuck to a menu of cold cuts and fruit, but they went the extra mile for their constituents.
Prior to the pandemic, micromarkets represented a rapidly evolving trend across a variety of operator segments, and the pandemic has only amplified the need for the convenience and versatility these operations can provide. In fact, micromarkets represent the foodservice operation of choice for many facilities today. They check a variety of boxes that make these operations appealing to consumers, including fast service, convenient locations and, at least for the time being, minimal human interaction.
And, similar to what Bowie sang, strange fascinations continue to fascinate foodservice consumers. This applies to the act of sanitizing foodservice operations and high-touch areas. Prior to the pandemic, this was something no operator wanted their guests to see. Today, it’s become paramount to put on a sanitation show for guests to let them know the business walks its talk. In fact, 76% of consumers say a restaurant’s cleanliness and food safety procedures will always matter more now than they did before, per a study from Datassential.
In “Changes,” Bowie also sang, “Just gonna have to be a different man. Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.” That sentiment also applies to today’s foodservice industry. Everyone’s anxious to put the pandemic behind them, but COVID-19 is not quite ready to leave. And rest assured, it won’t change. So, it’s up to the industry to continue to adapt and change and to do so in a thoughtful and collaborative manner.