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Foodservice Issues for Today and Tomorrow

How can operators create excellent experiences when serving guests in a tent in the parking lot? What’s the future hold for self-serve foodservice options? Will foodservice operations shrink or grow in the future? These questions, and many more, were on the minds of FE&S readers during the magazine’s 2020 Consultants’ Roundtable Webcast.

consultants roundtable 2020

Consultants Karen Malody of Culinary Options, Ken Schwartz of SSA Foodservice Consultants and Georgie Shockey of Ruck-Shockey Associates, kept the dialogue flowing once the formal presentation was complete by answering the audience’s questions in writing. Here, this trio of foodservice consultants offer their takes on a variety of topics pertaining to today and the foodservice industry’s post-COVID-19 landscape.

And if you missed the original webcast, feel free to listen in at your convenience as the presentation will remain available at no cost for at least one year.

Q: How can you give a guest a great dining experience when they're eating in a tent in a parking lot?

KM: That is the challenge for today’s operators: how to turn any dining occasion into something enjoyable and memorable. Having the food delivered to the guest with a smile and thank you, packaging the food in an attractive manner, adding color and interest in the tent decor – every little effort that is put into making the guest feel welcomed and appreciated will enhance the experience.

KS: We have several clients who have taken advantage of their cities allowing expanded outdoor dining to help with their overall seat count while restricting the percentage of indoor seats allowed. As people have been primarily isolated during the safer-at-home period, many have made the choice now to go out, dine and socialize again. We have several clients who have utilized tents or market umbrellas, added outdoor furniture and plants, and have created awesome outdoor environments. It’s a matter of perspective!

Q: With the need for touchless dispensing equipment to reduce customer touchpoints in self-serve stations, what are the equipment manufacturers doing to meet this need? (Think: coffee, juice, disposable utensils, napkins, cups, lids, etc.)

KS: Several manufacturers of beverage and ice dispensing equipment offer touchless units. There is even a coffee equipment manufacturer who uses an app to allow the guest order, pay and then scan a QR code to start the dispensing operation.

KM: Some wonderful innovations are occurring. One company has created a 100% touch-free coffee maker. Guests order via their smartphones and the machine makes the coffee while they wait. One of the Kitchen Innovation Award winners this year is a countertop machine that seals cups from 8 ounces to 44 ounces, no matter the composition of the cup, whether it is holding hot or cold beverages, for transport without spilling. This eliminates plastic lids and assures spill-less delivery.

GS: Generally, I think our manufacturing community is all over the research and development on touchless technology. I think FE&S should do a feature article on this and perhaps reference that in this response to the listeners. I can add a few extra items. In addition to beverage dispensers, we’ve seen touchless cutlery dispensers, among many other options.

Q: With delivery and pickup sales on the increase, should a kitchen have a double cookline to not interfere with dining room experience and flow?

KM: In an ideal world if space, dollars, and off-premises sales warrant and allow it, yes. It allows operators to deliver both types of service in a timely and consistent manner without jamming one line during peak hours to the point of being overwhelmed. Since many spaces are not sufficient to accommodate this solution, the menu must be reduced, and various smart equipment implementations must be considered to allow flawless and timely execution.

KS: No! I think this would be a large additional equipment cost and duplication of labor. We have designed numerous operations which provide both dine in and delivery and we have adjusted the design slightly but with a significant cost impact.

GS: I think a solution is more about operational execution, with the right technology to print the order and place the foods for on premises vs. pickup or delivery at a place on the expediting line. I think the space to hold these pickup orders at the right temps/quality/moisture, etc., will be the more critical thing to consider in the future. However, I think operators need to give this a few more months to see if the trends will stay or will they come back to pre-COVID-19 percentages.

Q: Will you design/specify more hoods with ultraviolet light (UV) filters for air supply?

GS: This for sure is Ken’s space, however we are reviewing some designs that are in process for future years and we are looking at the spaces that are populated with customers, e.g. cafe dining and serving areas, to use more air exchanges. I don’t think UV-ing food that is supposed to be cooked to specific temperatures is an expense that can be justified just due to viruses.

KS: We currently design hoods, in some cases, with a UV component associated with the exhaust system. There is technology out there for standalone UV air filter systems, UV systems which can be added to the make-up/supply air or HVAC systems; however, we have not seen empirical data supporting the effectiveness on COVID-19.

Q: What do the panelists think will happen to dining rooms? Will they stay the same size, or do they expect the dining rooms to be downsized in favor of curbside, takeout or grab-and-go options?

KM: This depends on the business model. If your brand is heavily based on a dine-in experience, and the rent for that space is based on financials generated from dine in, the dining room will stay the same. Without question, some will shrink dining rooms. That said, however, the smaller the dining room, the more disruptive activities like takeout and delivery will become be intrusive. Ideally, all pickup and takeout orders should be handled in a separate area that does not interfere with the dining experience.

GS: It’s too early to tell. I would design with a modest decrease at the best. If you can wait a month or two past 75% capacity limits to see how customers respond.

KS: I think it is a matter of finances as more tables/seats may equate to higher revenue as would the addition or inclusion of delivery. These options need to be discussed with the operator to determine their desired menu and style of service. This then needs to be quantified and tested via the development of a strategic predevelopment or operating business plan. The business plan then directs design.

Q: Are you in favor of mobile partitions to help promote social distancing in dining rooms?

KS: No!!! This is a typical knee-jerk reaction that is not a proven method of protection. Additionally, will the operator then have staff and training to clean and sanitize the partitions after each table has been vacated?

KM: I find them unattractive and a continued message that “all is not well.” It is one more thing to sanitize after every use. They get dirty and are not easy to keep clean. They add expense. Restaurants are not hospitals.

GS: Totally agree with Karen on building them in. If you can incorporate something within a good interior design that fits the feel and style of the space than do so. Don’t force in yards of plexiglass!

Q: How has the reengineering to focus on increased sales in the form of carryout, home meal replacement and delivery impacted sustainability efforts? Will sustainability make a comeback?

KS: I don’t think focusing on these areas was done to increase revenue but to generate revenue for operations which decided to or were required to close. Sustainability must come back. Sustainability is the goal that is the hub. The spokes to sustainability include profit, labor, quality, environment, safety, responsibility, liability and guest experience.

KM: Yes, it will. Packaging manufacturers have taken this very seriously and are doing amazing things to make disposable items more sustainability friendly. But once this COVID-19 situation calms down, every committed operator who had sustainability strategies will go back to them with a vengeance. There will always be takeout and delivery. Sustainable packaging helps ease the pain of all those disposables leaving the restaurant.

GS: I agree. Those that can and were using sustainable products will get back to them. Also, perhaps with higher demand and use that the supply side can recognize higher volumes and reduce the costs to allow more to participate.

Q: Do you feel COVID-19 constraints will lead to different strategies? Could this lead to smaller tables to provide more social distancing? Will booths become a more prevalent seating option? Will normal tables and chairs, including two-tops and four-tops, become banquettes with six-foot spacers and long tables in front with no opposing chairs (similar to European cafe seating)?

KS: Yes, there will certainly be lessons learned from this event. I think designing with flexibility in mind will be most beneficial. I think a reevaluation of operators’ business plans are a must. Throughout Europe operators do not typically rely on turning the tables by meal period yet they have developed a model in which the guest experience is paramount and quality, value is built into the cost. These operating models have sustained generation after generation. Perhaps there is an important lesson to be learned from this means of operation.

KM: Yes, to all. Booths will have higher backs. Two-tops and four-tops ganged together for larger parties provide far more flexibility than large tables that cannot be broken down. Tables with hinged extenders will become more popular. Financial models will be built on fewer sit-down diners due to more spacing between tables, even after COVID-19). Banquettes are tricky due to the proximity of guests sitting side-by-side, even if they are not facing each other. We may see circular and semi-circular booths in the center of rooms – like mini private cubicles for privacy and isolation.

GS: I think we discussed the idea of losing the community tables and some more use of the two- and four- tops as Karen noted to give more flexibility. In some settings booths could be limiting as they are not movable and could prevent future issues, e.g. more than 6 feet of distancing or the ability to thin out or add to seating easily. 

Q: We reopened our hospital cafeteria with coffee and grab-n-go options. We have made the space very safe per CDC guidelines, but we have yet to see many customers return. How long do you think it will take for the customers to return?

GS: The staff in many of the noncommercial spaces have been away from their normal routines. This is especially the case in healthcare where staff have been working long shifts and can’t really get away from the fray to get to the cafe. I think our jobs in this are to entice back that customer with foods they love, great hospitality and prices that make them not look elsewhere!

KM: Some reactions to COVID-19 have been extraordinarily severe from a fear standpoint. Others are more than ready and willing to get back to foodservice. This is one of the great unknowns: How will this entire situation impact long-term societal behaviors? Many are finding they do just fine without dine-in foodservice. Even grab and go is frightening for some customers. None of us know where the tipping point will be. A vaccine will ease the minds of many. But that could be well over a year from now.

KS: I think foodservice of all types will see the guests return when the guests feel safe on several levels. There have been numerous conversations about many operations offering pre-packaged grab n go as an alternative to served or self-serve. Looking at grab and go, I contend that without an attendant constantly monitoring activity and instantly, fully sanitizing a touched and returned package along with the adjacent packages which may have been inadvertently touched then this is creating a potentially false sense of safety.

Q: The restart is going to look very different for the various food and beverage spaces out there. It might look very different to a small independent restaurateur than to a large employee cafeteria or casino. It's safe to say that the casinos and hotels of the world will have the resources to manage restart effectively, but what resources can we point our small independently run businesses to? Do we have a responsibility as industry leaders to help the independent restaurateur to help protect their investment?

KM: This is an important question and one not easily answered. To be brutally honest, many restaurateurs were not managing their restaurants well to begin with. They were on the road to closure as a result. I work with them every day. For those who are/were smart operators who deserve every chance to get back on their feet – yes, we should help. But in the end, many restaurants should not reopen because no amount of cash flow will save a poorly operated restaurant.

GS: The CDC has some good resources but it is really leaving it to the local regulators to implement and oversee the re-openings. Our firm of facility management, environmental service and foodservice professionals pulled together a resource checklist that might be helpful. The National Restaurant Association has a good re-opening resource, as well.

KS: I think, that for whatever reason, a large majority foodservice industry operators have created an operating financial model which is not sustainable! There are operators who have invested their life and life’s savings, blood, sweat and tears into their operations to net very little profit or worse operate at a loss. This should not be. I think operators should embrace this down time to realign their business plans and reevaluate their operations (i.e., smaller portions, increased prices, tighter inventory controls, improved guest experience and etc.).

Q: What happens to new restaurants that just opened? Will manufacturers and KECs (kitchen equipment contractors) extend warranties to make up for this shut down time? For existing small restaurants, did they shut down their equipment properly and what does that service call back log look like when it's time for restart? Is this an opportunity for service companies to be doing regular check-ups on dormant kitchens?

KM: Many did not properly shut down their equipment and, worse, did not take good care of it in the first place. This adds to the grief and cost of reopening. Many naïve operators think that if the equipment is shut down, maintenance is not needed. This is wrong. Equipment maintenance is required always. But getting it back to optimal operating functionality upon reopening is a required cost and must-do to add to the reopening checklist.

KS: Great question. Warranties are always provided by manufacturers and not KEC’s. It would be terrific for manufacturers to consider or offer extended warranty programs. For existing small restaurants, an operator should never assume equipment which has been turned off for months will start up without issues. A plan should be made to restart and test all equipment, schedule service agencies as needed and engage manufacturers’ reps for training/retraining as needed. And, yes, service agencies should be offering restart/checkup services.

Q: What are some options to improve restaurant air quality without making a big investment?

KS: Open the doors and windows!

GS: We are looking to increase fresh air exchanges in spaces and perhaps some higher MERV filters, like the ones used in surgical rooms. COVID-19 has a micron diameter of 1.4 microns. So, if you have just a MERV 1 in place that will filter only 3.0-10.0 microns. MERV 11-12 would get you to 1.0 microns.

KM: Make sure what you do have is working properly and is functioning at peak performance. Determine, depending on the climate in your location, if windows and doors (with screens) can be open to allow air flow to enter the rooms.

Q: Is now the time for the return of the automat?

KM: I predict that within one year sophisticated ambient, chilled, and hot vending machines will be available and absolutely touchless (order via your phone/mobile app). It is inevitable – and needed.

KS: No.

Q: Will restaurants get bigger or smaller post-COVID?

GS: If the area has experienced a lot of permanent closures due to restaurants going out of business, this will put a lot of pressure on those that survived to handle the new capacity demands. Therefore, that area may experience growth opportunities. I would suggest you do the research to see who is closed, who is taking the months off and what new licenses or project starts are being filed to know your long-term position.

KS: In discussions with numerous restaurant and hospitality clients the direction is to continue as we were pre-COVID. Many of the ping-pong, knee-jerk reactions of the news media and operators are being done without factual data and only speculation. I am not an expert, but I predict many of the items continuously discussed will evaporate once a vaccine has been made available. However, there are so many lessons to be learned from this event.

KM: Both. Kitchens will continue to be smaller if multifunctional equipment is used and menus are engineered accordingly. They could get larger if a second makeline is required and justified by off-premises sales. Front of house, depending on the concept, may get smaller and, to the extreme of ghost kitchens, may not exist. But those whose brand depends on dine-in experiences, they will stay the same and possibly a bit larger due to distancing.

Q: Most schools, universities, large business cafeterias are designed for self-service or individual stations. What happens to those and what new design do you see in the future for these operations?

KS: After many discussions, our clients are directing us to continue to design based on pre-COVID direction. The only exception regarding buffets is the implementation of adjustable sneeze guards which can be utilized in self-serve or served applications. Several other discussions have been around the addition of hand sanitizing stations throughout, utensils for each table versus at the buffet and/or one time use disposable gloves.

KM: Self-service will return. Until then, the smartest thing to do is to utilize those areas for creative hot and cold prepackaged grab and go. Once self-service returns, creativity will be required: giving every person a disposable tong to use, redesign of sneeze guards, pans at a slant and partially covered to allow food to flow towards the guest as the quantity of product depletes, etc.

GS: If the operations can incorporate a process of distancing the food in the buffet area and directionally flow the customer path through the area and add in a disposable glove that each customer wears to touch the tongs, or give each customer their own tong to dispose of each use or reuse/wash like a tray, then I think operators can achieve some resemblance of self service. Additionally, place a SaniTzar in the area to constantly keep these spaces clean, sanitized in service times.

Q: Do you expect table decor to disappear? (Salt and pepper mills, candles, trays, etc.)

KM: For now, probably. But it will return. It could remain now if an operator is able and willing to change it out and sanitize it each time a table turns. As in all things COVID-19, the key is communication. Tell your guests what you are doing and why. Help them be comfortable. And make sure the staff is 100% aware of all the what’s and why’s. Everyday. Relentlessly.

GS: Agree on all points. Cleanliness Theater must be done to build trust of your staff, customers. Not just acting like you are doing it though — must really be committed to it, cleaning. Consider some form of disposable items. For example, do your staff have their own S/P mills to add a touch to your customer experience?

KS: At the moment, most of those things have disappeared but I suspect they will work their way back to the table in post-COVID, perhaps during vaccine era. Operators should or may now consider sanitizing these items after each table is turned.