FAST-CASUAL & TAKEOUT
Since the last recession, as people’s lives have gotten busier and more on-the-go, much of the restaurant industry’s focus has switched from casual dining to fast-casual concepts that lend themselves to takeout. In July 2019, the NPD Group found that fast-casual was the only segment of food service to see its traffic increase in the previous five years. Dean Koutroumanis is an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Tampa’s Sykes College of Business. Koutroumanis studies the restaurant business and predicts this growth will accelerate even more in the face of the latest economic downturn. “You’re seeing it with the chains,” he explains. “The chains are actually looking to reinvent themselves with these concepts that are on the fast-casual side, including Outback Steakhouse with Aussie Grill and Hooters with Hoots,” two concepts that predate the pandemic.
One way fast-casual concepts have been able to launch with lower overhead costs is through a model called a “ghost kitchen.” The restaurant has no seating or pickup options and is available exclusively through delivery — enabling multiple concepts to share one kitchen space and spread out the financial burdens of a lease or mortgage. The Hatchery, a new chicken-focused fast-casual restaurant from the Beef O’Brady’s ownership group, operated as a ghost kitchen this spring while construction was halted on its building near Dale Mabry and Kennedy Boulevard. “We put the equipment setup for The Hatchery in our test kitchen and began to hire a few people,” says CEO Chris Elliott. “We hooked up with the third-party delivery groups, did some social media advertising, and for eight weeks we sold the product in South Tampa as a ghost kitchen.” He adds that social media feedback from customers gave his team an idea of which menu options were hitting the mark and would do best once the brick-and-mortar location opened. “It was a very worthwhile endeavor.”
While third-party delivery apps like Uber Eats, Postmates and Bite Squad were already exploding in popularity, Koutroumanis explains that the pandemic led many independent restaurant operators who may have never considered offering delivery, like sports bars, to embrace it as a survival tactic. “I think that we’re going to see those [apps] continue to grow. I think that we’ve just accelerated that curve during this pandemic,” he says. While it’s not yet clear how much consumer usage of apps has grown, a white paper created by Technomic in partnership with Uber Eats surveyed restaurant operators across the country (including in Tampa) to find out how much delivery impacted their business between March and June. The paper found that third-party delivery was responsible for the most significant increase in sales since the start of the pandemic (going from an average of 16% of restaurant sales to 32%). More traditional delivery options are also thriving. Koutroumanis notes that, on the whole, locally owned pizza shops are seeing steady or above-average sales both in Tampa Bay and across the country.
Food quality is key no matter if you’re eating in a restaurant or dining at home, so another delivery-related trend is what Koutroumanis calls “menu creativity.” “Restaurants are trying to create meals that travel well, that you’re able to put into a container and take a 20 or 30-minute ride,” he says. “Then when you get it to your home, it still has that [restaurant-level] quality.” The Hatchery CEO Chris Elliott saw this firsthand with sales from his team’s ghost kitchen experiment. Chicken sandwiches, which are known to hold up fairly well in transit, made up the bulk of orders, followed by chicken tenders.
In addition to delivery apps, restaurants have turned to self-ordering technologies to help provide a more socially distanced dining experience. One surprising trend? QR codes, thought to be passé as recently the beginning of the year, are being embraced by everyone from neighborhood coffee shops to the restaurants across the Walt Disney World resort. Customers can sit down, pull up their smartphone camera app and scan the code to see the menu. This prevents restaurants from having to sanitize reusable menus or print off a new menu for each customer. Already, operators are experimenting with the possibilities of QR codes. “There’s also some technologies that will let you know the guest is seated at the table,” Koutroumanis says. “There could come a point — and there’s already menus like this out there — where you’ll be able to be seated, view your menu, order your food yourself, and limit the exposure to service personnel.
“Businesses that have some type of drive-through capacity are doing fantastic because people don’t even have to go into the restaurants,” Koutroumanis says, specifically locally owned concepts like sub shops. “I know of quite a few that are actually up double digits in sales from where they were.” A drive-through was never in the plans for The Hatchery (which is now open and will offer delivery through third-party apps), but Elliott says he’s already fielding questions about whether one could be in the works. “That was not the original idea, but I’m sure we will test that proposition at some point in the future. Now that we’ve been through the pandemic and we’ve seen how well brands with drive-throughs perform even in a pandemic, it sort of begs the question: Why would you open anything without a drive-through?”
AND WHAT ABOUT AT HOME?
Since we’ve all been spending more time within our domiciles, a few additional trends have popped up for home chefs.
Jams, jellies, kimchi, salsa, pickles, you name it. Bulk and wholesale jar and container sellers are sold out thanks to Americans’ newfound fascination with preserving their own food.
You probably knew this one. In March, King Arthur’s Flour saw its sales spike 2,000%, leading to empty shelves in baking aisles across the country. Local bakeries like Gulf Coast Sourdough in Seminole Heights stepped up to fill the void, selling their flour at cost to bakers in need.
We asked our Instagram followers what they were making at home, and most people responded with some kind of dish that brought them joy, from tacos to banana bread to crockpot meals. A May analysis of retail data by the NPD Group confirms that comfort food has reigned supreme during quarantine. Between March and April of this year, sales of electric pasta makers grew five times over last year, while waffle irons, electric griddles and rice cookers all saw double-digit growth.
HOME MEAL KITS
During the pandemic, local restaurants like Ichicoro Ramen and the Barterhouse started selling their own versions of the kits popularized by companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, where home chefs receive all the pre-portioned, partially prepared ingredients they need to cook a meal at home.