Pandemic Recovery: Customers’ Needs Are Evolving. Are Your Restaurant Operations (Environmentally) Prepared?

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It’s been over a year since the pandemic upended the U.S. restaurant industry and shifted the business landscape entirely. Trends that weren’t supposed to take hold for years suddenly hit the fast-forward button, rendering many old-school business methods obsolete. With all the changes that restaurants have undergone due to adaptations and changing customer behaviors, it’s necessary to ask what the journey will look like as we advance and whether restaurants’ environmental strategies align with customers’ evolving needs.

Let’s review where we’ve been, what new and successful delivery models have emerged, and what restaurants should prepare for, from an environmental perspective, as on-and-off site services gather speed in this era of change.

Operating within thin margins

When the pandemic hit, many businesses closed their doors, put their brick-and-mortars up for sale, or opted out of their leases. People lost their jobs and business operators lost their livelihoods. According to the National Restaurant Association (1), it’s estimated that more than 110,000 restaurants went out of business over the past year—a staggering number that has left many wondering how the restaurant crisis will ever dissipate.

Although the country has started to reopen its dining room doors, nearly two million restaurant workers remain out of work today (2). Business managers and operators are having to step into other company roles because of the industry-wide labor shortage. Restaurants have been forced to evaluate current operations and look for solutions that address limited staffing and ever-shrinking margins.

Shifting the dynamics

Ghost kitchens (a.k.a. delivery-only kitchens) make up a sector that has seen pandemic-era ubiquity. It allows business owners and chefs to sell their goods without the exact costs of operating a full restaurant, like designing and building out a dining space or employing a sizable front-of-house staff. Hundreds of ghost kitchens have cropped up, either through existing brands or standalone entities. Euromonitor International even projects that this restaurant model could potentially top $1 trillion in revenue by 2030 (3).

There’s also been a shift in services offered by existing operations rather than the emergence of a new business model. The industry has seen an increase in delivery, takeout, and curbside services. As a result, online-ordering platforms have watched demand for their services increase tenfold since the start of the pandemic. As of early this year, roughly 90 percent of U.S. restaurants offered takeout, and 82 percent had delivery as an option—a third of which used three or more delivery apps (such as Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Grubhub) (4).

More food is more plastics and packaging

With restaurants opening back up for in-person dining, food delivery – and the waste associated with those orders – has accelerated since the start of the pandemic. Despite kitchens getting the chance to use glassware again, single-use plastics will still be prevalent and pose an enormous threat to the environment as we regress to a world full of disposables.

Packaging in general, including food and beverages, accounts for nearly 30 percent of all municipal waste. In 2018, that meant 82.2 million tons of trash came just from packaging, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (5). Together, food and packaging containers accounted for nearly 45 percent of landfill materials in the U.S (6). Imagine where that number could be today.

Not only is there an increase in plastics and to-go materials, but the volume of food delivery has also risen, which means more food trimmings and food waste. Businesses are dealing with new waste mixes that challenge operations, demand new health protocols, and may decrease productivity altogether. New reuse and recycling opportunities may now be feasible, and waste service levels may need to be adjusted to efficiently and economically support the new waste volumes.

It’s evolution, not extinction!

The fluid market dynamics are causing specific operational pain points that require specialized knowledge and expert resources—some of which are not commonly found within a restaurant’s internal organization. To alleviate the pressure from the new waste and recycling paradigms, restaurants should turn to comprehensive service providers that can provide expert, turnkey solutions across your entire footprint.

Look for a single source to provide total waste management, grease trap and vent hood cleaning, and other services to keep vendor management to a minimum. A flexible and agile partner will build and execute custom programs that meet the needs of your unique, shifting landscape. The door is open for success by evolving your waste and recycling operations to ensure you optimize recycling, provide environmental protection and heighten cost management.

Every place of business has a different appetite for what they want to see for their establishment and services. As dining establishments heat back up, better aligning your restaurant services with your customers’ needs will take you to success.

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