If the public can’t come to us, we’ll just have to go to them. That’s been one of the great lockdown mantras of the last year.
Delivery, meal and cocktail kits and table service in pubs – whether entered into willingly or via Government directive – have all helped keep many a business afloat. They’ve maintained a vital connection with customers, as well as providing a level of consumer convenience that the public may not want to give up on any time soon.
They have all become part of the sector’s (if not the nation’s) DNA, along with the acceptance of a digital world that makes all of the above not just possible but easy and straightforward.
Over the winter, half the adult population ordered restaurant or pub food to pick-up or be delivered, with over a quarter ordering for the first time, according to reliable sector research. Even when restaurants reopened last summer, delivery’s share of sales continued at twice its pre-pandemic level – and that habit has only been strengthened during this latest lockdown.
Of course, it’s the fast food chains that have really set the pace when it comes to upping convenience levels, with investment in ordering apps, dedicated click’n’collect and drive-thrus, soon to be followed by number-plate recognition to allow speedier pick-ups and multi-lane drive-thrus.
The United States is once again setting the pace in re-engineering the design of sites to cater for all this innovation (and that’s not to mention the boom in building ghost kitchens), but we are talking about a global trend here, that the UK is already part of. This is all about making life easy for the customer.
TGI Fridays’ UK boss Robert Cook is already thinking about accelerating his brand’s move in that direction. “Our Fridays at Home offering, and click and collect, did exceptionally well during the past 12 months,” he told MCA. “So it would be remiss of us not have a look at what Fridays could look like in a QSR or drive-in environment.”
Meal kits delivered by courier and cocktails through the post may be for only a minority of operators with an established brand reputation, but for some they have become a valuable part of the business mix. Hawksmoor is a trailblazer, and significantly has recently appointed former Flat Iron managing director Jo Fleet to head up its nationwide meal kit distribution and delivery operations.
Even with full reopening on the horizon, there are groups even now actively researching the niche, doing due diligence on central production units and e-commerce platforms.
More controversial for some, in the pub market at least, is the whole notion of table service for drinks – but similar arguments apply. There are those that seemingly can’t wait to have crowds back standing at the bar. How much of that is driven my their own preferences, and how much by hard economics is an interesting question.
Some operators have reported real positives from enforced table service: customers have lingered longer and ordered that extra drink; staff have had more time to sell up; and in many cases the sales mix has changed, with higher margin drinks like cocktails growing share.
While the attraction of chatting with friends and family over a pint at the bar is undeniable, the reality of having to queue four or five deep at a busy bar on a Friday night in the hope of catching the bartender’s eye is less appealing.
As one operator confided: “If the choice is between giving up and moving on because the queue at the bar is to big and ordering sitting down on an app, I think we’ll keep the table service option.”
As Wetherspoon’s founder Tim Martin observed this month, pubs will change and service is likely to be a blend of the two. He said that while Wetherspoon’s would revert to normal service as soon as it was allowed, table service would likely be a legacy of the pandemic. The bar counter areas would likely to be less busy.
What all this comes down to is a realisation that the pandemic has changed everyday life, with convenience almost seen as a right. The onward march of Amazon and the fact that while most traffic volume is still down on pre-pandemic levels while van journeys are up is testament to that.
Some lockdown habits may fade; others will remain. What pubs, bars and restaurants must do is keep the customer front of mind and adapt to those developing needs.
As an American friend of mine living in Texas remarked the other day, although restaurants and bars are open for business in the freedom-loving state, restaurants are the ones doing better. Many people are still uneasy in bars, cautious about sitting or standing too close to a stranger. Even when masks are not mandatory, many still choose to wear them when out.
This is a time to be even more sensitive to customers’ needs and changing habits.
By Peter Martin, originally published on MCA on 19th May.