Foodservice professional Sascha Barby looks at, against all odds, the pandemic’s positive impact and the opportunity to reinvent foodservice
You are right. It is difficult to see the pandemic’s positive effect and accept some of the change as a benefit. Especially if these changes were made to the industry without warning. It would be cynical to speak of Covid-19 as a positive impetus in the face of closures in almost all segments and strokes of fate for so many, which become more real the closer we are to those affected.
Despite alarming numbers and the fact that the pandemic is far from being over, Covid-19 forces us to reshape and reinvent the industry – accelerating changes in a few months, which we would otherwise have seen only in years.
“The only way out is through”, this quote by American poet Robert Frost seems to express perfectly the feeling of many in the foodservice industry. Dealing with restrictions, tinkering with a reopening plan, and the reappearance of the virus is expected at any time. Looking at an industry that is and will be together for months in a pandemic is a little consolation while rethinking one’s business strategies, practices, and ideas for a post-pandemic future is essential.
Many foodservice businesses grew beyond themselves after the shock about the first lockdowns and restrictions, showing creativity and entrepreneurial spirit like never before. Curb-side pickup and food delivery offer a safe way of receiving orders while compensating for missing in-restaurant sales. New outdoor-gastronomy ideas are implemented with matching food and drink options and mini-glass-houses for private while safe dining.
Want to have dinner freshly cooked at home? Quite sure that a restaurant offers meal kids with deconstructed raw dishes and cooking instructions – sometimes even via QR-code and video in your area? More so, if you forgot the wine for the evening, you might get it around the corner with some tips from the restaurant’s sommelier. A subscription service for recurring orders might be a welcome offer for customers always in a hurry and busy through the pandemic (lucky them!).
The idea of ghost-kitchens tap their full potential and will lead to hybrid concepts in the future, offering greater diversity for attracting a more extensive customer base. The impossible happens with success, turning the industry upside down for the better.
That would have happened without Covid-19 as well? Maybe, but not at this lightning speed. It is interesting to see that many of these ideas and concepts tell a story and are not only about price – they are about sustainable strategies to secure the business and development for a post-pandemic future. They all say, “Hey, we are here for you, no matter what!” proving how powerful the industry is.
Foodservice operations always have been procedure and checklist driven. Although, the truth is many of these procedures haven’t been taken seriously at all. There is the famous manual temperature log of fridges and freezers that is quickly done without even getting near the display or the thermometer – another checklist with no validity. Covid-19 changed the sincerity in this means and raised awareness.
Proper documentation is not seen as a necessary evil anymore but as one building brick for a solid foundation of security and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) measures – a potential competitive advantage when securing business. The documentation of data has never been that easy thanks to easily accessible digitalised solutions. Temperature logs, food-waste tracking, hygiene documentation, and staff planning can be more and more automatised and deliver important key performance indicators (KPIs) at the touch of a button at any time.
The foodservice industry struggled too long to accept and implement these systems. Still, its necessity and the apparent benefits push the digitalisation of foodservice procedures at a staggering speed. There is more to come, and yes, implementing these tools will cost money, time and cause friction. In a post-pandemic scenario, these system’s importance cannot be overemphasised, as it guarantees to be fully efficient for whatever challenge the foodservice industry might face in the future.
Food supply to the test
The effects of Covid-19 hit some sectors of the food supply chain like an earthquake. Our global food system and supply chain are designed to produce calories on a high level of efficiency, which led in the last decades to a significant reduction of malnourishment worldwide.
This system is getting more glitch as the complexity of its units grows. Production and processing of food, as well as the distribution, faces system challenges that we haven’t seen in this intensity before: missing workers on farms due to lockdowns and restrictions, Covid-19 outbreaks in meat industry plants and necessary shutdowns, lastly restrictions when it comes to the flow of food, especially with foreign markets. This system shock of the supply system taught us a lesson: we have to rethink what worked well in the past and what we have trusted in for so long.
Referring to a paper from Deloitte, there are three main topics that we can extract as a takeout for the foodservice industry:
The demand for more transparent and visible processes by customers sped up the challenge to prove sustainable practices. Multi-national corporations forced by the need to reform the supply chain will mostly drive this. The foodservice industry can benefit from this, empowering its customers to track and understand the food’s origin.
- Consumer habits
Covid-19 has forced people to change and adapt, resulting in maintaining habits ‘learned’ in the pandemic. Ordering food via e-commerce, cooking at home, and mostly pushing towards online restaurant ordering is here to stay. Even small restaurants can benefit from this new sales channel, pushing takeout, meal kits, and pre-ordering.
- A new flexibility
Navigating successfully through the pandemic and failing lies close together. Increased flexibility enables businesses to adapt quickly to the challenges ahead of them. Flexibility goes along with preparing efficient procedures, trained and qualified staff, and worst-case plans for disruptive events like Covid-19.
A ‘new we’
People tend to think that in a crisis, we become selfish individuals. However, the opposite is the case: Like no other crisis, Covid-19 shows that people stand together when it really matters. Despite business closures and inevitable terminations, the foodservice industry accounted for a significant share of the positive pictures that we saw in keeping the spirit up and helping out the ones in rough waters.
Free lunch and dinner for people working in the system relevant jobs; willingness to help others out when it comes to ensuring childcare while teaming up with colleagues, friends, and family. Additional benefit payments for employees, and so forth. Examples of support and cooperation are plenty.
We see teams bonding like never before while cooperating with the employers to ensure that the business not only survives but come out of the crisis even stronger. Many of the measures taken to ensure foodservice businesses stay open are directly attributed to employee engagement, creativity, and cooperation – the ‘new we’. It’s comforting to see that a crisis brings out the best in people.
The ‘new we’ is something we need to carry beyond the pandemic. It reminded and taught us about the importance of community and values. It defines us as colleagues, managers, and whatever the future will hold for us.
A redefined workforce
One of the most important topics during the pandemic was and is labour. It was for a change not about finding people, but – when they have been lucky – about how to keep them in work, or sometimes as well, how to get rid of them. This sounds harsh, and it would be too easy to blame the industry alone for this. Let’s put it straightforward: for many employees in the foodservice industry, Covid-19, with its lockdowns and restrictions, is a nightmare that seems to go on, creating fears and an unpredictable future.
However, long before the lockdowns, it was a tacit acknowledgment that the foodservice industry’s labour situation needs a change because labour was simply not available. 65-70% of hospitality businesses were suffering from staff shortages. Estimates show that by 2025 the U.S foodservice will need 200,000 chefs and cooks. As a result of the pandemic, there is now a surplus of possible candidates to fill vacant positions. To bet on the fact that closing foodservice operations and other businesses will flush cheap labour on the job market is a misconception – and dangerous.
First, labour is not like labour. The pre-pandemic issue was the shortage of skilled labour; this issue persists. Qualified and trained staff is and will be hard to get. And yes, there is short-term more talent in the job market, but short-term thinking didn’t work for the industry in the past, and it won’t for the future either. Secondly, the shortage of skilled labour is only one side of the medal; the other side is retaining talent.
Over the last years, we have seen tremendous progress in staff training and retraining programs for talents. However, this is a field where more efforts will directly influence the bottom line.
Experiences from lockdowns and restrictions, particularly the labour market’s pre-pandemic situation, concur and redefine how we organise workers in the foodservice industry. Or better: how it organises itself for the future.
The key will be to establish an environment for growth with a positive and lively company culture that fosters purpose and development for the team. Have in mind that Gen Y – the digital natives – are taking over the labor market with Gen Z in sight, promising even more change. Say goodbye to a job-for-a-lifetime workforce and hello to a hyper-individualised new generation!
The war for talent focuses on a new employee claiming meaning and individualization on its flag and healthier work attitudes on the agenda. Speaking about healthier in the broader sense: this means save working environments in a crisis like the pandemic, healthy in terms of work-life balance, and healthy when it comes to building resilience for upcoming challenges. Yes, that’s a lot of work, but strengthening your business for a post-pandemic future starts right here, and it is likely to lead to success if you do it with a great, supportive and aligned team in your back.
Finally, the pandemic was an unthinkable threat some months ago; its full impact did not hit us yet. However, we’re still in a state of shock and disbelief that this is actually happening. More so, this is not an attempt to trivialise what happens to the foodservice industry. Hence, if we cannot influence the restrictions and the return of the virus in waves, we can reposition ourselves and focus on the future. Despite Covid-19 and other challenges, the foodservice industry’s backbone is team spirit, motivation, and a pure will to succeed for our customers.
It is, in truth, an industry to be proud of, and it’s evident from everyone’s willingness to adjust to the new situation that “the only way out is through”. And that means forward.
 Deloitte (2020), A shock to the food system, p. 4
 Deloitte (2020), A shock to the food system, p. 9 ff
 QSRweb (2020), COVID-19 will forever change the foodservice industry
 Rutger Bregmann (2019), Humankind. A new history of human nature
 FCSI (2020), Foodservice Consultant, p.73
 The New York Times (2018), Not enough cooks in the restaurant kitchen
 McKinsey (2018), Attracting and retaining the right talent
 Technomic (2020), COVID-19 Update 6-23: Reopening regulations lead to new formats and menu innovations