What will Restaurants Look like in a Post-Pandemic World?

Expert weighs in on the inevitable changes to the restaurant industry.

By Katherine Gianni

Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash.

By mid-March over 97% of U.S. restaurants were impacted by mandated dine-in closures. Even as restrictions begin to lift, restaurants, who face razor-thin profit margins under normal circumstances, are struggling to stay afloat. From fine dining destinations to neighborhood bistros and everything in between, these businesses are in uncharted waters as they grapple with major shifts in sanitation and safety procedures, social distance serving, and strict capacity limits, while trying to remain economically viable. Some will survive, and others will be forced to close their doors for good.

For additional industry insight, we turned to Christopher Muller, a leading academic expert in hospitality and restaurant management and professor of the practice at BU’s School of Hospitality Administration. Like a tasty entree, he dug into our top questions about the future of eating out and what changes and innovations we can expect moving forward.

What long-term impacts could Covid-19 have on the restaurant industry? Who will come out ahead and what types of restaurants are most at-risk?

In response to the 2020 pandemic all segments of the industry are struggling, trying to make do with limited take-out and home delivery. Unfortunately, neither appears to be enough to ensure survival for the majority of restaurants just staying afloat. New regulations about social distancing, on-premise seating capacity and safe work environments will be all but impossible to meet for most traditional restaurants. Those that will be hurt the most are: self-serve buffets; large high volume/high-energy full-service restaurants; banquet halls, and clubs, bars and cocktail lounges.

Those which may benefit, at least until the public feels that the threat of illness is behind us (possibly 18 to 24 months away) will be: the “ghost kitchen” with no dining room and reliant on home delivery; restaurants with drive-through service or contactless take out; and small innovative start-ups which can benefit from the new availability of other failed restaurant’s now empty locations. Sadly, this is “Disruptive Innovation” at its most Darwinian evolutionary crossroads.

Photo by Daniel Nijland on Unsplash.

As social distancing becomes the norm and governments limit the number of people who can pack dining rooms, will it be economically feasible for restaurants to reopen? Do fewer tables equal higher prices?

What will social distancing look like in restaurants?

Do restaurants with outdoor spaces gain an advantage?

Photo by Angelo Pantazis on Unsplash.

Will restaurants increase delivery and curbside service, and rely less on or completely phase out in-restaurant dining?

Will restaurants continue to rely on the big delivery players (i.e. GrubHub) or will more restaurants start taking delivery in house?

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unspalsh.

Do you think there will be a rise in “ghost kitchens”? If so, how will this impact the landscape?

Do you think there will be a migration of chefs, new restaurants, and food innovation to southern and south-western cities, many of which are geographically spread out and can easily accommodate large outdoor seating spaces year-round?

Earlier this year, Governor Baker allowed restaurants and bars to offer wine and beer for takeout and delivery. How significant is this and should this change be permanent? Are there any other local laws or regulations that need to change for the Boston restaurant industry to survive in this new world?

As the nicer weather arrives, and capacity issues continue, expect that there will be a loosening of outside dining regulations. Boston, in particular, has been very slow to allow outside dining, often because sidewalks are so narrow. But this is one area that should be changed in the future. In response to the return of the two-tiered system it is also likely that the “Home Rule” limits on liquor licenses for the entire region will be loosened, with more licenses granted, possibly with limits on transferability, neighborhood locations, operating hours and types of service offered (more beer and wine, less full cocktail).

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Professor Muller on Twitter at @hospitalitydean. For the latest on food, travel, and hospitality news, follow the BU School of Hospitality at @BUHospitality.

Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

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