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Gastronomy in transition

6 May 2021

The impact of COVID-19 and the opportunities for new concepts such as Ghost Kitchens and Augmented Restaurants

COVID-19 turned the cultural, social and economic landscape of the international foodservice industry upside down. For most of the industry, the urgent goal was to survive, with many looking for short-term solutions.

In particular, restaurant closures have put pressure on the mid-market sector worldwide, pointing to a future where there is a greater discrepancy between affordable and upscale dining.

The German Hotel and Restaurant Association (DEHOGA Bundesverband) reckons that the future of many of the 223,000 companies in the hospitality industry with more than 2.4 million employees is acutely threatened and emphasises the great social importance of restaurants and hotels as "public living rooms, places of communication, encounter and quality of life.

The annual "State of the Restaurant Industry Report" of the American National Restaurant Association for 2021 also shows the impact of the pandemic on the US restaurant industry. As of December 2020, 110,000 eating and drinking establishments in the US have closed long-term or forever. Due to the large number of closures, the US restaurant industry missed its total projected revenue target for 2020 by 26%. In addition, OpenTable predicts that one in four restaurants in the US will not reopen when the country comes out of closure. Those that survive will have to find ways to stand out.

Restaurant Area Anuga

The impact of the pandemic

One of the biggest impacts the pandemic will have on the hospitality industry is the way we design and experience restaurants. In a recent US survey, 41% of restaurant owners said they believe the slow return of customers will be the biggest challenge when they reopen (source: James Beard Foundation). With this in mind, the industry needs to reassure wary diners while finding new ways to excite and engage them.

"Restaurants will play a central role in our collective post-pandemic future, and they must ensure that they rebuild trust that it is safe to visit a restaurant," says Mass Design Group.

Therefore, hygiene and social distancing will be embedded in a new restaurant experience. Plexiglas partitions, plastic tablecloths and individually wrapped place settings are just some of the first measures. But these crudely executed precautions run the risk of alienating consumers. On the other hand, the desire to get together with friends or acquaintances again for a meal out or a drink, for example, is great after the pandemic. The challenges and opportunities for the future lie in strategies that make a visit to a restaurant feel both safe and inviting.

New private dining concepts are one way to strike this balance. In Mediamatic's Amsterdam project "Serres Séparées", tables were set up in individual greenhouses that allow diners to distance themselves socially without sacrificing conviviality. Similarly, several venues in Melbourne have introduced igloo dining, hinting at how future restaurant interiors might incorporate the design features of these indoor-outdoor dining models.

The restaurant visit becomes an experience

As restaurateurs plan for the inter-COVID era, the relationship between indoor and outdoor dining is changing. As the pandemic unfolds, urban wellness and space design initiatives could transform restaurants to offer a year-round outdoor experience.

Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, has already set aside some of its public space for bars and cafés, transforming parts of the city into expansive outdoor venues. The Gastro Safe Zone programme - a similar proposal by HUA HUA Architects taking shape in the streets of Brno in the Czech Republic - also imagines how public spaces can be transformed to allow outdoor dining.

The Gastro Safe Zone programme by HUA HUA Architects, Brno, Czech Republic

High-end restaurants are taking a similarly casual approach. Noma in Copenhagen - one of the most renowned restaurants in the world - recently reopened as an outdoor wine and burger bar. In an interview, chef and co-owner René Redzepi explained the decision by citing his intuition that after weeks of being on lockdown, people everywhere would crave the feeling of "opening the doors and being outside with other people".

Combined with the ever-growing urban agriculture in cities around the world, this will create new opportunities to support restaurants with local food sources. For example, there are already restaurants that source their ingredients from rooftop farms, offering patrons a "rooftop-to-table" experience.

In the coming months, eating out will become an escape from the daily grind. With gradual post-pandemic loosenings, consumers' newfound sense of freedom will reignite their desire to eat out, and bars and restaurants will tailor their offerings to cautious but curious customers.

One approach is for restaurants to stand out through their design. According to a report by design agency Roar, escaping reality (escapism) will become increasingly important in restaurant design - creating worlds that offer a slightly surreal or special experience is a must. Echoing these ideas, experience design studio Bompas & Parr also speculates on the notion of the new indulgence as a possible outcome of COVID-19. In this scenario, consumers will seek playful, extravagant gastronomic experiences.

Ghost Kitchens and Virtual Restaurants

The Corona pandemic has accelerated the trend towards so-called Ghost Kitchens and virtual restaurants. While Ghost Kitchens only produce food for delivery without dining or customer areas, virtual restaurants or concepts are brands that do not have their own location in a building. They exist only digitally, as apps or on third-party marketplaces, with food produced by real restaurants for delivery or takeaway.

There are about 1,500 Ghost Kitchens in the US, putting them ahead of the UK market at 750, but behind China at over 7,500 and India at over 3,500. According to Euromonitor International, Ghost Kitchens will reach a $1 trillion global market by 2030.

Number of current Ghost Kitchens by Euromonitor International

Currently, third-party platforms such as Uber Eats, Kitchen United, Cloud Kitchens and Kitopi are leading the way in Ghost Kitchen development. But large restaurant chains are also trying their hand at this. Bloomin' Brands is testing kitchen-only formats for takeout and delivery orders, McDonald's opened a ghost restaurant in London, and Chick-fil-A is experimenting with kitchen-only locations in Nashville and Louisville, Kentucky that prepare individual and catering orders for delivery through DoorDash. In India, India's Rebel Foods is building a delivery-only empire. According to Euromonitor International, the Indian wraps chain with 75 brick-and-mortar shops has been transformed into a virtual restaurant chain with 11 separate online brands (no physical restaurants). It now operates more than 200 ghost kitchens in 18 cities. Asia is also getting in on the act. While the food and beverage industry is recoiling from social distancing, digital innovation in Asia is driving new directions for food businesses - combining the concept of food delivery from ghost kitchens with the convenience of local outlets. A new wave of ghost kitchen delivery platforms reflects what many people love most about Asian markets: the variety of food and products available in one place.

Micro Trend Augmented Restaurants - the Digital Future

One thing is certain, the future of dining is also becoming increasingly digital in the restaurant industry. With social media and the internet changing the way we engage with what we eat, the restaurant industry is turning to augmented reality (AR) to further enhance gastronomic experiences - from interactive menus to virtual interiors. Augmented reality is creating unconventional, interactive dining experiences that bridge the gap between physical and digital environments.

With an eye on entertaining diners and tapping into digital culture, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will accelerate the adoption of such immersive technologies. Current forecasts predict that the global market for reality technologies - which include AR and virtual reality (VR) - could grow to £14.6 billion ($18.8 billion, €16 billion) by 2020 (source: Coresight Research).

One restaurant experimenting with the potential of AR is London's Sketch, which launched an augmented reality app earlier this year that allows diners to change their view of the restaurant with playful 3D avatars and animations by artist David Shrigley. As consumers become more comfortable interacting with food online, creatives are also designing food filters and digital restaurants that exist solely on social media. “Basically, the new trends in digital food reflect the ever-changing way we exist online and how we share what we consume," says Jessica Herrington, an artist and designer. Each dessert exists as a free AR filter. To simulate a real restaurant, items are "sold out" when the filters reach a certain number of views. Herrington is now working to scale the project into a cross-platform, socially connected experience called Sweet.

Sketch App by Hato, London

In the age of media kitchens, AR offers a way for restaurants and food brands to invite customers to experience their worlds digitally through lenses and filters. Indeed, restaurant-goers have embraced delivery services in unprecedented numbers in recent months, and Technavio predicts that the on-demand dining market will grow at a CAGR of 15% to be worth £80bn ($104bn, €88bn) by 2023.

But the ability of technology to extend and enhance the restaurant experience remotely also offers the added benefit of appealing to those who are reluctant to return to public spaces. Food delivery platforms are now creating digital touchpoints for customers to experiment with.

Only time will tell which developments will ultimately prevail in the catering industry. One thing is certain, the analogue and digital worlds will increasingly blend to offer customers the best possible dining experience. Nevertheless, digital solutions will not really replace the personal meeting of people in restaurants, which will come back into focus especially after the pandemic.

Sources for the Article: LSN Global by The Future Laboratory as well as Euromonitor International, partner of Anuga