Restaurants are facing unprecedented challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic, but new technologies and the resilient spirit that’s always been at the industry’s core will help it bounce back, The National Restaurant Association’s Tom Bené said during a virtual conference session last week.
Speaking at Menus of Change, an annual leadership summit hosted by The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Bené outlined the efforts the association is making to support its members during this trying time, and discussed what the future may hold for the foodservice industry.
Bené, who only just assumed the role of president and CEO of The National Restaurant Association in June, said the pandemic’s impact on the industry by year’s end could be as much as $240 billion.
An estimated 8 million foodservice industry employees have been laid off or furloughed since the beginning of the pandemic, and The National Restaurant Association responded quickly with its Restaurant Employee Relief Fund. Bené said the program raised more than $25 million, which has been distributed in more than 43,000 grants for restaurant workers.
Grant programs like RERF have been overwhelmed with applications for months, and the industry is urging lawmakers to provide support on a much larger scale. The association’s Restaurant Industry Blueprint for Recovery includes a call to enact the Restaurant and Foodservice Industry Recovery Fund, which would allocate $240 billion to helping restaurants that have experienced a reduction in sales revenue of 25% or more. The blueprint, which the association sent to House and Senate leaders in a letter in April, also calls for additional grant programs and improvements to the existing Paycheck Protection Program.
“We’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us but I continue to be optimistic about the future,” Bené said. “What we’ve got to work through right now is some of the challenges that exist with the closings and reopenings that have been occurring.”
Steep sales declines and uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last have created a tumultuous environment for restaurants across the board, but some eateries are better equipped than others to deal with the unique challenges posed by the pandemic.
“I’d say the biggest differentiator we see in the industry right now is…format type,” said Bené, who noted that restaurants that already had a robust takeout, delivery or drive-thru business are faring better than those that are scrambling to figure out off-premises sales for the first time.
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This emphasis on off-premises dining will likely continue post-pandemic, and may lead to permanent changes for existing restaurant brands as well as the creation of new ones.
“We’re seeing brands have opportunities to get to market faster because of things like ghost kitchens. We’re going to find that we all have access to more variety over time because of delivery and takeout,” Bené said.
“I think the formats and the models may change, but I have no doubt this industry will come back very strong and will continue to be an important part of the economy and the way we live our lives going forward.”
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