COVID-19 Quick Service Restaurant Trends

With many quick service restaurants (QSRs) experiencing unprecedented demand while other restaurants close down from lack of business, there's no question the COVID-19 pandemic has had a major influence on the way the fast-casual restaurant industry operates. Although the QSR COVID-19 impact may vary, certain COVID-19 restaurant trends have helped QSRs cope during these unprecedented times.

This article analyzes the new normal for QSRs during the COVID-19 outbreak by looking at the top fast-casual restaurant industry trends of 2020 and 2021, and which of these trends are likely to stick around. Learn more about how QSR restaurants are handling COVID-19 and how they can continue to remain profitable after the pandemic.

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Trend Changes Due to COVID-19

There are several ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the restaurant industry along with new innovative QSR solutions to combat coronavirus-related challenges. Some of these solutions are likely to stick around as popular QSR trends for 2021. 

1. Lifestyle Changes

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the population to alter their lifestyles and changed their daily activities. The workplace setup and reconfigurations caused many restaurant employees and customers to change their usual quick service restaurant routines. Some of these changes will likely fade as things begin to transition back to normal, while some may be here to stay.

After many people began sheltering in place and working remotely, restaurants lost many regular customers. Without the normal morning commute, some customers no longer needed to drop in for their usual coffee or meal order. Similarly, restaurants missed out on the post-work rush of people grabbing a bite to eat on-the-go before heading home.

However, many customers did not give up their favorite QSR completely as fast food drive-through pickups were not as restricted as indoor dining. Instead, the time of their daily stop was shifted as they adjusted to balancing a new schedule and different daily routine. Many quick service establishments, like coffee shops, began to see more mid-morning and afternoon business as opposed to their typical early morning long lines. QSRs have the added advantage of offering drive-thrus, which made them an appealing option for socially-distanced meal pickup.

2. Purchase Habit Changes

The biggest change to consumer purchase habits impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic was the switch to ordering takeout. With most QSRs forced to offer little to no dine-in seating options, customers took to various off-premises purchasing, like curbside pickup. Drive-thru and delivery orders soared while curbside pickup became a popular way to receive food with minimal interaction between staff and customers.

With the help of off-premises purchasing, QSRs have been able to reduce their losses throughout the pandemic. QSRs with drive-thrus generally suffered far less revenue loss during the pandemic than those without. Additionally, business held steady for big chains with drive-throughs. Many smaller restaurants and coffee shops were able to create makeshift or temporary drive-throughs, curbside pickup areas, or walk-up stands to serve more customers without bringing more people inside of the buildings.

The increased demand for drive-thru services meant QSRs needed to be equipped for long lines of cars and potentially impatient customers. The right shade structure can create a welcoming atmosphere and provide ample weather protection to enhance the customer experience. In addition, sending workers out on foot to gather more customers' orders in advance can help streamline and speed up the drive-thru process.

Another area that requires swift action is takeout services. Quick pick-up services ensure a positive customer experience and a steady stream of revenue from repeat orders. Many QSRs used the opportunities presented by online ordering and curbside pickup to reach new customers and encourage repeat business.

Ultimately, these off-premises QSR coronavirus solutions can be a great investment. Many QSRs were forced to adapt quickly to overcome challenges such as creating a curbside pickup service, organizing their own in-house systems, or engaging with third-party vendors. The convenience of a drive-thru or delivery won't go away after the coronavirus, which means off-premises purchasing is likely to remain an ongoing trend.

3. Restaurant Performance Changes

The purchase habit changes of consumers during the pandemic have directly impacted the way restaurants operate. QSRs in particular have shifted their focus to takeout and delivery efforts, striving to make the fast-food scene even faster and convenient. As many restaurants rush to accommodate the increased demand for contactless convenience, one factor is shaping up to play the biggest role in determining QSR performance — location.

With larger cities and more urban areas experiencing more intense COVID-19 shutdowns and stricter guidelines, restaurants are racing to buy up suburban properties. While urban city centers may lag in their indoor dining recovery, suburban restaurants will likely start serving customers inside sooner.

A suburban location also grants a QSR more space to build a drive-thru and ample room for curbside pickup spots. As QSRs continue catering to contactless guests, restaurant prototypes will be designed with smaller dining rooms, tech-savvy drive-thrus, more curbside pickup areas with shade structures, and built-in pickup windows for mobile orders. The QSRs of the future look smaller, more tech-friendly, and even more convenient for picking up food on-the-go.

4. Health and Safety Changes

From wearing face coverings to wiping down tables more frequently, the COVID-19 pandemic made restaurants rethink their health and safety measures. To comply with the COVID-19 safety guidelines for restaurants set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), QSRs instituted strict protocols, such as checking customers' temperatures upon arrival and maintaining social distancing.

Many of the QSR solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic will most likely remain in place for years to come. Several of the sanitary practices the pandemic forced restaurants to adopt are positive changes that will further protect their customers' and employees' health in the future. A few measures were upgrades to former operations, such as contactless payment methods and QR code menus, which may stick around.

For some new restaurant COVID-19 trends, it is less clear how they will fare. While the coronavirus outbreak made some restaurant features like buffets, self-serve prepared-food counters, and drink stations a greater health risk, these styles of services may or may not return to normal restaurant operations. If buffets do begin to reopen, customers may still feel hesitation to dine in this fashion and the question of how safe guests feel will determine how these kinds of services will be impacted long-term.

5. Outdoor Dining Changes

Due to COVID-19 and indoor dining capacity restrictions, outdoor seating has become a go-to option for many guests. Although ordering delivery or carry-out poses the lowest coronavirus exposure risk, dining outdoors is far less risky than eating inside a crowded restaurant. Because the coronavirus is mainly spread through airborne respiratory droplets from an infected person, sitting outside where there is better airflow and more space to practice social distancing is safer than seating customers close together indoors.

Restaurants have made their outdoor dining areas more appealing and comfortable for guests by providing shade solutions. A high-quality shade sail structures are both visually appealing and practical. Colorful canopies or vibrant umbrellas can complement the landscape architecture, branding, and enhance the customer experience while serving the purpose of shielding guests from the harmful UV rays and reducing heat.

While dining al fresco was already a popular option for many restaurants during warm summer months, COVID-19 turned eating outdoors in the winter into one of the most unlikely quick service restaurant industry trends. QSRs in colder climates have adapted to winter outdoor dining by offering other amenities along with shade solutions to help customers brave the elements more comfortably. For instance, providing space heaters and electric fireplaces can keep guests warm while they enjoy their meal.

Of course, outdoor dining will stick around long after COVID-19 is eradicated. Naturally, customers gravitate towards relaxing and socializing on a restaurant's patio a summer day. However, the concept of having a meal outside mid-winter will likely fall from popularity when it's no longer in the name of health and safety.

6. Consumer Communication Changes

With many people feeling more isolated and disconnected from each other than ever, staying in touch through different ways of communication is essential for QSRs during this time. Restaurants need to convey to consumers that they are taking every precaution to ensure their establishment is a safe place to order food if they want customers to trust them. Many customers want to know exactly how a restaurant is protecting their health and how their food is prepared.

In addition to emphasizing safety, restaurants need to make sure consumers are aware of the services they offer. Most consumers want contactless options right now and are willing to try new restaurants that meet this demand. Advertising their drive-thru, curbside pickup, carry-out, and delivery options as often as possible will help QSRs land more customers and generate more revenue.

Now is the perfect time for QSRs to revamp their brands and up their marketing efforts. Changing the tone of messaging and marketing to concentrate on transparency, cleanliness, community and local markets can help a restaurant appeal to more customers. With time spent online and in apps increasing during the pandemic, making the most of digital channels to communicate with customers will pay off heavily for QSRs.

Here are five of the best ways QSRs can reach consumers during the pandemic:

  1. Social media: Nowadays, having an active social media account is key for a QSR's success. Posting engaging content can build a loyal following as well as keep people informed on the restaurant's latest menu items, services, savings, and safety practices.
  2. TV commercials: With so many people staying home and watching TV with their families, commercials can be an extremely effective way of communicating with consumers right now. A bit of airtime to advertise a new curbside pickup service or delivery deal can score a QSR more sales.
  3. Online ads: The internet is a great way for QSRs to reach a wider audience because nearly everyone spends at least some amount of time online each day. And with the ability to post text, still photos, or video content as well as target certain demographics, advertising online is one of the best methods for gaining customers. Social media is also a great place for a QSR to roll out its digital ad campaign.
  4. Emails: When it comes to targeted customer communications, emails are critical. Once someone signs up to receive alerts, promos, or newsletters in their inbox, the restaurant can send deals curated specifically for them based on their past purchases and dining preferences. Personalized emails are a great way to form a strong customer relationship and inspire brand loyalty.
  5. Apps: With their own apps, QSRs can make ordering delivery or takeout from them as easy as the tap of a button. Fast-casual restaurants can use their apps to connect even more with customers by letting them rack up rewards for each visit and earn more points by playing games in the app.

While these five strategies offer a convenient way to connect with customers from a distance, they fit right in with the Digital Age. The restaurant industry has been on course for more technological interaction with consumers for years — COVID-19 simply compressed the innovation cycle and forced QSRs to join the virtual world more quickly. Even once the pandemic has passed, restaurants will be glad they did.

7. Focus Changes

Because consumers are constantly seeking quicker, more convenient methods of receiving their food from fast-casual restaurants, many QSRs had already been looking into offering more delivery, drive-thru, or takeout options even before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, thanks to COVID-19, contactless curbside pickup surged in popularity over the past year. This sudden interest in a grab-and-go service caused mobile order-ahead to become one of the most prominent restaurant consumer trends during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Customers enjoy being able to mobile order-ahead because it is an extremely efficient channel. The wait time for order-ahead pickup is up to 2.4 times quicker than in-store ordering. Ordering ahead via a mobile app saves customers time mainly by allowing them to pay ahead. A mobile front-end transaction allows for more streamlined curbside pickups or a cashier-less checkout inside the restaurant.

Although many fast-casual restaurants were slowly expanding their app technology, COVID-19 caused many QSRs to kick their app development into high gear. Specifically, QSRs are relying on mobile app technology to help them manage orders and get customers in and out quickly. Because consumers don't want to wait any longer than necessary when picking up their mobile order, speed is of utmost importance.

Along with being the quickest in-house option for QSRs, ordering ahead for pickup from a mobile app or website is also the most cost-effective strategy for them to adopt. Investing in furthering their online and mobile app order for pickup services will help fast-casual restaurants retain more customers, increasing their profitability and overall return on investment (ROI).

Here's how mobile order-ahead pickup can benefit the business of a QSR:

  • Capture more sales from consumers who may have gone to a different restaurant if the line had been too long
  • Create shorter wait times so more customers can be served during the QSR's peak hours
  • Provide up-sell opportunities to a larger number of customers
  • Build customer loyalty by giving each guest a great brand experience

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, consumers had already been demanding more convenient and timely options from fast-casual restaurants. The COVID-19 pandemic simply made restaurants deliver on these demands sooner than expected in ways they may not have anticipated. These solutions have clearly paved the way for a new normal for QSRs after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Maintaining QSR Growth After COVID-19

As the world recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, it is safe to say transformative technologies will continue to develop within the quick service restaurant industry. Because health and safety will remain a top priority among consumers, more technological advancements will become available to meet this demand.

Fast-casual restaurants will need to stay connected with consumers to understand what their customers expect as many transition back to normal dining. The physical spaces of QSRs will be reinvented to better serve customers who want more contactless options and minimal face-to-face interaction. This concept will inspire innovative solutions, such as smart menu boards and different ways to pre-order for pickup.

While the industry continues to evolve rapidly, QSRs need to remain flexible and competitive to stay profitable. COVID-19 taught everyone how quickly life can change — restaurants need to be able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and overcome challenges. Although it can be difficult to prepare for the unknown, QSRs can take steps to ensure they're ready for other quick service restaurant trends that the pandemic has sparked.

Let USA SHADE Help Your Restaurant Keep Up With Industry Trends

If you're ready to invest in the QSR changes and trends for health and safety, check out the QSR shade solutions from USA SHADE. From chic, modern drive-thru shade solutions to commercial outdoor dining canopies, USA SHADE has the perfect shade structure for all your QSR needs. Whether you're looking to make your outdoor seating area more inviting and comfortable for guests or add a new curbside pickup area, USA SHADE can help make your vision a reality.

With 30 years of experience providing functional and visually stunning shade solutions, USA SHADE is the reliable choice for custom permanent shade structures. With each of our high-quality, durable commercial shade structures and cantilever structures, we pledge a lasting partnership and unparalleled expertise for our customers. Our expert team collaborates with you from the initial design phase to installation, so you can be confident you're getting the right shade structure for your QSR.

To learn more about how our shade structures can help your QSR reshape the dining experience, contact USA SHADE today.

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