Since COVID-19 operating restrictions began for North Carolina businesses in March, I have had dozens of discussions with restaurant owners, chefs, distributors and farmers. From these conversations and other observations, I have seen and heard a lot about COVID-19’s impact on the current and future states of restaurants in North Carolina and what is the new abnormal…for now.

The days of winding a path through a crowded restaurant dining room seem to be over for a while. Even as North Carolina makes it to and through Phase Three of recovery, we will continue to see dining rooms seated at half capacity. Limited seating is one way that will change the restaurant experience for us since COVID-19 came our way.

Restaurant space is as expensive as ever, and operators have always needed to make the most of every square foot they have available to them. Unfortunately, social distancing does not dance to that same tune. Establishments that have access to outside seating will need to utilize it and promote al fresco dining. It will be important for restaurants to increase seating options while running at 50-percent capacity indoors.

Reduced staffing and limited seating from COVID-19 will also impact how the public orders from menus. Many restaurants will offer disposable menus. Some will also implement a more automated system for ordering that will allow customers to view menus from their phones and order by scanning QR codes. We will continue to see advances in technology that promote contactless transactions. Menus will likely become smaller to facilitate fewer kitchen employees and maximize inventory.

Restaurant patrons will now be greeted by a staff that looks more like health care workers than hospitality folks. Results of studies, surveys and polls conducted in the state and across the country show consumers want to see protective measures in place where they dine. Tabletops will look different, as bottles and salt and pepper shakers will be replaced with packets. Some restaurants have even installed clear plastic pods that dinners can sit in for more protection. Any physical contact that can be eliminated will be, and as for buffets…well, they might be a thing of the past.

Diners should also expect to see an even larger movement advocating locally sourced ingredients on menus. In recent months we have seen large gaps in the efficiency of our food supply chain. More community and local facilities have been needed to fill these supply gaps and to work around production bottlenecks at processing facilities. In addition, “support local” is also important to keep the flow of resources and dollars in our communities. I highly recommend to local producers to visit area restaurants with samples and detailed information about what is being grown, where they sell, delivery schedule and how they can help. Producers would do well to sign the chefs and restaurants up for an email that will keep them informed and stay in front of these potential buyers.

Restaurants have adapted by setting up mini grocery stores where the dining room used to be. As those dining rooms begin to reopen at 50-percent capacity and the need for customer space increases, the grocery store concept has begun to dwindle for some. However, there are establishments that have the room to continue the value-added grocery concept. This along with other innovations like restaurant-organized CSA boxes are great ways to supplement lost income and provide extra services for customers. These types of new revenue streams are great opportunities for local farmers and producers to partner with restaurants.

Some operators are trying new ideas like curbside pop-ups at their restaurants, by reservation only, as well as virtual dining experiences. Restaurants are also selling meal kits and providing cooking demonstration videos so patrons can cook along with their favorite chefs. Whatever the idea, restauranteurs will continue to innovate and balance the joys of dining out with the new realities of COVID-19.

To support your favorite establishments, please follow their posted instructions. Observing their guidelines will help keep them open and operating. We must get used to the changes in many experiences that we took for granted. In travel, dining, entertainment, work, family time – our “normal” routines are changing. Restaurants and Foodservice businesses are working tirelessly to figure out how to make these changes not so “abnormal” after all.  Make sure to visit and support your local Got To Be NC restaurants!

Chad Blackwelder – Foodservice Marketing Specialist, NCDA