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COVID-19: The Need to Re-define the QSR Experience

COVID-19: The Need to Re-define the Restaurant Experience

A way to plot a recipe for success in the quick-serve dining model.

Many quick service restaurants (QSRs) had evolved key aspects of the customer experience before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Kiosks replaced cashiers and drive-thru displays went digital at some restaurants to offer customers more personalized and efficient experiences. Many franchisees also improved their delivery offering and mobile ordering experience to serve customers where it was convenient for them.

But health and safety concerns as a result of the pandemic has forced a major rethink of even these digital innovations, in addition to how these restaurants will adapt to the new normal in the months and years ahead.

Like most industries, QSRs need to change their business model and operations now if they are to be successful in the post-pandemic world. Here are four key areas for businesses to consider to survive the crisis and possibly thrive in the new normal:

  • Priority #1: Focus on customer and crew safety. QSRs need to instill trust and confidence with their customers and crew that they operate a safe environment with quality food
  • Implement touchless commerce capabilities: Optimize digital channels and adopt touchless fulfillment
  • Optimize everything: Shift to minimum mandatory tasks at the onset of recovery while rethinking the role of staff and the storefront
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: Amplify your message of the positive changes you’ve implemented to support your customers and crew

Focus on customer and store crew safety

Make safety of customers and crew the top priority when positioning your business for success during and after the crisis is over. Many customers will use drive-thrus as a way to minimize human interaction, but for restaurants without drive-thrus, businesses should keep in mind that when customers do come back it likely won’t be business as usual.

Only 30 percent of U.S. consumers said that they’ll go to restaurants like they did pre-COVID-19. Packaged utensils and sealable bags, for example, will be necessary to ensure safety and convey that nobody has touched the food on its way to the customer.


Dan Peltier

keys to success

Keys to Success

Customers’ economic fears will compound safety concerns. Many people will be unemployed as a result of the pandemic and more price sensitive. They’ll be seeking more affordable or “dollar menu” options to make it worth venturing to a restaurant during uncertain times.

Owners should also recognize that their crews are now considered essential employees. They are under new-found stress, concerned about themselves and their families’ health. Having a reduced menu is one way to help simplify crew operations in the near-term to focus on tackling other challenges like sanitation, delivery and profit margins.

Build trust by communicating your changes loud and proud

As the crisis starts to wane in some parts of the world, many franchisees are asking themselves whether there will actually be a recovery, and what changes they’ll have to implement to earn customers’ trust.

Restaurants need to be fearless in ensuring customers of their cleanliness and how they’re protecting them in the face of COVID-19, said Scott Gorny, executive client partner. “If I were to go into some quick service restaurants like Subway or Jimmy John’s a few months ago I could see them making the food right in front of me,” he said. “But for other restaurants, there’s a bit of mystery there in that you order at the front counter and there’s stuff happening in the back that you can’t see.”

“Owners need to leverage what they have to execute and operate differently going forward. Think about redeploying some crew to delivery which will be much cheaper than using a third-party, and you also have more control of the overall customer experience
Scott Gorny, Executive Client Partner

“It’s also being transparent about the supply chain,” said Gorny. “Where is the food coming from, how is the food getting to me and how is it being handled? Restaurants need to be more open about the changes they’ve made and get that message out there.”

Implement touchless payments

Walking through the front door, many customers will likely be worried about how many surfaces they’ll need to touch to get their food, such as for payment. For restaurants with kiosks, owners must figure out how to manage staff operations to ensure cleanliness of kiosk touch screens and that there’s minimal risk of a customer contracting COVID-19 from these surfaces. Other restaurants with order counters will need to consider how to practice social distancing between customers and staff.

Contactless or touchless commerce like the ability to use mobile wallets like Apple Pay or Google Pay will be highly valued, along with delivery and digital channels like the restaurant’s mobile app.

Gorny said that about a third of customers at quick service restaurants still pay in cash but that behavior will change. “Restaurants basically have a captive audience right now and these behaviors are changing. Many people have basically been forced to start using digital channels. You can capitalize on that and bring it into your day-to day-operations.”

How to streamline operations

It’s also more critical to have a direct-to-consumer business at a time when third-party apps like Uber Eats or Grubhub eat up anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the total ticket cost and cause margins to take a hit. This should be a priority for owners whose business wasn’t primarily delivery before, but will be going forward.

U.S. QSRs can also expect about 50 million mobile orders through restaurant or third-party apps by 2021, and mobile ordering is projected to drive more than 10 percent of sales for the sector this year.

“Owners need to leverage what they have to execute and operate differently going forward,” said Gorny. “Think about redeploying some crew to delivery which will be much cheaper than using a third-party, and you also have more control of the overall customer experience from the restaurant to someone’s front door and can more easily engage with the customer.”

Social distancing guidelines have made seating areas off limits and many customers will likely remain hesitant to dine-in once guidelines are relaxed. Restaurants are finding themselves with ample unused space and in need of ways to make it productive.

“The idea of ghost kitchens has been out there for quite some time,” said Gorny. “Within this storefront that now has no seating, I could operate a burger, Mexican and pizza restaurants, for instance, with my only channel being delivery. Ghost kitchen entrants pose a threat to the traditional QSR and will have a competitive advantage. As an owner, that would concern me because they will be eating into my business.”

Quick service’s new normal

Safety will be customers’ main concern in a post-COVID-19 world and they’ll want proof that they’ll be safe when ordering food. Restaurants need to be clear and compelling on what they’ve changed or improved to ensure customers won’t be exposed to the virus.

Restaurants can also address customers’ anxieties by building out their digital channels and owning the entire customer experience from food preparation to delivery. For some restaurants this means radically reimaging their businesses to be primarily delivery or take away and being able to redeploy resources to respond to new trends or local guidelines.

Publicis Sapient has helped QSRs digitally transform their businesses so that they are better positioned for times of crisis and rapidly changing consumer behavior. Scientists and health experts have indicated COVID-19 will likely become a recurring reality that society will have to learn to live with, and businesses that quickly adapt to customers’ digital needs and behaviors will gain their loyalty and trust.

Being transparent and trustworthy will convince customers that QSRs are worthy of their business when there is so much uncertainty around household income and the economy.

Scott Gorny
Scott Gorny
Executive Client Partner

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