Social-distancing, coronavirus and COVID-19 are three phrases that have become quickly etched into our language and are guaranteed to be permanently included in the Oxford English dictionary. As many as 213 countries and territories have registered COVID-19 cases, and the entire world is buzzing with uncertainty and questions: How long will the pandemic last? What will people’s lives look like once the pandemic is over? One thing is for certain, COVID-19 is having a severe impact on the global economy with most, if not all industries having to come to terms with and plan for a new normal.

Restaurants are a mega-industry in the United States and have been significantly affected by recent events. Restaurants are tough businesses to operate, even in the best of times but the abrupt lack of consumer demand brought about by COVID-19, the forced shuttering of restaurant dine-in establishments in many states; and a work-from-home workforce that has all but eliminated the lunchtime crowd for traditional restaurants and quick-service restaurants (QSRs). Technomic experts predict that the global restaurant business will lose nearly USD$600 billion in consumer spending in 2020, a loss of 25%-30% of total restaurant sales compared to 2019.

There is no doubt the industry will experience significant declines but the degree of decline will be uneven across eateries and will be dependent upon the timing of lifting restaurant closure restrictions, the status of school and college openings in the fall, the degree of travel return etc. Compounding the uncertain course of the pandemic is the reluctance of most consumers to dine in at crowded restaurants. According to the research firm Datassential, as many as 68% of customers will avoid returning to restaurants at all, and 20% will be nervous when they do. Another survey from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland echoed these findings reporting that 67% would be uncomfortable going into a store and 78% would be uncomfortable eating at a restaurant. While Americans remain uneasy about returning to establishments, if case numbers start declining, some of that reluctance will dissipate.

As restaurants face reduced dine-in demand due to the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses will need to adapt quickly to new consumer purchase behaviors and restrictions in order to survive. Off-premises services, that limit personal interaction will become even more important. Enter, curbside.

Many consumers were at least somewhat familiar with curbside pickup well before COVID-19. Typically, a customer places an order online, pays digitally, then drives to the destination and parks outside, where a runner brings the food or goods to the car. Many eateries today have been retro-fitted over the past several years to accommodate the growth of take-out and curb-side pick-up. Given our new “no-touch / no contact” world, curbside pick-up provides a hassle-free off-premise option for customers and a great way for restaurants to serve their patrons in these difficult times.

Curbside pickup allows the operator better control over the entire process; patrons can stay in their car, reducing exposure to others while simultaneously limiting consumer-staff interaction. Touchpoints with money, credit cards etc. are also reduced. With curb-side, eateries can provide a greater level of customer service, better food quality; it’s convenient, the food is hotter and fresher than delivery and there is no delivery person handling it. It is perceived as safer (and more sanitary) than third-party delivery; a recent survey by Datassential found that “most consumers would still consider getting food from the drive-thru/ curb-side, often viewing their car as an additional protective barrier from other people.”

Pre- COVID-19, curbside and/or delivery capabilities was not a necessity for many operators. But as people heed government recommendations on social distancing, curbside and other minimal-touch pick-up options will increase in popularity. Restaurants and operators that adapt their concepts and invest in methods that minimize and limit personal interaction, such as curbside, have an opportunity to capture the demand there is currently and will be better positioned to weather the current crisis. “While COVID-19 is hastening adoption of curbside pickup services, it’s here to stay for the long haul. And businesses should make the adjustments now to realize a new distribution channel far into the future.” Brian Yarbrough, Senior Retail & Restaurant Research Analyst, Edward Jones.