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What is the future of restaurants in this COVID-19 era? Here’s what the industry experts think

In “The Future of Food: What’s Our Game Plan?” panel discussion on Metro Channel, DOT Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat, Chef Margarita Forés, Foodee’s Eric Dee, among other panelists share both grim realities and hopeful solutions

How has the restaurant industry been affected since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Philippine shores? With the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine or ECQ, restaurants have had to operate exclusively for takeout and delivery, with many challenges faced along the way. To grapple with these issues and look at the road ahead, chef and bestselling author Angelo Comsti gathered industry practitioners and experts for an online panel discussion titled “The Future of Food: What’s Our Game Plan?” that aired on Metro Channel this Sunday, May 3. 

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Guest panelists were led by Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat of the Department of Tourism (DOT), Eric Dee, CEO of Foodee Global Concepts (Hawker Chan, Tim Ho Wan, Mesa, among many brands), Dom Hernandez, Chairman of Franchise Asia Philippines, Assistant Dean Bel Castro of the College of Hospitality Management at Enderun Colleges, chef-restaurateur Margarita Forés of Cibo, Grace Park, and Cibo di M Signature Caterer, as well as Cecile Poignant, a trend analyst and social perspectivist based in France.

The discussion centered around the challenges and possible solutions for restaurateurs to survive and even thrive beyond the lockdown, with the following key takeaways:

Tourism’s downturn

The tourism industry, which contributes 12.7% of gross domestic product and employs 13% of the total workforce, was drastically hit by the pandemic, according to Secretary Puyat. She shared that tourist arrivals went down by 70% this March, and at zero this April since no tourists could come in. Hotels are now being used to house essential workers, OFWs, BPO and bank employees, and healthcare workers.

Going forward, Secretary Puyat sees how the tourism industry has to adjust to make sure that tourists feel safe when they travel. “All the travel decisions now will be based on perceptions and concerns over personal safety, standards and hygiene,” she asserts. As a result, the DOT has already incorporated social distancing and other measures in its accreditation of hotels. Secretary Puyat also foresees an increase in domestic tourism, especially by land, but cautions about the dangers of overcrowding of tourist destinations.

The pivot to takeout and delivery

Regarding the restaurant industry, Eric Dee describes, “It’s a paradigm shift now from 90% 10% delivery; it’s now 90% delivery, and maybe luckily 10% dine in.” Dee’s Foodee restaurant group has had to close 200 stores, with only a handful currently open. He explains the drastic change, “We’re having to sanitize the food. We’re having to identify all the touch points. And it’s a total reinvention of what we’ve been doing because we’re used to entertaining.” He adds, “It’s now a story about menu optimization and delivery optimization because for at least 18 months to two years, we’re going to have to do this right.”

The change has been just as disruptive for Margarita Forés and her food brands. She has adjusted her menu and packaging for takeout and delivery, with just five Cibo branches now open, registering “super miniscule sales.”

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Survival mode

For fast food brands, Dom Hernandez observes, “We depend on volume, the transaction count, and definitely we don’t have that volume now, and our margins are very, very thin.” And if takeout and delivery is to be the new paradigm, it makes less sense for fast food chains to have so many branches scattered around the city. 

Hernandez urges franchisors to be there to support their franchisees now more than ever, rather than be fixated about the lack of profits. He explains, “We can let go of profits at this moment and just protect our cash flows, allocate the resources properly. And if you’re a franchisee and you see your franchisor prioritizing this at the moment, it means that you are in a good place, you are with a good brand.” 

For Forés, the biggest priority is her staff, many of whom cannot come to work due to the strict enforcement of ECQ. She shares, “What I’ve come to realize with the whole lockdown situation is that, in the end, we’re in business, not primarily just for the bottom line. Essentially, it made me realize… that this whole effort that we’re doing to keep businesses alive is really mostly for our staff.” 

Back to the community

With the slowdown in tourism, Cecile Poignant sees restaurants pivoting to the local. “I think globally for the future we will be more and more depending on neighborhood and local community. And this is very important because we see that the restaurants that are working well are the ones that are really trying to do something also for the neighborhood.”

The game plan for a new normal

There’s no better time than now to begin planning for the eventual return of dine-in service, and the potentially restrictive policies that have to be put in place. Bel Castro advises, “We’re going to go to opening slowly. So what can restaurants and hotels do now? I think communicate, communicate, communicate.” She adds, “This is a good time now to practice and to stress test your systems for this new normal. And instead of waiting for the new normal, flip it on its head. We have to define every day what will be our new norms.” On the service end, these would include optimal spacing of tables, use of gloves, handwashing, handling of cutlery, among many new protocols needed. 

“We should be looking at creating a customer safety-centric environment,” Castro shares. And it makes sense for the industry to come together to do just that, as Angelo Comsti states, “I think the role of the chefs and the restaurateurs will be pivotal when this is over, because they will be the ones to set the new normal when it comes to dining out.” 

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Working together

So are restaurants dead? Cecile Poignant believes otherwise, stating that, these days, “The only money we want to spend is on food.” Castro also rejects the idea, “I don’t believe it. I think the restaurant will come back, people will still dine.” Dee can’t wait for that time again, sharing, “We are craving for that service, that attention to detail, being with friends. It will take time and I hope we all work together to make it safe for everyone.” Ultimately, Forés remains optimistic, with a shout out to the industry she calls “resilient” to unite in order to face the challenge ahead. She declares, “I really hope we can continue to hold hands and see ourselves through this.”

Watch the full video: