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COVID-19

Restaurant menus are shrinking, thanks to the pandemic

Erika Beras Jun 15, 2020
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An employee cleans the posted menu of a reopened Virginia restaurant. Menus have downsized as the industry's revenue declined. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Restaurant menus are shrinking, thanks to the pandemic

Erika Beras Jun 15, 2020
Heard on:
An employee cleans the posted menu of a reopened Virginia restaurant. Menus have downsized as the industry's revenue declined. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

The COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders meant to keep the virus under control have hit the restaurant industry harder than almost any other. Many restaurants have scaled back their menus over the past couple of months, and those changes may be here to stay.

What a restaurant offers on its menu is a simple issue of arithmetic, according to Christopher Muller, professor of the practice at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration.

“You can’t have an extensive menu without a lot of employees,” Muller said. “You can’t have a lot of employees without a lot of guests or a lot of seats.”

But there weren’t a lot of guests under stay-at-home orders, so restaurants scaled back what they offered. Red Robin recently announced it was dropping more than 50 menu items for good. Muller said the real losers will be restaurant suppliers.

“For the vast majority of businesses, they have been buying from a handful of distributors,” he said.

Companies like US Foods and Sysco, which are like Amazon for the restaurant industry. Muller said those companies have lost between 75% and 90% of their business this year.

Alex Susskind, a professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University, said scaling back menus will take some pressure off restaurants so they can adapt to new social distance guidelines.

“It just kind of provides an opportunity for the restaurant operators to kind of reset, and it’s hard to do that when you’re in business, day in and day out doing stuff,” Susskind said.

The lockdown showed restaurants what people really want, said Amanda Topper, a food industry analyst with Mintel.

“Items that are really top sellers that are low-cost to produce. So things like burgers and pizzas and pastas,” Topper said.

Lockdown also let restaurants drop items that only do well in a handful of markets, according to John Quelch, dean at the University of Miami’s business school.

“The proliferation of those specialty local items over time will add complexity to supply chains,” he said.

The National Restaurant Association said eateries have lost $120 billion in sales in the last three months.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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