Will COVID-19 spell the end of the chain restaurant?

For a few years now, there has been an inkling of resurgence for boutique, independent dining options delivering fantastic service, delicious innovative menus, and individual style, but through it all, the might of the chain restaurant juggernaut continued to thrive.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Lockdown brought with it a new ‘normal’ which, much like in the natural world where animals and nature took back control, gave a rebirth to the long lost ‘local’ value of small, independent restaurants. More and more people were supporting their local businesses, embracing takeaways from restaurants, and yearning for the chance to visit the often-neglected local pub.

This ‘reawakening’ brought with it a sense of hope for many small businesses, hoteliers and restaurateurs who for years have honed their craft to a small but loyal audience while drones of us gleefully filled the pockets of corporate executives and private equity firms behind international chains which had become a welcome and common sight on our high streets and out-of-town retail parks. For 8 weeks during lockdown, these small businesses had, for the first time in decades, a chance to stake their claim as a viable, popular option for the consumer and in a limited market, we listened, and we came.

But as lockdown restrictions eased, the high street reopened, and the commercial giants re-emerged from their forced slumber. We began to fear the worst for our newly-revigorated independents. But is that fear justified? Will the consumer market forget its new-found admiration and, like the ‘Clap for Carers’ campaign which united the country before disappearing into the dusty pages of history books, return to their old life of convenience?

On the face of it a realist would say yes. Convenience is king in our society of immediacy and the plucky independents just cannot compete with the might of the commercial savvy, well-funded chain. But yet, there is hope.

“Convenience is king in our society of immediacy and the plucky independents just cannot compete with the might of the commercial savvy, well-funded chain. But yet, there is hope”

With the uncertain future that lies ahead, our ‘new normal’ may just have to become exactly that and therein lies a chance for the independents to continue their reawakening and stake a claim in a fluctuated market of excess. The signs are emerging already that many of us simply will not want to go through the ‘hassle’ that chain restaurants now require. Queuing, reduced menus, reduced service and quality interaction with staff and, worst of all, the increasing emergence of the god-awful mobile app ordering requirement… no doubt another step towards the staff-free restaurant chains of the future investors would love to own a piece of.

Nothing rubs salt into the wounds more than finding yourself in a chain restaurant, staring blankly at the basic menu offering only to discover that you cannot talk to one of the 5 members of staff on duty who are basking in their new found role of standing still, but instead must download an app, sign your details over (GDPR seems a distant memory all of a sudden) and order painfully slowly through the device, only for a server to then approach you to notify you that their particular branch of the chain does in fact not have the ‘house salad’ or ‘garlic bread’ in stock.  At which point they offer an alternative and you are left deflated with a secondary choice, wondering why you spent 20 minutes flicking through your phone when the server would have to intervene personally anyway.

But that is where the Independents have their chance now. They alone are offering personable, attentive service from employees genuinely grateful to see you in a warm, inviting space that hasn’t been orchestrated to appease corporate panics of lawsuits but instead focuses on you, the customer, and your needs. They offer you actual full menus with interesting, locally sourced produce and best of all they take your order directly so you know exactly what you can have and you can even ask for recommendations.

These small, agile and dedicated businesses are out there still, working tirelessly to provide responsive service with passion and pride, and – at a time where it has become increasingly inconvenient to chose convenience – they are ready to deliver something which is truly special – a proper dining ‘experience’.

The world may change and in 2020 there is no denying it has, but, like with the increased awareness of climate change during this time, there is hope now that small hospitality businesses which make our industry great may finally have their well-earned moment in the sun.

Will COVID-19 spell the end of the chain restaurant? Probably not. But will it give rise to more innovative, passionate restauranteurs delivering unique experiences that leave us with a genuine satisfaction? Yes. And for that, we should all be truly grateful.