Covid-19 has paralysed city centres around the world – closing or radically altering small SMEs and chains alike – and whether you’re an individual that is just looking to get your hands on a delicious dinner or a nationwide restaurant chain trying to adapt to ever-changing regulations, everybody has had to rethink how they do what they do.
Strategy and Innovation Director at KFC UK & Ireland
The high street has undoubtedly had a tough time, but it is not all doom and gloom. There are green shoots of recovery from which I think we can all learn specific lessons and draw hope more broadly.
Underpinning these green shoots is the level of innovation that has been sparked by the situation. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but it has been remarkable to see businesses of all sizes pivot, lean into the situation and do whatever they needed to do in order to survive. New technologies and evolving consumer expectations were already driving a fundamental shift in food, but the pandemic has accelerated these pre-existing trends of where and how we access food. Digital delivery services have exploded, and they have allowed independents and chains alike to not just keep going throughout the various lockdowns but, in places, to thrive. Consumer technology has in part contributed to this transition, with more and more people opting to order via online platforms such as Just Eat, Uber Eats and Deliveroo, eating in the comfort of their homes.
But it’s not just about comfort. It’s about variety too. Growing up my choice was limited to Chinese, Indian or pizza. Now I have the world at my fingertips and can get dumplings, Poki bowls and even Sushi. And this, in part, explains why the UK food service market has recently seen double digit growth and is predicted to be worth £9.8bn by 2021. The sheer variety of what is out there and the level of access is remarkable. And as long as restaurants realise this and appreciate the value that consumers place in great service, variety and good value, there is nothing to say this market won’t continue to grow and continue to drive diversity on our high streets.
However, whilst the convenience of delivery has been a lifeline for people over the past year, I have no doubt that dine in will return to high streets, and I can’t be the only one that’s looking forward to it. Whether for a big celebration or an intimate dinner with a friend, there is no denying that food creates deeply felt connections and has the power to bring people together. It can be one of the few moments of congregation in the week and going out for a meal is a social act, underpinned by the civic and cultural infrastructure of the high street.
It’ll feel different for a while and there will undoubtedly be responsibility measures in place at first, but if you think restaurants aren’t going to be full this summer, you’re kidding yourself. People have missed good service, eating in different settings and even staying out past 10pm! It feels like a long time since we did it, but I am sure that it will become second nature again in a post covid world.
And that’s why the role of restaurants, both chains and independents, in reinvigorating high streets mustn’t be underestimated. Many of the problems that town centres and high streets have faced over the past decade have been driven by declining footfall due to internet shopping. But eating out is one of the few things that it’s pretty much impossible to replicate properly at home. Ultimately, restaurants will play a crucial role in getting people out of their houses and onto high streets. And so then begins a domino effect that will spark life into both local and wider economies, create jobs and breathe life back into places that have been quiet for too long now.
Throughout the pandemic, KFC has been able to keep hiring and has been a source of income for thousands of people across the country. Yes, we’re good at chicken and chips, but our wider role in societies and communities is huge and the same goes for the independents and smaller restaurants too. Be it through job creation, as a place to come together with friends or as the focal point in a village, restaurants have a bright and important future on high streets in a post covid world. At KFC our heritage is built on Southern hospitality, communal dining and sharing. Although it feels like we’re living in an indefinite state of limbo, there will come a day – sometime soon – when we can all sit down at the same table with a delicious bucket of golden chicken once again – and high streets across the country stand to benefit from that.