Independent restaurants

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Note from the editor

For independent restaurants, the pandemic has been a test of survival. Operators already running on razor-thin margins were forced to close their dining rooms in March 2020 following state-mandated stay-at-home orders. Some were nimble enough to switch operations to takeout, delivery and curbside, while others simply shut their doors. Over 90,000 restaurants closed either permanently or long-term, according to the National Restaurant Association. 

In an industry built on in-person interactions and long-term relationships with customers, the COVID-19 crisis was a serious blow to the hearts and minds of many independent operators. But many adapted, leaning into technology, creating takeout and grab-and-go options and partnering with third-party delivery aggregators to stay afloat.  

With vaccine rates on the rise, dining room restrictions easing and people returning to restaurants in droves, independents are experiencing sales growth they haven’t seen in over a year. But this is creating a new problem: there isn’t enough labor to keep up with demand. With too few employees on hand, especially in the back-of-house, operators aren’t able to return to pre-pandemic hours, and existing labor is at risk of burnout. Restaurants that have maintained a positive work environment are reaping the benefits of high retention rates, however.

This report covers key strategies for independent operators as well as the challenges they face as they move into recovery mode:

  • How independent operators adjusted to off-premise during the pandemic
  • The impact the Restaurant Revitalization Fund will have on the industry
  • How restaurants are using technology to offer contactless payment options
  • How the ongoing labor shortage is squeezing full-service restaurants
  • Why retention is key to keeping restaurants fully staffed

We hope you enjoy this deep dive into how independent operators are working toward a new normal after an uncertain time.

Julie Littman Reporter

Third-party vs. direct delivery: Debate reaches boiling point amid coronavirus

There's no restaurant roadmap to survive dining room closures. But one thing is certain: pick the wrong off-premise game plan when the stakes are this high, and it could gut your bottom line.

• Published May 7, 2020

Now hiring: How the labor shortage is squeezing full-service restaurants

Foodservice workers burnt out by the segment's recent instability are leaving for other industries or living on high unemployment benefits, sparking a staffing crisis as dining rooms open.

• Published May 4, 2021

How restaurants are bringing tech to the table in 2021

Much of the industry's in-store tech investments have gone toward contactless payment solutions or tableside, but operators are also experimenting with cutting-edge air filtration.

• Published Jan. 28, 2021

From full-service to grocery hybrid: Why 1 restaurant chose to renovate during the pandemic

Cotton Blues Kitchen & Marketplace used the business slowdown to recreate the dining experience with a market, grab-and-go items and a smaller dine-in menu.

• Published Aug. 12, 2020

Independent restaurants go dark to keep the lights on

The Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that as many as 85% of mom-and-pop restaurants could close by the end of 2020. But some are finding new life in virtual brands and ghost kitchens.

• Published Oct. 26, 2020

Retention is key to solving the restaurant industry's labor crisis

As restaurants struggle to bring on employees, others have had success with keeping their workers by creating a positive company culture, boosting benefits and offering clear paths for career growth.

• Published May 18, 2021

Independent restaurants make a comeback in 2021

2020 was a test of survival for independent restaurants, with 3% of operators saying they closed their doors for good. Now as dining rooms reopen across the country, discover how restaurants are attracting dine-in customers and making a comeback.

included in this trendline
  • Recent PPP changes offer restaurants hope, but calls for industry aid continue
  • DC restaurants: Reopening patios amid COVID-19, protests like juggling 'flaming knives'
  • States begin easing dine-in restrictions, but are restaurants ready to reopen?