In the past year, East Texas restaurants have adjusted in a thousand ways and customers have become more determined than ever to support them.  There are seven major changes that are here to stay.

When I think about 2020, I can't help but think of the episode of Friends where Ross and Chandler are trying to lug that dang couch up the stairs and Ross keeps yelling, "Pivot!!!!!!"  When your back is up against the wall and you're about to drop a couch on your best friend, you pivot.  Restaurants have done that in the past year (minus the couch), and several of those changes are going to be permanent.  

Open Table talked to restaurateurs and said several transformations brought on by COVID will outlive the crisis.  There are seven big ones.

Pandemic Changes That Restaurants Plan To Keep

1. Packaged foods.  Some restaurants started packaging their signature items last year and selling them online. Some have started to bottle their sauces and they've worked out deals for grocery stores to carry them, and other restaurants have developed their own meal kits to ship anywhere.  Takeout options have been expanded and enhanced too.

2. Better, more frequent communication.  Restaurants are communicating with customers through social media on a whole new level.  One of my favorite chefs posts regular videos on social media showing what he's cooking that day and what's happening on the patio, and even when I think I'll scroll on by I totally get sucked in.  And his space is top-of-mind when it's time to go out.

3. A more flexible hospitality.  Individual diners have become more valuable than ever, and chefs are responding by making changes to dishes upon request and allowing substitutions that they wouldn't otherwise allow.  Customers want gluten-free, Vegan, Paleo, and Keto options, and restaurants are responding.  If it's just "hold the onions," they're getting that too.

4. A focus on a more diverse, healthier working environment.  Restaurants are creating a healthier atmosphere where restaurant workers feel welcome, safe, and supported, with better hours and benefits.  Intentional support for diversity is huge too.

5. Swanky sidewalk cafes. Outdoor dining has become more important than ever, and it's more than simply adding tables and chairs and fencing the area in.  Restaurants have added heat lamps, partial enclosures, and great lighting to take the cozy indoor vibe outside, and as long as the weather is nice, great outdoor spaces are a place that customers want to be.

6. Contact-free options.  Contact-free payments and QR menus are convenient, and since we've proven we can manage our restaurant experience using them, restaurants will keep them.  It works well for them too.

7. Smaller, smarter menus.  As Open Table puts it, "Menus have been scrutinized in terms of diner preferences, sales, labor costs, and food costs. Some places have found culling the number of menu items offered has been necessary to keep costs in check."  Some restaurant menus are 30 percent smaller now, which makes it easier on customers who want "less decision fatigue."

If 2020 was the lemon, 2021 can be the lemonade.  It's amazing to see how creative chefs and restaurateurs can be when their backs are against a wall, and they've come up with some ways not only to survive but to thrive.

All it took was one big pivot.

READ MORE: See how some companies are changing their businesses to combat COVID-19

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