One struggles to find the right words to sum up a year that was nothing short of otherworldly. When the first coronavirus death in the U.S. was reported 13 months ago, few could have predicted how this virus would infiltrate every aspect of life as we then knew it. In the time since, foodservice operations have contended with supply issues, safety concerns, shifting regulations and a sea of uncertainty. Amid the shutdowns, they toiled, met triumphs and reimagined the way they did business. Here’s a look at the changes the last year wrought and the impacts that could stick around.


CONTACTLESS WAS KING

Ghost kitchens, a trend that had been slowly gaining steam on the restaurant side, exploded during the pandemic as consumers sought a taste of dining in while hoping to incur lower risk. Faced with less labor and cafeteria capacity limits, colleges proved an incubator for many of these concepts, including the first ghost kitchen experiment from sandwich chain Jersey Mike’s. Investment in mobile ordering and payment tech also boomed, and noncommercial operations that had lagged when it came to adding apps, kiosks and similar amenities were forced to adapt to keep up.



“One of our first days [serving during the pandemic], a mom pulled up with two little ones in the back. She was crying and said, ‘I don’t know what we’d do without you guys.’ That’s what you’re in it for. My heart and soul is in this.”

—Lori Danella, nutrition director, Lee’s Summit R-7





LABOR STRUGGLES

Emotions ran especially high early in the pandemic, and operators leaned on additional training, technology and some quick thinking to keep staff healthy and engaged. Faced with furloughs, COVID fatigue and other challenges as the months wore on, FSDs renewed efforts to boost team morale, and rising social tensions led to further examination of what truly makes employees feel safe and appreciated.



“If you love creating an experience through food and drink, and you love to feel like that is received with gratitude, I don’t know that there was ever so great of an opportunity as the present moment.”

—Greg Joyce, CEO, Legacy Retirement Communities





SILVER LININGS EMERGED

As the virus plagued municipalities around the country, communities were reminded of the important role that noncommercial operations play in keeping folks fed. Pop-up convenience stores and markets materialized to lend a hand to time-strapped healthcare workers. Organizations stepped up to aid individuals facing food insecurity amid job losses, reduced access to school meals and more. And some kitchens that had been rendered close to dormant provided space to prepare meals for those in need. In addition, operators of all types tapped into creativity amid mounting challenges.







“They all came up to me [after the meeting]: random people from churches, staff members that I never even knew. They were just ready to kind of mobilize and do whatever we needed to make sure that our kids, especially the ones that depended on our program, continued to get fed.”

—Stephanie Lip, school nutrition director, Pacific Grove Unified School District





WHAT WILL REMAIN

Flexibility has been at the forefront throughout the crisis, with chefs and foodservice brands testing new approaches to marketing, menu development and off-premise options. Many of these innovations will continue on as the pandemic’s severity recedes. Other endeavors that took a backseat as COVID concerns grew, such as eco-friendly initiatives, will begin to take center stage again: “We might have had a pass for the last 10 months,” Jill Horst, executive director of campus dining at UC Santa Barbara, said on a recent webinar, noting that “there will be expectations from our institutions and our communities that we put that [sustainability] hat back on.”




YEAR IN REVIEW

From the pandemic's early days, FSD's editors worked hard to stay on top of the latest updates. Here's a sampling of the stories that arose.
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