The world is changing, and the resilience of the hospitality industry is being tested. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants and hotels had to learn a new rapidly changing playbook.
To keep up, the industry needs to continue to innovate and explore new options for the most basic functions of hospitality. This toolkit is designed to give you some ideas and provide examples of ways other hoteliers and restaurateurs are changing their service models.

In this model, the wait staff remains involved with the customer but ordering and paying are automated. This allows servers to focus solely on answering questions when needed, or filling drinks. It improves table turnover rates because the customer can order and pay in their own time without flagging down someone. Some businesses, like Applebee’s, have kiosks where customers can flip through the menu and pay, while others require the customer to scan a QR code or open an app. Multiple services that can integrate with your POS allow restaurants to enable this.

Self-service beverages

While standard buffets can limit your takeout and delivery options and make food costs hard to manage, technology is creating the opportunity for other self-service options. For instance, Barlow’s Public House has installed a beer wall that gives customers a refillable card that they can scan and then fill from one of their many taps on hand.
See: Best beer wall in WA

On the non-alcoholic side, Panera Bread has introduced the Sip Club, which allows customers to pay $10.99 a month for the ability to come into the store and fill up a self-serve beverage any time they want. The transaction requires no increased labor and is linked with their loyalty program to ensure that members of the club download their app and sign up for their emails. Meanwhile, Sip Club members are coming into their store and smelling fresh-baked bread on a more regular basis.

Item-specific all you can eat

High food costs and food safety concerns are making the traditional buffet look less appealing, but customers are still interested in the idea. One example is Capo Boston, which doubled its sales on Wednesdays by offering all –you –can –eat pasta for $32 a person. Doing this with a cost-effective, but popular item on your menu can generate a lot of excitement and bring in new customers.


This model is utilized at Café Nordstrom locations and proves you don’t have to be traditional to have class. Customers order up front and then choose a table, meaning that all the action – including third– party food delivery pickup – is centralized at the front of the store where two cashiers take orders. This is not a new concept, but it is one that is becoming more popular as restaurants remove tables in their dining rooms and streamline operations. In most cases, this model can improve table turnover times.

Further reading:

Embracing the Quick Service Model – Boss magazine

Small plates and dim sum carts
Small plates in the style of tapas are becoming common for non-Spanish cuisine, but the Chinese dim sum cart has not yet been applied to, say, pizza. In the dim sum model, the cooks will produce large batches of a food item and staff will bring them around on carts where tables can choose from the items available. It can be cost-effective and efficient for the kitchen, and it creates a fun atmosphere that can’t be replicated by takeout or delivery.

Self-service kiosks for quick service
For operators that continue to struggle finding and retaining employees, self-service kiosks may be a good alternative. Fast food restaurants like Shake Shack and McDonald’s have been installing more self-service kiosks in their fast-casual restaurants, and customers appreciate the easy interaction. These can be as easy to install as an iPad on a stand and plenty of companies offer their platform for as low as $50 a month.

Prix fixe
A good way to save on food costs and preserve your prestige as a premium restaurant is to adopt the prix fixe model. French for fixed-price, prix fixe restaurants like Maximilien in Seattle offer a set multi-course menu for their customers and rarely allow customization. This can be changed as often or as little as you would like and allows the restaurant to cut food costs and specialize in certain ingredients better than many of the other service models. You can easily try it out with your existing menu by taking a few existing menu items, adding their prices together and reducing the total by about 10%. (That extra 10% off will likely not affect your bottom line because customers are much less likely to order four courses when they are not bundled together.) Many restaurants offer prix fixe menus with wine pairings for each course, which drives the ticket size up further. This elegant option can turn your spot into a date night favorite with huge ticket prices overnight and is a great option for operators looking to add some class to a hotel restaurant.

The key ingredients for a successful prix fixe model are requiring firm reservations several days in advance and charging the customer when they make the reservation. This allows you to know more precisely what your food and labor requirements are going to be ahead of time. This will lead to less food waste and more efficient scheduling based on the specific needs for the day.

Further reading:

Restaurant iconiq offers inspired plates and killer views
Canlis menu The Herbfarm menu

See: Rick Braa: Optimizing menus

The build-your-own model is another option to try if you are looking to add some excitement to your menu. While it was popularized by Subway, and later applied to pizza by Mod, more build-your-own concepts are popping up that are certainly fast, but not as casual. For example, MiSo in Lacey and Olympia offers build-your-own rice bowls that take bibimbap to the next level, and third-party delivery services are perfectly built to accommodate these kinds of restaurants. Other innovations include self-serve Malatang restaurants that have a similar setup to Mongolian Grills – you fill a bowl with your preferred assortment of meats, veggies and noodles, and they weigh the bowl and then boil it in a pot with soup base. It works great as a to-go and even a delivery concept, and this low-labor buffet style can be applied to countless styles of food.

Further reading:

Malatang: the hot pot version of self-serve froyo
• New food rules for 2022 could impact buffet service. See our Quick Bites video series here.
Golden Corral Proves the Buffet is Alive and Well
The all-you-can-eat-buffet restaurants are back

If you have empty tables more often these days, you can consider converting some of that space into a grocery shop. The concept of a specialized food store in a restaurant is nothing new, but others are taking it to the next level, bringing their stores online and adding purpose. The Honeysuckle Project provides a hybrid grocery store, community center, and restaurant to support residents in urban food deserts where more conventional grocery stores could be difficult to reach, and they provide their shelf-stable items on an online store. And you don’t need your own website to sell a shelf-stable product you’re proud of, you can sell it online on Ebay or Amazon.

Further reading:
Selling ready-to-eat-foods
Tip-pooling boosts wages at Dutch’s “groceraunt” in Ohio to $33 an hour
Welcome to the future college campus: Autonomous groceraunts, and robots

Alcohol to-go and curbside service can provide a boost to your business without too much hassle — if you integrate it properly. Make sure you’re following the rules in place, especially when it comes to your interactions with third– party delivery drivers. Even if it’s not to go, adding a signature drink to your menu can transform a homey restaurant into a hip destination overnight. With the growing prestige of boxed wine and canned cocktails, bartenders are not always necessary to serve great drinks. Get creative with a cocktail. It’s worth a shot.

Further reading:

• Alcohol to-go toolkit
Creating a great cocktail beverage program
Culinary trends

Not everyone is ready to dive headfirst into a takeout-heavy concept. Nor should they be. A guest’s ideal experience is different for every establishment. Mastering these concepts can get patrons sitting down again and again.

Outdoor dining and streeteries
Nearly four in 10 consumers currently say the availability of outdoor seating would make them more likely to choose one restaurant over another similar one, according to the National Restaurant Association. This differentiator of restaurants is often overlooked by operators – but not by patrons. The Seattle Department of Transportation requires outdoor dining permits.
Seattle Department of Transportation: Outdoor dining permits

Easy reservations
Even if you don’t usually fill all your tables, encouraging folks to make a reservation has a myriad of positive effects, and with the presence of online apps that take the touch points out of the reservation process, there’s no reason not to take them. Third-party reservation applications pass the data along to you so you can make staffing decisions and even track visits for rewards. They also help you find new customers because they have their own userbase browsing the app for open tables. The industry standard entry price is $40 a month per location (and an iPad for your greeters to use).

Let them take you home
People could be eating more at home, reversing a multiple-decade trend says Deloitte. Selling ready-to-eat meals and groceries can help you stay in the mix. Selling groceries and premade meals that would otherwise go to waste, and boxing leftover meals in an eco-friendly to-go box with reheating instructions would carry the added benefit of showing your commitment to minimizing waste.
Premade meals, microwaveable, air friable and bakeable takes on your classic dishes can add 20% to a customer’s ticket and still provide good value for them with a high-quality, chef-made lunch for the next day. This also works for hotels that can sell a ready-to-go lunch with the other conveniences in the lobby for a busy worker hoping to fit lunch between meetings or a family heading out for a picnic.

Have some fun:
The essence of hospitality is what lies beyond the room and the dish – a good time. Many of the recent operational changes to the dining and lodging experiences were born during the pandemic and had staying power as efficient cost-savers. It is important to remember, though, that if you can change the way your business operates that does nothing else but make your guests smile – that’s a win. With that in mind, here are some fun ways operators tweaked their service model and ended up with model service.

• Try putting on a virtual show for your guests with Le Petit chef
• A menu equipped with video Hilton uses QR codes to show how food is made with video presentations
Dave & Busters Grab and Go

As we learn about new concepts in hospitality that operators are trying, we will update this page and the relevant resources listed below. If you have questions about member benefits listed below like our group purchasing program, or you would like to know more about our allied members, please reach out to your territory manager. You can count on their expertise and knowledge of the industry to get you connected with the right people and tools.

Tech toolkit – learn about robots that cook food, conveyor belt systems and digital tools for hotel guests.
Cost calculators
Quick bites – overview of the 2022 update to Washington’s food code


Rick Braa: Optimizing profits

Ric Braa: The Hospitality Profit: P&L management for front and back managers

This toolkit is current as of March 23, 2024.