In 2019, the UK eating-out market was worth a whopping £81.1bn. The closing of the sectors’ doors during coronavirus is set to have a catastrophic impact – not just for restaurateurs and their staff, but the suppliers that rely on them for orders. A whole ecosystem is under threat. 

Many restaurateurs and suppliers have deftly switched to new home-delivery models to ensure they can stay afloat in the storm. And, consumers have been quick to embrace these efforts in a bid to reconnect with normality. Ordering from our local restaurants is a welcome break from lockdown routine, but it’s also reminding us what we are missing…

With our lives currently confined to spaces we can only access through a screen, we’re missing physical, sensuous experiences. While at-home delivery is allowing us to order and enjoy restaurant food, the experience and community that envelops communal eating has been cut off. We’re left craving connection to the places, tastes, rituals and community that food and drink unite us in. 

With a whole sector in survival mode it could be seen as misplaced to suggest that now’s the time they should embrace new, creative endeavours. However, if necessity is the mother of invention, then this current crisis demands creativity and bravery like never before. Why? Because right now the market is demanding more than access to ‘stuff’, they are desperate for connection and experience. In normal times, restaurants can offer exactly this – sensuous, communal experiences that make for lasting memories, not throwaway consumer clutter. But what about now? Is there a way F&B can do what it does best – unite people through shared, delicious experiences – in an era when we are more physically distant than ever? 

Essentially, we are looking for a more satisfying way to connect and there may be a solution with ‘phygital’ – the marrying of offline (physical) and online (digital) to create complete experiences. For example, In France, winemakers gearing up for the annual preview of their latest vintages have turned to online tastings. In the UK, Secret Cinema has paired up with Haagen Daaz to morph itself into ‘Secret Sofa’. Film fans get access to weekly online screenings alongside a special code that allows them to order Häagen-Dazs’ flavour of the week via a collaboration with Amazon Prime Now. A perfect partnership of complementary brands that can bring this evolved phygital strategy to life.  

In China, ecommerce platform JD.com has joined forces with alcohol brands including Budweiser, Rémy Martin, Carlsberg and Pernod Ricard to bring shut-in, would-be clubbers an at-home nightclub experience. With JD streaming DJ sets, alcohol deliveries will help fuel the party. According to LS:N, the partnerships have seen associated alcohol sales jump up to 70% during shows. JD.com has plans to extend this as a long-term strategy beyond the current lock-down. I can see why. Getting your message into people’s homes is incredibly difficult. This strategy offers the perfect opportunity to create a sense of occasion and, importantly community.

Creating phygital experiences – blending your offline F&B offerings with our current online community spaces – is the creative answer to our current locked restaurant doors. 

Recently I was craving burgers (this is a frequent occurrence) and was delighted to discover I could order a make-your-own Patty & Bun burger kit through H. G. Walter. The whole experience of layering the elements together was enhanced with their online tutorial to make sure I got it just right. The upside for the restaurant? I was then keen to share my creation across my social media channels which whipped my friends into an ordering frenzy. Viral burgers are the solution we all need right now. 

Connection through experience is my passion and creativity is my fuel. Creative PR that blends on and offline- experiential is not just a nice-to-have right now. 

Those in the F&B sector that embrace creativity now will both survive the current crisis, and will lay the foundations to thrive in the post-corona economy. We have to remember that for many food isn’t just fuel, it’s about feelings.

Meredith O’Shaughnessy is CEO of the award-winning Meredith Collective, the experience experts, designing delight.

Connect with Meredith on Linked In https://www.linkedin.com/in/meredithoshaughnessy/