Skip navigation
quick-servicce-workers-pandemic.jpg davit85 / iStock / Getty Images Plus
In QSR operations, service has more value than hospitality, given the quest for shorter transaction times, efficiency of ordering systems and measurements/analysis.

Did service kill hospitality in the restaurant industry?

Jim Sullivan weighs the impact of coronavirus on foodservice

The impact of coronavirus on the world is a story with an indeterminate beginning, an indiscriminate middle and no discernable end. In addition to inflicting a worldwide death toll in excess of 3 million people, COVID-19 has cut short the business lives of tens of thousands of restaurant owners/operators and hundreds of thousands of foodservice workers. Sadder still, the economic impact from the pandemic has been unevenly distributed in foodservice; most quick-service restaurants (QSR) have experienced record sales while many full-service restaurants (FSR) have experienced historic losses.  QSR was already set up operations-wise to leverage more value around service (speed, efficiency, accuracy) while FSR has seen its unique selling proposition — hospitality — lose value as so many dining rooms shuttered and sporadically half-opened in accordance with the rolling variables of governmental edict.  So going forward, the question is: Will the efficiency of service eradicate the desire for hospitality?

The terms “service” and “hospitality” are used interchangeably in the foodservice industry, but they have two different meanings. Service fulfills a need. Hospitality fulfills people. You can get service from an ATM. You can get service from a vending machine. You can get service from Amazon. But hospitality is not a deliverable from any of those venders. The truth is that when we patronize an ATM, vending machine or Amazon, we don’t want “hospitality” because it might impede the speed, efficiency and accuracy of the “service” we’re paying for. Of course, one could argue that service and hospitality are not binary; that they are both degrees of something invisible that is wrapped around a purchase. But in the last decade and especially the last 12 months, service has grown in value while hospitality has shrunk.  In 2021 service takes precedent; what business patrons want most from their transaction is the absence of error. What business owners want from their customers is the absence of complaints.  The absence of error and complaints is what drives customer loyalty and repeat business. Restaurant customers will forgive the absence of hospitality; they will not tolerate the absence of service.  

If your restaurant has a reputation for great hospitality, I will assume two things: 1. You’re a full-service, tableside operation and 2. Service is the required foundation that your hospitality rests upon. A friendly, welcoming and hospitable waiter won’t be valued by any restaurant guest if the cold food is hot, the hot food is cold, the wrong entree is served, and the napkins are missing. If you don’t get the service basics down first (the absence of complaints) the hospitality add-on is irrelevant, even irritating.   

In addition, hospitality is much harder to teach and measure than service. So no surprise that tech companies — and most of retail — have pretty much eliminated hospitality from the menu. If you don’t believe that, try to find an associate at Wal-Mart, Target or Home Depot, or live-chat with an Amazon representative about a shipping problem or ordering mistake.  It’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

In QSR operations, service has more value than hospitality, given the quest for shorter transaction times, efficiency of ordering systems and measurements/analysis. In FSR (tableside) operations, the value of hospitality is greater because of the customer time invested and the multiple interactions and menu merchandising deployed by a waitperson at each table. Hospitality is intended to seal the transactional cracks and make the experience feel seamless. When it works, that is.

So what does this service versus hospitality debate mean for foodservice operators in 2021? Lesson 1: Prioritize service for your customers and provide more hospitality to your teams. In a post-COVID world you can no longer think of your crew as interchangeable parts dependent on the abilities and expertise of unit managers to develop them. Leverage their innate talents to make your service better and your hospitality a benefit of being on your team. Lesson 2: Get the service basics down cold for the customer. Then teach your team to improve upon and rise above those basics. Embed purpose and intentionality into your workplace and teams. Intentional resolve helped us minimize foodborne illness in our industry and it can also be applied to building an industry that people are rushing to get in to, not out of.

When and if the coronavirus retreats via vaccine or eradication, the next normal will have completely transformed our industry, supply chains and customer expectations. Like the terms “prewar” and “postwar” were used to describe World War II, analysts will likely break the restaurant business into the pre-COVID and post-COVID eras. Will a distinguishing feature be that service killed hospitality? Or will hospitality be more desired than ever on the other side of COVID? Let us know what you think. None of us are as smart as all of us.

Jim Sullivan is a bestselling author (Multiunit Leadership and Fundamentals) whose new website has just launched. His clients include Disney, Panera, Chipotle, Texas Roadhouse, Burger King, Starbucks and more. You can join his 400,000 social media followers for daily insight at LinkedIn, twitter and YouTube.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.