Pandemic effect: Retail and hospitality

A beachside dining destination on the south shore of Nova Scotia since 1938, The Quarterdeck Restaurant came under new ownership in 2015 with plans for a ground-up rebuild​ and expansion. Its new brand identity, architectural design, and graphics were completed by Breakhouse. Photo courtesy Breakhouse

TEXT Vincent Van Den Brink, Architect Partner, Breakhouse

In the retail and hospitality sectors, the COVID-19 pandemic is not fundamentally changing things—rather, it is expediting existing trends, albeit at a nerve-wracking speed. Many of the shifts we are now seeing have been in motion for decades. Before the pandemic, retailers were already exploring e-commerce; similarly, many restaurateurs had been seeking higher-profit-margin alternatives to traditional dining rooms.

Since the pandemic shutdowns began in March, Breakhouse has been very active with its hospitality clients. I’ve often been on the phone until late in the evening, offering advice and direction. From our company’s standpoint, a crisis creates dependency on experts—and if you are positioned and experienced to offer leadership to clients, business is good.  

We are working with several entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of this time to reposition their restaurants. They’re capitalizing on low overhead and access to affordable loans to change their full-service restaurants into a quick-service model. 

Over the past years, these restaurants have struggled to maintain profitability with increases in average plate cost, competition, rent, and the need to maintain a high ratio of staff to guests. With a quick-service model, a lower staff count with higher volume allows for larger profit margins. Two of our clients—a 45-seat fine dining establishment and a pizza parlour—had been contemplating the change for a while, but were hesitant to shut down while times were good. The COVID-19 environment has made the decision much easier. They’re now looking to us to help them through the transition of reintroducing themselves to their customers with a new offering. It is difficult for these entrepreneurs to know exactly what this looks like and how it works—but this is where designers come in.   

Not all restaurants will remove their full seating experience, of course, but at the moment, there are few new million-dollar restaurants being built.

The pandemic presents the greatest difficulties to businesses adverse to change. The option of waiting for the majority to change, then following when things look safe, is no longer a possibility. All retail and hospitality companies need to adjust their offerings in a manner that is authentic to their own brand, in order to stay relevant in the market. The good thing is that there is a guiding light: just look at what has been already happening over the past decade, and follow that trajectory to realign your brand.

Our company includes architects, interior designers, graphic designers and creative directors, but we work first and foremost with brand. We believe that brand is everything: it is the inner and outer voice of a company. When done well, a brand expresses the cultural core of a business and becomes the vehicle companies use to connect with customers. We work closely with businesses to understand their purpose, needs and sales strategies. As a result, we design everything from buttons to buildings—because brands need all touchpoints to connect with their customers. 

In order to develop all these touchpoints, we have evolved into a multidisciplinary design firm. The pandemic is teaching us that we need to expand even further. For instance, we have largely depended on partnering with other companies to build our clients’ websites and e-commerce platforms. As a result, we’ve lost work because we could not deliver the complex build of an e-commerce website internally. Like so many other companies, we need to grow outside of the comfort zone of our current expertise. It’s a good thing that we are okay with that—because we don’t have a choice. 

How do you change what you are known for, and not lose your audience? It is always an uncomfortable transition. But whether it is change we are helping our clients to navigate, or changes we need to make to our own company, we need to move quickly—otherwise we will miss the present opportunities. The solutions ahead will be found through design thinking, and creative insight that strategically puts businesses in a better position with their customers. This was already the case before the pandemic. COVID-19 has only sped up the process.


This article is part of our Pandemic Effect series. Our complete list of experts in this series includes:

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