This study explored the role of Frugal Innovation (FI) in overcoming resource constraints in the hospitality sector during the so-called ‘1.5-metre-society’ (or ‘new normal life’) that was shaped by the regulations adopted to overcome the COVID-19 outbreak.
These measures included lockdowns, 1.5m distancing rules and travel restrictions (Scherefs & Curfs, 2020). Such restrictions affected social interactions and relations, which, in turn, challenged the hospitality sector by reducing the number of customers and consequently income.
Moreover, the 1.5-metre-society challenged the urban economy with other resource constraints, including shortages of products due to interrupted global supply chains and workforce absenteeism due to illness (Gong et al., 2020).
What is Frugal Innovation?
Frugal Innovation is an approach to overcoming resource constraints through a complex reduction of goods, services and business models thus enabling providers to offer more affordable services and products for a larger number of users (Leliveld and Knorringa, 2018).
The approach creates new opportunities out of resource constraints, making it a useful lens for the study of how cities can overcome crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the resort to a 1.5-metre-society.
FI was widely discussed as a solution to overcoming health constraints (e.g., shortage of face masks) during the pandemic (e.g., Harris et al., 2020), but not in relation to constraints caused by the 1.5-metre-society.
Exploring the role of frugal innovation in overcoming resource constraints
This research was a case study of local (e.g., non-chain) restaurants in the Dutch city of The Hague. The results summarized below are based on data collected through 27 in-depth interviews with restaurant owners, their staff and a representative of an industry organization.
Solutions by restauranteurs
The researchers first explored the solutions adopted by restaurants to overcome the largest identified resource constraints in the 1.5-metre-society.
The figure below gives an indication of the duration of the measures adopted by restaurants and how frugal they were, i.e., how affordable (low-cost), accessible, rapid and easily deployable (e.g., with low-level complexity and rapidly implementable).
local restaurants often reduced their seating capacity or introduced self-made panels and stickers to deal with space constraints and social distancing requirements.
These frugal solutions did not cost a lot and could be implemented directly.
Most of the restaurants in the study adopted various strategies to deal with the lack of income during lockdowns when dining-in was not allowed.
These solutions ranged from creating or outsourcing food delivery services and incrementing takeaway practices to cook-at-home boxes and gift cards.
At times, restaurants added additional products and presents to promote dine-at-home solutions (e.g., beer bingo, free bottle of sanitizer) which show the importance of experience and relations with and between guests in the hospitality sector.
Restaurants also adapted their dishes and menu cards to overcome shortages of ingredients and products (e.g., some restaurants increased the number of vegetarian dishes and reduced meat and fish dishes to reduce costs and potential food waste).
They also reduced the number of dishes on their menu, preferring to concentrate on standard products suitable for dine-at-home solutions.
Reduced opening hours
To cope with the reduction of opening hours, some restaurants adapted by shifting from the provision of a dinner menu to lunch and/or breakfast.
Restaurants were limited in what they could do to overcome staff shortages. Their solutions generally focused on increasing the working hours of restaurant owners themselves or on relying on family members for support.
A few restaurants implemented the use of a QR code ordering system that allowed customers to read menu cards and order their dishes with smartphones while sitting at a restaurant table.
The QR code ordering system was used to both reduce social contact and overcome staff shortages. However, the study shows that the QR codes were hardly used, were often very costly for owners and excluded older customers especially and other for whom this digital system was too complex.
The role of citizens
The study investigated the role of cities by analyzing urban policies and the interaction between restaurants and other urban actors (e.g., loyal customers and other restaurants).
The role of the city emerges strongly in the solutions that required the use of public outside space. Thanks to policy measures that allowed the use of public space, some restaurants were able to overcome internal space restrictions by installing terraces in public spaces or by organizing events such as ‘food walks’, where small groups of visitors made a tour of various restaurants which offered small snacks and drinks on the street or terraces in front of their premises.
The importance of customer loyalty in supporting businesses
Loyal customers were crucial actors in the ‘survival’ of many restaurants since they often supported the business by buying take-aways, ordering deliveries and purchasing gift cards.
Overall, this research project shows that FI was an important factor in overcoming various constraints and generating some income. It enabled restaurants to survive the 1.5-metre-society, but has made limited lasting changes to post-pandemic society.
As many respondents remarked, the 1.5-meter-society restrictions were in contradiction to the core philosophy of hospitality and prevented the experience of ‘being served and meeting each other’.
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Funding and publication
This project was funded by the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam through the Local Engagement Facility fund.
The results of the study are published in Van Tuijl, E., Dittrich, K., Rossi Doria, D. & L. van den Berg (2023) 'Frugal Innovation in the 1.5-metre-society: Analysis of restaurants in The Hague', in: Kresl, P. & Bertin, M. (Eds.), The Impact of COVID on Cities and Regions, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, ISBN: 978 1 03530 894 1
- Gong, H., Hassink, R., Tan, J., & Huang, D. (2020). Regional resilience in times of a pandemic crisis: The case of COVID‐19 in China. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 111(3): 497-512.
- Harris, M., Bhatti, Y., Buckley, J., & Sharma, D. (2020). Fast and frugal innovations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nature medicine, 26(6): 814-817
- Leliveld, A. & Knorringa, P. (2018) Frugal innovation and development research, European Journal of Development Research, 30(1): 1-16.
- Scheres, J., & Curfs, L. (2020) Dutch public health policy during the COVID-19 pandemic of the first half of 2020: Answers to questions on public health activities January-June 2020, Public Health Management, 18(1): 36-45.