People are relishing normalcy wherever they can find it these days. For some, that means sipping a fruity drink under a patio umbrella at a restaurant that not very long ago wasn’t open for in-person dining. Although the signs of the coronavirus are ever-present—waiters wearing masks, tables spaced 6 feet apart—diners once again have the ability to eat a meal they didn’t cook themselves, surrounded by more than just the people they live with.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the restaurant business is anywhere close to pre-COVID-19 levels.
By late June, every state had reopened for some form of in-person dining with restrictions such as capacity limits. But with new surges in coronavirus cases in recent days, several states—Arizona and Texas among them—have reversed course and suspended onsite dining once again.
Even in states where in-person dining is possible, many consumers remain reluctant to return to restaurants. Nearly half (47%) of those consumers surveyed by Datassential in mid-June reported they’re still avoiding eating out. But the number of people who are eating at restaurants is slowly creeping upward. When asked what they were most looking forward to doing once social distancing restrictions were lifted, 33% of consumers surveyed for Datassential’s ONE TABLE initiative pointed to dining at their favorite sit-down restaurant, second only to visiting family members they haven’t been able to see while sheltering at home (36%).
“As states have started to reopen their dining rooms, we’ve seen a certain group of customers who are willing to return pretty early,” says David Henkes, senior principal with Technomic. “That’s not saying that business has suddenly bounced back. But some operators are experiencing a little better traffic than they expected.”
No matter what operators do, though, there are some customers who won’t return to a restaurant or bar anytime soon. Others won’t return if their first attempt doesn’t feel safe, Henkes says. That means restaurants will have to meet customers’ expectations for dining in a post-coronavirus world. In most cases, that will include gloves and masks for employees, socially distanced tables, and easy and convenient pickup and delivery options.
Safety and Sanitation
Gone are the days when a server could quickly wipe down a table with a previously used cloth and call it clean or when customers would forgive an overflowing garbage can in a restaurant bathroom. To feel safe now, customers expect restaurants to be spotless, with obvious signs of regular sanitation in progress, says Bruce Reinstein, a partner with food industry management consultancy Kinetic12.
“People used to go out to restaurants for great food and service and convenience; safety was kind of assumed,” he says. Now, if it isn’t overtly clear that your environment is safe and sanitized, nothing else really matters, he adds.
When asked which measures operators could take to make them feel safe dining in a sit-down restaurant again, the highest percentage of consumers surveyed for the ONE TABLE initiative cited the following:
- Spaced-out tables: 40%
- Employees wearing masks: 39%
- All common areas are visibly wiped down regularly: 39%
- Restrooms are extremely clean: 39%
- Employees are wearing gloves: 38%
- Sanitizing products provided to customers: 38%
- Smaller capacity: 36%
Less important to customers, but still mentioned, were ways to avoid touching items like menus, condiments and doors. Reinstein recommends that restaurants install automatic sanitizer dispensers at entrances and exits or set up sanitation stations for customers and employees outside of the bathrooms.
Signs of crowding will scare off people the quickest, Reinstein continues. Although operators may be tempted to allow in as many customers as they can, such a move can backfire. Some eateries will also have to carefully manage outdoor lines with parking cones or taped distance markers. “Restaurants have to send the message that they care about the consumers’ safety above everything else,” he says.
Operators needn’t worry about going overboard on cleaning or employee regulations meant to keep customers safe, Henkes says.
When it comes to restrictions on the customers themselves, however, the path forward is a bit more complicated. Social distancing is a given, with 61% of consumers saying they would follow 6-foot distancing rules to dine in at a restaurant, according to Technomic. By comparison, 42% said they’d be willing to have their temperature taken and 40% said they would wear a mask.
No matter what policies a restaurant has, they must be clearly communicated. Even if it seems like overkill, Reinstein advises operators to tell customers what they expect from their guests and what they are doing to keep guests safe—via signage, email, social media and on the restaurant’s website. The point isn’t just to make customers feel safer but also to cut down on confusion, potential embarrassment and customer-employee conflict.
“If masks are required when diners aren’t eating or drinking, it should be very clear. You can’t just have a tiny little sign. It should be all over your app, your website, everywhere,” Reinstein says. “Clarity is very important. A consumer won’t come back if they’ve been embarrassed in any way.”
The same logic applies to delivery and takeout. Some of the barriers to ordering delivery and takeout that consumers cited were uncertainty about a restaurant’s safety protocols and hours of operation. Both sticking points are easily communicated on a restaurant’s website and social media channels.
Convenience and Comfort Food
It isn’t just people’s fears about the coronavirus and their finances that are keeping them away from restaurants. Restaurants are also competing against stocked pantries and a newfound enjoyment of cooking for a lot of people, according to the ONE TABLE survey.
To boost business, restaurants must keep their prices manageable and make delivery and takeout easy options for consumers. “Even pre-pandemic, delivery was growing much faster than the eat-in industry,” Henkes says. “Now, we’re expecting that every restaurant—whether it’s a fine dining restaurant, a casual dining restaurant, or [something] in between—will have to focus on delivery or an off-premises strategy.”
Curbside pickup in particular has taken off, with more than 50% of consumers surveyed by VIPinsiders saying they would be very likely or extremely likely to use curbside pickup even after restaurants reopen. Reinstein understands this thinking. “I’d never used curbside before,” he says, “but I use it all the time now. It’s easy and it feels safe.”
Family meals have been especially popular throughout the pandemic—and will remain so as restrictions ease. More than four in 10 consumers surveyed by Datassential in mid-May reported that they’d ordered a family meal bundle at least one while self-quarantining; 38% expect to continue to ordering these bundles as restrictions ease.
What consumers order also will continue to evolve. In the early weeks of sheltering in place, ONE TABLE data show people turned toward comfort food. But as states have begun reopening amid warmer weather, consumers are seeking meal options with broader family appeal. Asked what they’d like to see more of, consumers surveyed by Datassential in mid-May pointed to comfort foods (40%), build-your-own meal kits (35%) and healthy/better-for-you foods (32%).
As time goes by, Henkes expects more people to return to in-person dining. But to ensure it goes well, operators will need to keep on top of safety measures. They’ll also have to find ways to make dining out an experience that people wary of leaving home will find rewarding. That could mean elevating their hospitality to another level with friendly, personal service and loyalty programs; adding fresh items to the menu; or creating a fun drink program.
At the end of the day, he adds, “It’s about giving the consumer something they haven’t been able to get at home the past three or four months.”
How have restaurant operations changed in the wake of COVID-19? Find out how your peers have adapted here.