There’s no COVID-19 timeline. And it can be difficult to separate reality from being a prisoner of the moment. For instance, ask 100 people today if they plan to keeping washing their hands six months from now. Or if they’ll avoid large group dining or communal settings. It’s always hard to comment on the unknown from the center of a bubble.
But there does appear to be one habit that’s going to stick for a while, and it opens opportunity for restaurants willing to rethink dining occasions: COVID-19 might just give operators a chance to flatten the daypart curve.
Datassential released a series of reports from consumer and operator surveys exploring what we’ve learned and how it will affect reopenings in coming days and weeks, as well as what awaits when full capacity becomes a true option.
Let’s look at one question in particular.
“Do you plan on maintaining the following practices when eating out even after shelter-in-place restrictions have been lifted?”
- Washing your hands before eating: 49 percent
- Bringing hand sanitizer with you: 40 percent
- Avoid peak busy times at restaurants: 35 percent
- Avoid dining in large groups: 34 percent
- Avoid buffets: 29 percent
- Avoid communal tables / shared seating: 27 percent
- Avoid eating open snacks: 24 percent
- Bringing sanitizing supplies for the table with you: 22 percent
- Avoid waiting in lobby / waiting area for a table: 21 percent
- Avoid self-serve fountain / drink stations: 21 percent
- Avoid using condiments at the table: 19 percent
- Avoiding drinks from tap or fountain: 18 percent
- Eating outside: 14 percent
- Using phone / app to order and pay: 12 percent
- Avoid appetizers or dishes to share: 11 percent
- Use silverware even if eat with hands is easier: 11 percent
- Avoid items you have to eat with your hands: 11 percent
- Avoid cocktail parties / "passed" foods & drinks: 11 percent
- Avoid using coasters, stirrers, etc.: 9 percent
The point to highlight is that more than a third of customers plan to avoid restaurants during peak hours. Brands may be able to generate steadier revenue throughout the day with targeted promotions and menu offerings that reward guests for off-peak visits, Datassential said.
This could end up most prominent at concepts that typically welcomed heavy routine crowds, particularly in the mornings, like Dunkin’ and Starbucks. Placer.ai, a mobile location analytics platform, ran some breakfast-centric data exclusively for QSR in April that showed Dunkin’ was serving 9.2 percent of its visits from 10 to 11 a.m. during the pandemic. But what’s notable about that is the figure held relatively stable all the way to 3 p.m. or so, when it started to decline. CEO David Hoffman said in Dunkin’s Q1 report that a.m. sales volumes were down but picked up from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The main decline was being felt in the 6 to 9 a.m. window.
Dunkin’ said Wednesday in a securities filing it’s witnessed double-digit comparable store sales growth year-over-year during the 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. period, driven by higher ticket orders and increased sales through its app, delivery, and curbside. Digital adoption, the company added, increased weekly “as compelling local and national offers entice guests to join, reactivate, and use DD Perks to make their transactions.” It speaks exactly to the whitespace Datassential referenced: the ability to inspire expanded daypart business—for socially distant users, perhaps, looking at off-peak hours in the early afternoons—while reigniting typical trends at the same time, at least to whatever extent is possible after lockdowns.
Starbucks, per Placer.ai data, was seeing the highest percentage of its traffic flow from noon to 3 p.m. in the heart of the pandemic. Like Dunkin’, visits began to tick down after that.
To Datassential’s point, though, post-shelter-at-home life might just offer restaurants a chance to fill those daypart gaps typically seen before the crisis. Is the lunch rush gone? Will remote workers throw the breakfast routine off for good? We don’t know. Yet regardless of how viable either of those possibilities truly is, it seems likely people will shift how and when they pick up food. The way customers go to grocery stores at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday now instead of Sunday? There will be restaurant goers who think the same way. It might not necessarily be a dine-in occasion—it could be pickup or delivery. Either way, there’s opportunity to incentivize all-day dining in new ways. And this is especially true for brands that can provide a snacking or break occasion, like Dunkin’, or just use its engagement and data tools to lure customers.
Datassential took a look at when people decided to head to restaurants. It broke down as follows:
- Breakfast/brunch: 6 percent
- Lunch: 26 percent
- Dinner: 64 percent
- Snack: 3 percent
- Late night: 1 percent
And what they ordered:
- Entrees: 56 percent
- Sides: 34 percent
- Sandwiches: 33 percent
- Appetizers: 20 percent
- Non-alcoholic beverages: 20 percent
- Dessert: 15 percent
- Snack: 11 percent
- Soup: 6 percent
- Alcoholic beverages: 4 percent
Also, 57 percent ordered enough for a single meal, while 43 percent ordered enough for leftovers.
These are pretty standard COVID-19 numbers across the board. The question today, however, is what’s going to happen when people start going out again? There’s often ground to gain at the lowest ends (breakfast/brunch and late night, in this case).
How people are getting their food can guide potential changes, too.
What Datassential found today is that consumers who tapped drive thru, dine-in, or ordered at the counter picked lunch at a higher rate than those who called or ordered ahead online.
Dinner was the most commonly ordered meal and people tend to plan ahead. Consumers who placed their last order via phone or website were much more likely to be ordering dinner.
Called to place order
- Dinner: 74 percent
- Lunch: 21 percent
- Other: 5 percent
- Dinner: 67 percent
- Lunch: 24 percent
- Other: 9 percent
- Dinner: 65 percent
- Lunch: 24 percent
- Other: 11 percent
- Dinner: 54 percent
- Lunch: 35 percent
- Other: 11 percent
- Dinner: 44 percent
- Lunch: 33 percent
- Other: 22 percent
Ordered at counter
- Dinner: 41 percent
- Lunch: 44 percent
- Other: 15 percent
As you can see with dine-in, which is generally a more spontaneous decision, there’s more variety. That could offer a glimpse into the future—less planning for every meal. But in that spontaneous behavior, customers will still stick to some COVID-19 adjustments, like avoiding crowds. Now, they might just have decided to eat out that same day instead of saying “Tuesday” is our restaurant day, as so many consumers have during the pandemic.
Another reality is that increased remote work, assuming that continues (a safe bet), is going to hurt the lunch daypart.
“Do you think you’ll be allowed to work from home more than before after shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted? Do you want to continue working from home?”
- 76 percent: Of those employed have potential to work from home
- 75 percent: Want to work from home at least some of the time
- 48 percent: Think their employer will allow it or already are working from home
One of the easiest meals for consumers to replace at home is lunch. This is true of breakfast, too.
And it’s yet another example of how routines in a “new normal” could shift for the foreseeable future. Again, it opens the door to flattening the daypart curve with deals to get customers to break habits throughout the course of their work day. Time is going to move differently for a lot of people in terms of when they take breaks or decide to indulge, or how they direct their disposable income.
Datassential also spoke to 200-plus brands to get an operator take. Many restaurants said customers have started ordering more comfortable menu staples during COVID-19.
- 53 percent: Ordering a narrower set of familiar items
- 47 percent: Ordering just as they were before (quick service and fast casual operators reported customers were more likely to still be trying the full menu, which may be driven by their naturally slimmer menus).
Operators also noted entrees and sides haven’t seen nearly the hit that upsells have. This is understandable since beverages, appetizers, and desserts are less commonly ordered to-go. Additionally, when people plan meals and order ahead, they often skip the extra drink or dessert that completes an in-restaurant experience. And there’s no server or cashier to give you that extra push.
All that said, while menu innovation might have taken a pandemic break, things could ramp up as we inch closer to full reopenings. Especially when you consider the daypart discussion and how consumers are changing.
- 18 percent: Said they were using COVID-19 as an opportunity to try new things
- 38 percent: Reframing planning around changes caused by COVID-19
- 44 percent: Paused menu planning to focus on other things
Some COVID-19 offerings will have staying power.
Family size meals/bulk meals
- New offering: 31 percent
- Will continue offering: 69 percent
Meal kits/take and bake
- New offering: 25 percent
- Will continue offering: 61 percent
- New offering: 22 percent
- Will continue offering: 47 percent
Alcohol mixes/to-go alcohol
- New offering: 19 percent
- Will continue offering: 49 percent
- New offering: 16 percent
- Will continue offering: 54 percent
Donation fund for business/staff
- New offering: 13 percent
- Will continue offering: 44 percent
- New offering: 12 percent
- Will continue offering: 95 percent
Non-food, no-perishable items
- New offering: 11 percent
- Will continue offering: 49 percent
Throughout COVID-19, it’s been virtually unheard of to see a restaurant increase menu size. With menu sizes staying somewhat consistent to pre-coronavirus levels, distributors and manufacturers may see reduced orders start to pick back up, Datassential said.
For those considering reducing offerings, it could help restaurants manage cost and staff requirements while traffic returns to normal.
This is one of the reasons some restaurants are waiting until at least 50 percent capacity to reopen. Trying to stock a restaurant on day one is not cheap, or easy.
“Do you plan to increase or decrease your menu size at all after COVID-19 and stay-at home restrictions are lifted?”
- 61 percent: Plan to offer the same number of items on their menu
- 35 percent: Plan to reduce the number of items on their menu
- 4 percent: Plan to increase the number of items on their menu
- Plan to reduce the number of items on their menu: 21 percent
- Plan to offer the same number of items on their menu: 71 percent
- Plan to increase the number of items on their menu: 8 percent
- Plan to reduce the number of items on their menu: 9 percent
- Plan to offer the same number of items on their menu: 87 percent
- Plan to increase the number of items on their menu: 4 percent
- Plan to reduce the number of items on their menu: 37 percent
- Plan to offer the same number of items on their menu: 61 percent
- Plan to increase the number of items on their menu: 1 percent
- Plan to reduce the number of items on their menu: 39 percent
- Plan to offer the same number of items on their menu: 56 percent
- Plan to increase the number of items on their menu: 6 percent
- Plan to reduce the number of items on their menu: 54 percent
- Plan to offer the same number of items on their menu: 46 percent
- Plan to increase the number of items on their menu: zero percent
Despite all this, restaurants don’t plan to reduce daypart offerings. While they might shave off an hour here or there, they aren’t ready to make drastic changes, like cutting breakfast. This will give operators more flexibility as the market returns to normal, Datassential said
“Do you plan to offer the same number of dayparts you offered before COVID-19 restrictions?”
- No change in dayparts: 79 percent
- Fewer dayparts: 19 percent
- More dayparts: 2 percent
In recent months, diners have modeled new ways to use restaurants. Mainly, this is true of younger guests.
“Have you personally done any of the following since shelter-in-place restrictions began?”
- Shopped inside a store: 78 percent (higher among Boomers at 86 percent)
- Got restaurant food from a drive thru: 59 percent
- Got restaurant curbside/walk-up takeout: 50 percent (more likely for millennials at 58 percent)
- Got take-out from a restaurant (went inside): 46 percent
- Got restaurant food for delivery: 37 percent (more likely among Gen Z at 52 percent and millennials at 56 percent)
- Got groceries for delivery: 31 percent (higher among Gen Z at 41 percent and millennials at 41 percent)
- Dine in at a restaurant: 17 percent (more likely among Gen Z at 33 percent and millennials at 26 percent)
- Got adult beverages for delivery: 17 percent (up for Gen Z to 26 percent and Millennials to 29 percent)
Returning to the daypart point, there’s no debate that restaurant meals have lost some of their spontaneity during the crisis. They’ve become a bit more stressful. What was often a last-minute discussion now requires extra up-front planning and legwork.
This could be one of the first setbacks to drop as lockdowns ease and options flood back into the marketplace. One reason delivery- and carryout-focused brands, like Domino’s, surged in past weeks is because the restaurant landscape shrunk significantly. Many brands are closed temporarily. Some for good. Others just don’t meet the safety and convenience requirements of customers looking to off-premises channels (there’s no drive thru, for example or they haven’t delivered before and customers are wary of giving them a chance). In a lot of cases, consumers simply narrowed their mindset with which brands could meet COVID-19 ordering demands.
Regardless, this conversation is going to change as dine-in comes back on line and more restaurant competition returns.
“Rate the following statements regarding any changes you’ve made with eating and living in response to COVID-19.”
- I have to plan ahead whenever I want to eat out now: 62 percent
- I try to avoid third-party apps/order directly from restaurant: 61 percent
- Getting restaurant food has become much more stressful: 58 percent
- Restaurant food isn't as good when you get it for takeout: 52 percent
- I try to avoid restaurant food due to safety concerns: 49 percent
- I try to avoid restaurant food because it's such a pain now: 49 percent
- I try to avoid restaurant food because of finances: 49 percent (more likely among Gen X at 46 percent and singles at 47 percent)
- I don't trust restaurant staff to handle my food safely: 39 percent
- I’ve had a bad restaurant drive thru experience: 30 percent (higher among Gen Z at 48 percent and households with kids at 39 percent
- I’ve had a bad restaurant delivery experience: 28 percent (more likely among Gen Z at 40 percent, millennials at 37 percent, and households with kids at 35 percent)
Customers said they’re willing to fork up the effort, though.
“How do you feel about getting food from restaurants since the COVID shelter-in-place guidance began?”
- 50 percent: Willing to take extra steps (higher for households with kids at 57 percent)
- 27 percent: Too much work
- 23 percent: Just as easy as always (more likely among millennials at 31 percent. Probably because the tech was already ingrained in their routines)
Below are some reasons why consumers are finding it difficult to dine at restaurants. Answering these points one-by-one could go a long way to separating from competition. “Restaurants have an opportunity to offer more communication around areas such as status of openings, current menu items, and availability of delivery,” Datassential said.
“Please rate each statement regarding your views on getting restaurant food amid the COVID pandemic.”
- It's difficult to find out which restaurants have taken safety & sanitation precautions: 52 percent
- It's difficult to find out which restaurants in my area are open or closed: 40 percent
- It's difficult to find out what menu items / specials are being offered by restaurants in my area: 39 percent
- It's difficult to find out which restaurants in my area offer pickup or delivery: 34 percent
- I’ve given up on ordering at least once out of frustration with the online ordering process/website: 32 percent
- I’ve given up on ordering at least once because of being on hold too long/no one answering phone: 30 percent
It’s also true that diners are becoming more tolerant overall. Datassential credited this to heavy media coverage around restaurants’ struggles during COVID-19.
This likely won’t last forever.
“Which have been the most inconvenient aspects of ordering restaurant food?”
- Limited / reduced menu options: 22 percent
- Having to research which restaurants are open during coronavirus: 19 percent
- Long lines / waiting (in drive-thrus, for pickup, etc.): 18 percent
- Food arrives cold / needs to be reheated: 16 percent
- Reduced or changed hours: 16 percent
- Prices seem higher than before coronavirus: 16 percent
- Foods you want that don't taste good for delivery / pickup: 13 percent
- Having to use third-party services (GrubHub, Uber Eats, Postmates, etc.): 12 percent
- If no option for delivery (pick up only): 11 percent
- Portions seem smaller than before coronavirus: 10 percent
- If no option to order online (have to make a phone call): 8 percent
- Skimping on expensive ingredients (less meat, seafood, etc. in each dish): 7 percent
- If no option for ordering ahead / pre-ordering: 7 percent
The good news is diners mostly don’t mind new safety precautions.
“Which have been the most inconvenient aspects of ordering restaurant food?”
- Having to wear a mask in restaurants: 13 percent
- Disinfecting takeout packaging once in the house: 13 percent
- Crowding / hard to stay safely distanced while picking up food: 12 percent
- Re-plating food once in the house: 11 percent
- Food isn't packaged properly / safely (leaky, hard to sanitize, etc.): 8 percent
Here are some responses from consumers about how restaurants could be more convenient during the pandemic:
“Have a standardized approach and implementation of contactless delivery and pickup options to enact social distancing. Drive-thrus still work great in their current form, but ordering takeout and delivery still are not consistent.”
“Make better use of the text message system to advise or update us on the progress of our order and how their process for curbside pickup works. Concise, detailed wording is always helpful.”
“Sanitize the packaging [if possible] right in front of the customer's view prior to hand off, so the customer is assured they can conveniently bring the food inside the house without re-plating.”
“Have the deliverers wear masks when bringing my food. Have good discounts or give out more coupons during this time.”
“Have a person assigned to handle phone calls pertaining to problems or concerns with orders.”
“Create more options on their website to allow you to be more specific about how you want your food cooked and prepared.”
“Post daily menu online and take orders for later in the week, days ahead of time to cut down wait time.”