Can a restaurant have too many safety precautions? Should it pull resources from delivery and takeout as lockdowns lift? There’s no question operators are playing a high-stakes guessing game as COVID-19 trends phase, market-by-market.
Yet the same is true of customers. They aren’t sure what to expect, either. And they aren’t entirely certain what they want. It’s as likely to change tomorrow as it is a month from now.
1Q, a market research platform, and QSR crafted a series of questions to examine consumer sentiment as restaurants continue to reopen across the country. The survey reached 500 people and ran May 26.
While the coronavirus landscape remains, as ever, dynamic, here’s a window into what customers expect from brands during this critical juncture.
Let’s start with the opening point. There is a stark divide in America today over PPE and what’s reasonable and what’s over-the-top. For restaurants, the simple truth is you can’t please everybody. Safety of employees has to come first.
Which of the following features would TURN YOU OFF when visiting a reopened dine-in restaurant?
- I want as many safety features as possible: 49 percent
- Face mask requirement for all diners/guests (except when eating): 30 percent
- Plexiglas/plastic barriers between tables: 22 percent
- Face mask and gloves requirement for all restaurant staff: 17 percent
- Social distancing between tables: 16 percent
- Hand sanitizer easily available: 9 percent
- Information on safety and sanitization process displayed for diners: 9 percent
- Outdoor seating available: 8 percent
- Other: 3 percent
A balancing act is taking shape. Restaurants want to provide an escape for people trying to exit quarantine life, or at least forget it for a bit, and not constantly remind them of COVID-19 and the restrictions it’s caused. And yet, they’ll also need to communicate openly and clearly about the measures implemented to keep everyone safe.
But no matter what efforts are displayed or hidden, there will always be that one guest who judges their server or cashier for wearing a mask, or fellow diners. On the flip side, there’s a good chance somebody will be disappointed more isn’t being done to their standard. It’s just going to be a strange time.
An important message to convey might just be the official line. This is what’s mandated by the city and state, and here’s how and why we’re satisfying those points, and why it matters to you. These are the guidelines from health officials and the CDC. This is why our tables are 6 feet apart, etc.
Let’s look at the reverse side of the quandary.
“Which of the following measures will HELP YOU FEEL SAFE when visiting a reopened dine-in restaurant?”
- Social distancing between tables: 60 percent
- Hand sanitizer easily available: 58 percent
- Outdoor seating available: 48 percent
- Face mask and glove requirement for all restaurant staff: 47 percent
- Information on safety and sanitization: 35 percent
- Face mask requirement for all diners: 29 percent
- Plexiglas/plastic barriers between tables: 29 percent
- N/A I feel safe visiting a dine-in restaurant: 14 percent
- N/A I don’t feel safe visiting a dine-in restaurant: 13 percent
- Other: 1 percent
A good place to start would be to spotlight items that sit on different ends of the spectrum. For instance, it appears social distancing between tables is a must and will be widely welcomed. It’s likely to be a mandate for almost all restaurants anyway. Regardless, it’s a good notion to keep in mind as operators debate how to do so. It was the highest safety ticker at 60 percent and close to the bottom as a “turn you off” measure at 16 percent. That wide gap turns the green light on.
Customers just don’t want to be near other customers.
Datassential noted in a recent webinar that consumers are more than willing to accept these kinds of changes from restaurants.
A full 85 percent were on board with 6 feet or more of social distance.
- Having staff at the door enforce maximum-capacity rules: 83 percent
- Requiring customers to sanitize their hands upon entering: 81 percent
- Having pickup/takeout customers wait outside: 77 percent
- Barring large groups from entering restaurant:76 percent
- Allowing only one person to enter for takeout at a time: 75 percent
- Having customers stay outside when waiting for a table: 73 percent
- Requiring reservation-only seating: 69 percent
A “Post-Pandemic Playbook” from LJR Hospitality Ventures and Starr Design suggested operators control the entry point through reservations, no-wait systems, and even a greeter at the door texting customers when to enter.
It also offered ideas for contactless communication, such as throw-away menus, movable menu boards, QR code menu apps, bill pay mobile apps, signs on tables after they’re sanitized, and white butcher paper on tables that gets replaced between guests.
Some other points:
- Defined queuing and waiting areas
- Wider service aisles
- Glass/fabric/décor panels between tables
- Peninsula bar tables instead of traditional bars
- Belly up bar queuing areas
- More self-contained cocktail stations
There are plenty of creative opportunities. Revelers Hall in Dallas, as shared by the National Restaurant Association in a recent post, built a temporary “parklet,” which is an outdoor seating space that takes up the size of a standard parking space. This was designed to distance outdoor seating from pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Stardust Video and Coffee in Orland was given permission by city officials to use its parking lot for outdoor dining. Tampa’s Forbici set up a white tent with chairs and tables on the street when the city temporarily suspended certain code and permit requirements.
For actual dividers between tables, Pubbelly Sushi in Miami installed custom-designed pods made with dense polyethylene plastic sheets framed in wooden borders around booths.
North Canton, Ohio’s Twisted Citrus, thanks to a shortage of plastic dividers, hung shower curtains from PVC pipes to separate tables.
Additional ideas from the Association:
- Assigned seats at the bar to discourage typical mingling
- Encouraging pre-ordering so food is ready when guests arrive (this could also help move guests quickly in and out of the dining room—an important note given the capacity limits. People hanging around isn’t as desirable as it once was since it prevents other customers from entering and dining in)
It also seems clear from 1Q's study that asking diners to wear face masks is tricky. However, putting safety information on display (just 9 percent rejecting versus 35 percent accepting) is a low-risk maneuver. Outdoor seating can provide a nice bridge, too.
In the end, guest data and paying attention to feedback will be a lifeline. Review sites might take on a whole different role. Continue to find ways to communicate with loyal customers and email subscribers. Just as many brands polled guests to see what they wanted ahead of reopenings, the same strategy should apply as tweaks are made and a new dine-in reality settles. Trust will be the new customer currency.
How behavior is changing
“Thinking about your dining activities these past two weeks, please select what activities you did, if any.”
- Went through the drive-thru at a fast-food restaurant: 68 percent
- Ordered food at a restaurant and picked it up: 66 percent
- Ordered food at a restaurant through a delivery service: 33 percent
- Went through the drive thru at a coffee shop: 27 percent
- Dined in-person at a restaurant: 16 percent
- None of the above: 7 percent
- Dined in-person at a coffee shop: 3 percent
- Nothing overly surprising there, but look at the following:
“Over this summer, when you go out for food, how do you expect to conduct the dining experience?”
- Drive thru/curbside pickup yourself: 46.6 percent
- Dine in the restaurant (indoor or outdoor): 26.2 percent
- Delivery via third party: 15 percent
- Dine in the restaurant (outdoor): 7 percent
- N/A I don’t expect to go out for food: 5.2 percent
The delivery number leaps out. It dropped more than half. Curbside and drive thru, though, remain on the lead track. Does this suggest consumer sentiment with delivery has waned a bit during the crisis?
As Black Box Intelligence noted more than a month ago, satisfaction scores for consumers ordering delivery remained significantly lower than dine-in and takeout sentiment. That’s consistent with historical trends. And COVID-19, despite fueling much higher adoption rates, doesn’t appear to have changed that.
The company said more recently—in the week ending May 10—that Florida and Tennessee witnessed the highest rates of consumers buying directly from restaurants, either through dine-in or takeout orders. Eight percent of consumers in Tennessee ordered food or beverages at a full-service restaurant during the period based on credit and debit card transaction data. Florida witnessed 6.5 percent for the same metric.
Perhaps we’re on the verge of a first-party delivery resurgence. Some of that could be tied to necessity. Pre-COVID-19, delivery was often an app or product loyal conversation. People had their DoorDash restaurants and their Grubhub restaurants, for example. They sought a burger more than a specific spot.
A lot of first-time users during the crisis, however, have approached the dilemma differently. They looked at it as, “I’d really like to eat from my favorite spot again.” And so people headed to that restaurant’s website to see if delivery or takeout were available. It’s created a whole new purchasing lane.
Will that behavior turn out to be sticky? Or will those same, light third-party delivery users just return to dine-in when they can? Hard to say, but there’s no doubt restaurant goers, in general, understand there are more off-premises options now.
Black Box said Thursday guest sentiment for off-premises restaurant offerings improved in March as restaurants began shifting their efforts to improving to-go and delivery operations. However, off-premises sentiment scores fell in early May as states started to reopen dining rooms. Many guests complained of long wait times for curbside pickup orders, the company noted.
But trends started to recover as of week-ended May 24, with off-premises sentiment returning to similar levels as were seen in April.
Whether this trend is pushing toward direct service or not, or if the future will snap back to pre-coronavirus norms, there’s no denying third-party expansion amid the pandemic. Black Box said Gen Z reported the most significant adoption rates, with more than 14 percent of the segment using aggregators to order from a restaurant since March 15. While only 2.3 percent of Baby Boomers have tried third-party delivery in the past two months, it still represents 50 percent year-over-year growth.
The pent-up demand
“When dine-in restaurants reopen [or if they have already reopened in your area], how much are you looking forward to dining in restaurants?”
- Very excited—I can’t wait to visit my favorite reopened restaurant: 28 percent
- Somewhat excited—I’m looking forward to getting out of the house: 24 percent
- Not excited—I have real concerns about my safety: 18 percent
- Neutral—I’m not concerned about safety, but I also feel OK not going out: 16 percent
- Not considering going—I just don’t think it’s safe: 13 percent
Overall, this is good news. Recent dine-in sales numbers reflect that.
“How safe or unsafe do you feel visiting reopened dining establishment with the following.” (numbers reflect total respondents)
- Very safe: 79
- Somewhat safe: 141
- Somewhat unsafe: 131
- Very unsafe: 125
- Unsure/don’t know: 24
Outdoor seating available
- Very safe: 165
- Somewhat safe: 219
- Somewhat unsafe: 69
- Very unsafe: 35
- Unsure/don’t know: 12
Open bar areas
- Very safe: 71
- Somewhat safe: 129
- Somewhat unsafe: 132
- Very unsafe: 125
- Unsure/don’t know: 43
- Very safe: 95
- Somewhat safe: 146
- Somewhat unsafe: 128
- Very unsafe: 101
- Unsure/don’t know: 30
Again, outdoor seating has the potential to bridge the lockdown to sit-down era.
“When dine-in restaurants reopen [or if they have already reopened in your area], do you expect to visit them more often, less often or about the same compared to BEFORE THE PANDEMIC?”
- Less often: 46 percent
- About the same: 46 percent
- More often: 8 percent
It’s simply going to take some time for a lot of customers. They’ll watch the first couple of weeks from the sideline and then decide. Word of mouth and positive anecdotes will be crucial. A lot of restaurants have taken this approach to reopenings as well, like The Cheesecake Factory.
“When dine-in restaurants reopen [or if they have already reopened in your area], do you expect to order takeout food from them more often, less often, or about the same as you did DURING THE PANDEMIC?”
- About the same: 55 percent
- More often: 26 percent
- Less often: 19 percent
Further proof takeout and curbside habits will linger. For some consumers, the process might become part of their routine with their favorite restaurant, especially if it wasn’t there before. Dine in as usual, takeout on a random Thursday coming home from work. Now that people know it’s available and have tried it before, they’ll likely do it again. It might not be to current pandemic levels, but there’s a good chance it will be more than before.
“When dine-in restaurants reopen [or if they have already reopened in your area], which aspects of the dine-in restaurant experience are most important to you when considering which restaurant to dine in?”
- Delicious food: 74 percent
- Safety precautions: 63 percent
- Excellent service: 61 percent
- Good value: 55 percent
- Great atmosphere: 40 percent
- Convenient location: 38 percent
- Wait time for table: 32 percent
- Low cost: 27 percent
- Beverage/wine selection: 12 percent
- Other: 1 percent
Who would have ever thought “safety precautions” would be second only to “delicious food” in the restaurant-decision making process. But here we are.
“When you think about the in-person dining experience at reopened restaurants, what are you most concerned about as it relates to the coronavirus?”
- Other in-person diners being sick: 30 percent
- Servers being sick: 17 percent
- Chef/food preparers being sick: 12 percent
- People who sat at your table before you being suck: 16 percent
- Cleaning of plates, glasses, and utensils between meals: 13 percent
- N/A I have no concerns about dining at reopened restaurants: 12 percent
In a point that has surfaced multiple times in recent weeks, people trust restaurants a heck of lot more than they trust other customers. That’s why it’s essential to keep them apart. Also, it’s important for restaurants to reward that trust in the days, weeks, and months to come. It could result in fierce customer loyalty that simply didn’t exist pre-COVID-19.
Will diners become more brand loyal on the other side of this? It’s possible, given people tend to remember who helped them through crisis times. And it all starts on day one.