Customers Will Support Restaurants Again

    Americans are starting to give more weight to the idea of supporting their favorite brands.

    A customer enjoys a cupe of coffee inside a cafe.
    Unsplash/Kaylah Otto
    People want to dine out again. Some reasons why are changing. Some are staying the same.

    Roughly a month ago, the question seemed forward-thinking. Could restaurants help America return to a sense of normalcy? Datassential uncovered an optimistic note at the time—41 percent of its 1,000 respondents picked “dining at my favorite sit-down restaurant” as the food and drink place they were most excited to get back to.

    Concurrently, Sense360 ran data that showed just over half of consumers (57 percent) expected restrictions to end in two months or less; 43 percent believed they’d be in place for at least another two months.

    While it’s been a strange few weeks since, as much as things have changed, many have stayed the same. Datassential believes people have begun to look at the reality of COVID-19 differently than those onset days, even as states loosen stay-at-home orders. Dealing with the “new normal” initially felt like an inconvenience that would disappear altogether when the curve flattened. Today, Americans are starting to realize coronavirus isn’t a disruption with a timer attached to it. We’re going to need to figure out how to live with these conditions for the foreseeable future, or at least until a vaccine hits the landscape.

    ARE REOPENINGS SPIKING SALES FOR RESTAURANTS? HERE'S WHAT EARLY DATA TELLS US

    What’s happening is that some states, like Georgia and Texas, are reopening non-essential businesses, and others, such as L.A. County, are doing the extreme opposite (extending stay-at-home orders to July in this case). And so consumers suddenly find themselves conducting a “live experiment,” with no user manual. Restaurants and other businesses are trying to figure out how to keep employees and customers safe, and also ensure their companies remain afloat.

    It’s the warring of two corners of thought: Is reopening this soon irresponsible? But if we wait until July, will there even be any businesses left to open?

    And the reality is even more complex than trying to weigh case spike projections with dire economic outlooks.

    The University of Maryland’s Transportation Institute conducted a study this past week using location data from smartphones to determine if one state reopening created a COVID-19 trickle effect of sorts. The simple answer: Yes. It showed a daily average of 546,159 people traveled to Georgia from other states, including 62,440 more daily trips than in the week before the reopenings.

    PAST REPORTS

    1. Coronavirus & The Impact on Eating

    2. Fear and Response

    3. Into the Home

    4. Hands Off 

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    6. Pent-Up Demand

    7. The Operator Story

    8. Making Money Move

    9. Reinvention

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    The result is that loosened-up states could begin to infect their neighbors—cases flowing both ways, in other terms. Because you’re now giving consumers incentive to create a new social interaction and start a fresh transmission chain, Meagan Fitzpatrick, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

    In the end, this might turn the phased reopening strategy on its head. States that feel good about how they’re managing COVID-19 will cede some control, but make money in the process. For instance, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said Tuesday professional sports, including MLB, the NBA, the NHL, and the NFL, could resume without fans as soon as Saturday. Will this drive LA County residents into the state? Only time will tell on all of these questions. There is no coronavirus crystal ball.

    But one thing we can track is where the consumer mindset is in regards to restaurants and the “new normal.” It’s become clear in recent weeks that many people think it’s too soon to return to dining rooms, yet there’s also a segment of America more than ready to dive back in. Some are rather fired up about it.

    Either way, people will re-emerge, excited to return to their favorite restaurants when they feel the timing is right,” Datassential said.

    Timing and details aside, Americans will go back to dining in. There’s little doubt. They will seek out the same great meals and emotional benefits. And now, they’ll also approach the experience with a different outlook and empathy for the industry.

    Ultimately, Datassential said, this change will impact consumers’ choices. Let’s take a look at how, and try to understand how living with and living through COVID-19 this past month has impacted the way guests will ease back into restaurant dining, and what operators can do to make it a more satisfying experience. Unlike past studies, which polled 1,000 consumers, this latest round asked 4,000.

    Are people still afraid to eat out?

    Mostly, yes. But you can see the trend leveling out in recent weeks. Black Box Intelligence has approached this point from a different angle lately, but the sentiment is similar.

    In the week that ended April 26, same-store sales declined 47.2 percent across the industry, the company said. This figure was unique because it reported essentially flat from the previous week. For perspective, results improved each week by an average of almost 7 percentage points in the three week-period leading up. In other terms, this is what the COVID-19 ceiling looked like for brands living by takeout and delivery-only models.

    Moving that needle further would take an injection of something new—reopening dining rooms. The same could be said of consumer sentiment.

    Starting with March 10 and going to May 7, here’s a look at how many of Datassential’s respondents are “very concerned with coronavirus.”

    • 41 percent
    • 49 percent
    • 61 percent
    • 61 percent
    • 61 percent
    • 60 percent
    • 67 percent
    • 65 percent
    • 61 percent
    • 64 percent
    • 60 percent
    • 61 percent
    • 60 percent
    • 56 percent
    • 54 percent
    • 56 percent

     

    Also, the company found that avoidance of eating out has held steady, yet remains down from a month ago. Again, it mirrors sales trends. These numbers will likely fall as dining rooms reopen. The question many operators have, however, is whether or not they’ll keep declining. That might boil down to external factors—like if cases surge in these states, or if people report getting sick at restaurants, etc. Hopefully the opposite ends up being the case, where consumers far and away report positive experiences from dining out. Online reviews are going to take on a new meaning in the coming weeks as people shift from talking about the food and service to the safety precautions and ease of ordering, contactless features, and simply, whether or not the restaurant was able to make them feel safe or not.

    • Definitely avoid eating out: 55 percent (–2 percent since April 27, plus 25 percent since March 10).
    • Are nervous, but will still eat out: 27 percent (flat since April 27, –12 percent since March 10)
    • Have no concerns whatsoever: 18 percent (plus 2 percent since April 27, –23 percent since March 10)

     

    “Definitely avoid eating out.”

    • Men: 57 percent
    • Women: 58 percent
    • Gen Z: 44 percent (now might be a good time to ask if the restaurant is equipped to satisfy what Gen Z customers want to see in a post-COVID-19 world. Ruth’s Chris is allowing customers to access menus through a QR code on mobile devices. This is a generation that can’t get enough of mobile accessibility).
    • Millennials: 49 percent
    • Gen X: 55 percent
    • Boomers: 72 percent
    • Married: 60 percent
    • Single: 54 percent
    • Kids: 52 percent (don’t let up on the family meals and bundles at affordable price points)
    • No Kids: 60 percent

     

    The good news for restaurants

    It’s hard to go anywhere, virtual or physical, and not see somebody judging another person for their social distancing. It pulls both ways. There are people firmly in the camp of too much (do you really need that mask?), and those who think you should wear a hazmat suit inside your car.

    COVID-19 has simply turned people inward as they try to self-protect, Datassential said. They are less trusting of others with their safety and more worried about fulfilling their own needs first.

    “Yet even amid this adversity, Americans still have a soft spot for restaurants,” the company said.

    And this is something that extends beyond empathy tied to the struggle of employees and operators. As excited as people are about eating out, they now consider supporting restaurants equally important, Datassential’s study found.

    “Studies have shown that communal eating increases feelings of well-being and contentment, and it makes people feel embedded in their communities,” the company noted. “After months of social distancing, people are longing to reconnect with their inner circles and local neighborhoods, and with restaurants considered an integral part of their communities, their survival becomes even more personal.”

    Why is this critical for restaurants? Firstly, it provides a glimmer of hope that customers will flock back when they can. But it also points to a key strategy operators should invest in moving forward—restaurants can preserve this personal relationship with guests, through tactics that connect back to their communities. The ideal might be more important now than ever.

    For this next question, we’ll look back to March 29 (the first report on this subject) to see how things have changed. The interesting point is that not much has.

    “Which of the following food and drink places or activities are you most excited to get back to.”

    Dining at my favorite sit-down restaurants

    • April 27: 45 percent
    • March 29: 41 percent

     

    Visiting recreational places (movies, malls, museums)

    • April 27: 42 percent
    • March 29: 40 percent

     

    Meeting family/friends at restaurants

    • April 27: 39 percent
    • March 29: 38 percent

     

    Meeting family/friends at someone’s house

    • April 27: 29 percent
    • March 29: 35 percent

     

    Visiting favorite fast food or counter-service restaurant

    • April 27: 23 percent
    • March 29: 22 percent

     

    Attending events at stadiums or arenas

    • April 27: 21 percent
    • March 29: 23 percent

     

    Going to coffee shops

    • April 27: 20 percent
    • March 29: 17 percent

     

    Drinking at bars

    • April 27: 19 percent
    • March 20: 18 percent

     

    Getting self-serve food

    • April 27: 13 percent
    • March 29: 10 percent

     

    Watching the game at sports bars

    • April 27: 11 percent
    • March 29: 12 percent

     

    Splurging on fancy meals at upscale restaurants

    • April 27: 11 percent
    • March 29: 10 percent

     

    Going to food courts/food halls

    • April 27: 10 percent
    • March 29: 10 percent

     

    Going to nightclubs, lounges, music venues, etc.

    • April 27: 10 percent
    • March 29: 9 percent

     

    Having supermarket deli/prepared foods

    • April 27: 10 percent
    • March 29: 12 percent

     

    Visiting convenience stores

    • April 27: 8 percent
    • March 29: 11 percent

     

    Visiting cafeterias

    • April 27: 5 percent
    • March 29: 5 percent

     

    The only categories to decline in that month-long span are meeting family/friends at someone’s house (–6 percent), attending events at stadiums or arenas (–2 percent), watching the game at sports bars (–1 percent), having supermarket deli/prepared foods (–2 percent), and visiting C-stores (–3 percent). The sports conversation is an interesting one. It could just be difficult for people today to imagine that option given there’s no live sports on TV. Yet if that changes, especially if sports resume sans fans in the stadiums, restaurants might be able to capitalize.

    More on the support factor

    This is a topic that’s seen decent movement in recent weeks. Earlier, things like cleanliness, taste, and location were driving factors for restaurant choice. Lately, though, Americans have started to give more weight to the idea of supporting local restaurants that have taken the brunt of social distancing.

    “What are your top considerations when choosing a restaurant during this time of coronavirus?”

    Clean and sanitary

    • April 27: 42 percent
    • March 18: 45 percent

     

    Value

    • April 27: 31 percent
    • March 18: 34 percent

     

    Great taste

    • April 27: 30 percent
    • March 18: 36 percent

     

    Nearby

    • April 27: 27 percent
    • March 18: 36 percent

     

    Supporting restaurants that need help

    • April 27: 23 percent
    • March 18: 18 percent

     

    Good service/staff

    • April 27: 20 percent
    • March 18: 14 percent

     

    Health

    • April 27: 19 percent
    • March 18: 22 percent

     

    Locally/independently owned

    • April 27: 18 percent
    • March 18: 13 percent

     

    Speed

    • April 27: 14 percent
    • March 18: 23 percent

     

    Variety

    • April 27: 11 percent
    • March 18: 19 percent

     

    Every category is on the decline outside of supporting restaurants that need help (5 percent), good service/staff (6 percent), and locally/independently owned (5 percent). This suggests real pent-up demand for eating out again, and doing so at those restaurants they’ve missed most during the pandemic.

    Datassential also asked, “once social distancing is eased, what are your top reasons for wanting to visit restaurants and bars again?”

    Like the above set, this reflected a change in how consumers feel about supporting their local spots.

    Needing to feel normal again

    • April 27: 41 percent
    • March 29: 45 percent

     

    Supporting restaurants in my community

    • April 27: 41 percent
    • March 29: 33 percent

     

    Change of scenery

    • April 27: 37 percent
    • March 29: 35 percent

     

    Cabin fever

    • April 27: 35 percent
    • March 29: 38 percent

     

    Getting foods I can’t make at home or easily get delivered

    • April 27: 33 percent
    • March 29: 30 percent

     

    Needing to socialize in person and be around other people

    • April 27: 32 percent
    • March 29: 34 percent

     

    I’m tired of cooking at home

    • April 27: 28 percent
    • March 29: 26 percent

     

    For special reasons I wouldn’t want to celebrate at home

    • April 27: 22 percent
    • March 29: 25 percent

     

    Need a date night/romantic night out

    • April 27: 19 percent
    • March 29: 20 percent

     

    Need a night out away form the kids

    • April 27: 9 percent
    • March 29: 9 percent

     

    None of these—still nervous about restaurants and bars

    • April 27: 16 percent
    • March 29: 13 percent

     

    The headliner: The 8 percent jump in supporting community restaurants.

    Another place food will win

    Datassential wanted to see which “regular” restaurant activities people will focus on to reconnect.

    “Which aspects of dine-in service are you most excited to get back to once your favorite places fully reopen?

    • Socializing with friends/family: 39 percent (higher among women at 45 percent)
    • Variety (different from what I normally cook): 30 percent
    • Convenience: 28 percent
    • Food that’s freshly made: 28 percent
    • Food that’s hard to make at home: 26 percent
    • The atmosphere/scenery: 24 percent
    • Service (someone cooks for me/waits on me): 22 percent (higher among Boomers at 28 percent)
    • Food is more flavorful: 20 percent
    • Meeting/socializing with new people: 13 percent
    • Getting dressed up to go out: 12 percent
    • Seeing what foods are new and trendy: 10 percent
    • Being part of a crowd/people watching: 10 percent
    • Staff recommendations/expertise: 6 percent
    • None: 11 percent

     

    A takeaway here is that, for restaurants, being able to provide a safe place for consumers to dine with each other again might just be the critical lever during reopenings. Of course, quality and service will always carry through, but COVID-19 put a mega-watt spotlight on whether or not brands can provide a comfortable outlet for guests to do exactly what the virus stole from them, which is hang out again. Win on that front and you might just earns a customer for life.

    Familiarity speaks

    Jim Osborne, the SVP of customer strategy and innovation at US Foods, recently shared some reopening tips with FSR. And one of his recurrent points was restaurants should consider simplifying their menus. “A tighter, more focused menu allows kitchens to better plan labor and prep needs and run a more sanitized kitchen,” he said. “Refocus external communications to celebrate a carefully crafted, reduced menu. Focus on what you know guests will love and tell a story that highlights what your restaurant does best. Consider pre-selling items to anticipate capacity and plan the dining floor.

    Datassential provided another argument in favor of Osborne’s point: People won’t necessarily care about variety when they venture back out, at least not at first.

    “Which of the following are you likely to do the first time you go back out and dine in at a restaurant?”

    • Order your favorite item from the menu: 46 percent (more likely among Boomers at 61 percent)
    • Thank restaurant staff for being open: 37 percent (also higher among Boomers at 49 percent)
    • Leave larger tip than would have before COVID: 34 percent (once again, more likely among Boomers at 43 percent)
    • Stay longer-enjoy my time out: 29 percent
    • Order something new: 20 percent
    • Splurge on the meal: 19 percent (this is something to monitor given the state of unemployment and discretionary income. What role will value take on during the recovery period?)
    • Grab a drink at bar before or after meal: 19 percent (many restaurants have elected to go non-bar-top service during reopenings, like On The Border. But there still could be ways to replace that, like have a drink waiting when they sit down if they order ahead).
    • Order from the “daily specials” menu: 17 percent
    • Order extra food so I can take home leftovers: 16 percent (this is probably more of a takeout/delivery trigger)
    • Eat faster/get in and out as quickly as possible: 12 percent
    • Order an extra meal for next day: 10 percent
    • Leave a review (Yelp, Google, Facebook): 8 percent
    • Ask for menu recommendations from staff: 8 percent

     

    To the question, “what are you most likely going to choose from the menu the first time you go back to a dine-in restaurant?” nearly 80 percent (79) said “familiar favorite.” Only 22 percent said they’d go for “something totally new.”

    And people are planning to go straight to indulgent.

    “What are you most likely going to choose from the menu the first time you go back to a dine-in restaurant?”

    • 68 percent: Indulgent dish
    • 32 percent: Health dish

     

    You’ve heard this point made by operators in recent weeks as sales improved relative to March levels. People are getting tired of the “same old, same old,” and are turning to restaurants.

    “What are you most looking forward to from restaurant food that you haven’t been able to get from home since the pandemic began?

    • Craving specific dish from certain restaurant: 33 percent
    • Variety: more options than I have at home: 32 percent (more likely among Boomers at 39 percent)
    • Craving dishes that are hard to make at home: 30 percent
    • Being able to order my own dish: 22 percent
    • Ethnic food and flavors: 21 percent
    • Craving indulgent foods: 20 percent (higher among millennials at 28 percent)
    • Craving dishes that don’t taste good for delivery: 20 percent
    • Chef-quality/professionally prepared foods: 19 percent
    • Restaurant foods just taste better: 18 percent (Gen Z tracked higher at 31 percent)
    • Foods made with lots of fresh ingredients: 18 percent (more so among millennials at 23 percent)
    • Craving splurge-worthy (surf & turf, caviar): 13 percent
    • Beautiful presentation/plating: 8 percent
    • None: 15 percent

     

    A segment conversation

    Here’s a look at the categories and products customers said they crave/miss the most from restaurants.

    • Mexican food: 36 percent
    • Seafood: 31 percent
    • Asian food: 30 percent
    • Pizza: 29 percent
    • Burgers: 29 percent
    • Italian food: 29 percent
    • Steak: 27 percent
    • Barbecue: 19 percent
    • Fries: 18 percent
    • Sushi: 18 percent
    • Pasta: 17 percent
    • Fried chicken: 17 percent
    • Desserts: 15 percent
    • Wings: 14 percent
    • Salads: 13 percent
    • Breakfast entrees: 12 percent
    • Grilled chicken: 12 percent
    • Greek food: 11 percent
    • Sub sandwiches: 11 percent
    • Frozen treats: 10 percent
    • Chicken strips/nuggets: 10 percent
    • Pancakes/Waffles: 9 percent
    • Lasagna: 9 percent
    • Breakfast sandwiches: 7 percent
    • Soul food: 6 percent
    • Soups: 6 percent
    • Mac & cheese: 6 percent
    • Cold deli sandwiches: 6 percent

     

    Consumers are inching their way back toward restaurants. At this point, and this is a testament to the industry’s ability to innovate and pivot in recent weeks, most people feel comfortable getting pickup or delivery. The full dine-in experience is pretty split, but it’s getting there.

    “Which of the following do you feel truly comfortable/safe doing?”

    • Order ahead for curbside pickup: 80 percent
    • Drive thru: 80 percent
    • Delivery: 75 percent
    • Order ahead—go inside to pick up: 71 percent
    • Order at restaurant and wait until read: 59 percent
    • Assembly line (like Subway or Chipotle): 55 percent (more likely among men at 51 percent)
    • Dine in: 42 percent (higher among men, too, at 49 percent)
    • Salad/hot bar: 26 percent (men were at 34 percent)
    • Buffet restaurant: 25 percent (men polled 32 percent)