Easing Customers' COVID Fears is Still Task No. 1 for Restaurants

    All these months later, an omnichannel approach leads the way.

    Guests sit at a table inside a restaurant.
    Unsplash/Vanna Phon
    Are customers heeding reports from top sources, like the CDC? It depends.

    In July, according to a just-released study from The Manifest, 65 percent of people turned to restaurant delivery. So it seems a safe assumption the grocery-hording of early lockdown days has lost a bit of steam. Credit quarantine fatigue or people getting more comfortable with personal safety protocols, but, regardless, an increasing number of consumers searched for alternative food options—and they looked to restaurants.

    “How often did people order food delivery in July?”

    • 1–2 times: 22 percent
    • 3–4 times: 16 percent
    • 5–6 times: 10 percent
    • 7–8 times: 7 percent
    • 8-plus times: 11 percent

     

    When COVID-19 began its assault on the industry, meal delivery orders soared 70 percent by the end of March. Understandable when you consider it was one of the only games in town. Per The NPD Group, delivery transactions hiked 67 percent throughout March as overall restaurant traffic declined 22 percent.

    Yet the jump was hardly enough for the majority of venues to cover the gap. In 2018, the Department of Agriculture reported the average American spent more than half of their food budget on dining out (53 percent). At the time, it represented more than the average consumer spend on grocery budgets.

    COVID-19, however, sent dine-in traffic spiraling anywhere between 70–85 percent, and beyond, depending on sector (with full-service and independents feeling the sharpest blow compared to quick-serves and chains).

    Brands survived—and continue to do so—by standing up fresh revenue streams (curbside being arguably the most prominent) and devising markets for themselves, like selling toilet paper and other essentials. And there’s also the ongoing reality of rethinking delivery as dine-in remains volatile, expanded capacity or not, especially as the seasons turn colder.

    Here’s a look at the most popular food delivery services in The Manifest’s study:

    • Individual restaurants: 43 percent
    • DoorDash: 12 percent
    • Grubhub: 11 percent
    • UberEats: 6 percent
    • Postmates: 5 percent
    • Seamless: 3 percent

     

    Worth noting, this is not a market share illustration or even a prevalence one—it’s what customers prefer. The distance between direct delivery and aggregators represents as much whitespace as it does current habits. Customers want more white-label options.

    Back in June, DoorDash raised an additional $400 million in equity financing to push its valuation to $16 billion, according to Axios. It grabbed 46 percent of third-delivery orders, followed by UberEats at 28 percent, Grubhub at 17 percent, and Postmates at 7 percent.

    DoorDash owns more than half the sales in Dallas-Forth Worth and Houston, while also leading the field in San Francisco.

    While the decision to offer delivery was probably an easy call at the outset, the conversation has shifted a bit. The Manifest found 63 percent of people dined at a restaurant in July, with 30 percent saying they went one to two times

    • 3–4 times: 11 percent
    • 5–6 times: 8 percent
    • 7–8 times: 4 percent
    • 8-plus times: 10 percent

     

    Still, more than half of respondents (58 percent) said they felt uncomfortable doing so; 36 percent picked “very uncomfortable.” What this hints is off-premises needs a place at the table even as reopenings accelerate. Wariness remains a real factor, and there’s no real telling whether or not markets will step back again on protocols. New York City, for one, did so in a zoned-approach shortly after opening to 25 percent capacity and seeing case surges.

    Third-party delivery often strains the bottom line—just as it did pre-COVID-19—which is why some officials put a cap on fees in urban markets. But generally, it’s a 15–30 percent commission take per order that raises profitability concerns.

    In response, some restaurants set up in-house delivery and invested in apps or direct service through their site, tapping local couriers in certain cases. This way, they can control the experience and trigger cost levers. Perhaps a $10 flat fee, if customers are comfortable with doing so. Sometimes putting a COVID-19 price uptick out front, instead of fees piling up at the checkout, is greeted gentler by guests. Knowing extra funds are going to restaurants instead of aggregators can make a difference. Maybe that’s balanced by putting a tip field front and center in the ordering process.

    Either way, getting customers past coronavirus fears has not dissipated en masse. It might have softened in some circles, but it’s still a significant part of the equation for most. And there’s no saying today if it will fade further, maintain, or pick up as winter approaches. It continues to be a state of restaurant purgatory.

    Fears, and getting past them

    The CDC recently added aerosol transmission to its list of ways people can contract COVID-19. This revision indicated coronavirus can spread through a mist of small droplets and particles that float in the air for hours. The CDC did note this is a “sometimes” scenario and a much rarer possibility than if you came into close contact with an infected party. Yet it’s still a disturbing turn for restaurants and other indoor operations since it suggests COVID-19 can work its way around precautions, like plexiglass and even social distancing. Basically, a customer might walk through an undetectable mist someone left behind hours ago, and contract the virus.

    In the update, the CDC said “transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation.” It said airborne transmission could be curbed to some extent by ensuring air is circulated inside.

    Even before the CDC update, certain officials included ventilation and air circulation in reopening guidelines. For instance, San Francisco suggests keeping air conditioners on 24/7.

    So how is CDC and other top-level messaging affecting consumer confidence? It’s a complex question. Datassential painted the current dynamic as a reset rather than a reboot. Out of the pandemic gates, guests knew so little about coronavirus (the invisible enemy) actions were mostly driven by fear. People locked down and reacted as though it were end times. Paper goods were treasure.

    Time and knowledge, though, helped consumers become more confident and resilient, Datassential said. “We’re able to face new challenges by re-evaluating and resetting, rather than completely shutting down,” it added. “Diners won’t abandon restaurants, knowing there’s more risk, but they will take more precautions. Restaurants that go the extra mile will ensure they stay part of the customer consideration set.”

    In a September study with 1,500 consumers, Datassential looked into what it would take to ease the trepidation.

    Let’s start with reactions.

    “Have you done any of the following since pandemic restrictions have been in place?”

    Got restaurant food from a drive thru

    • September 24: 72 percent
    • May 19: 59 percent
    • Change: 14 percent

     

    Got takeout from a restaurant (went inside to pick it up)

    • September 24: 59 percent
    • May 19: 46 percent
    • Change: 13 percent

     

    Got curbside from a restaurant

    • September 24: 52 percent
    • May 19: 50 percent
    • Change: 2 percent

    Got restaurant food for delivery

    • September 24: 49 percent
    • May 19: 37 percent
    • Change: 12 percent

     

    Dined at a restaurant (had meal in main dining room)

    • September 24: 37 percent
    • May 19: 17 percent
    • Change: 19 percent

     

    Dine at restaurant (had meal at outdoor/patio seating)

    • September 24: 34 percent

     

    Got non-alcoholic beverages for delivery

    • September 24: 26 percent
    • Got adult beverages for delivery
    • September 24: 19 percent
    • May 19: 17 percent
    • Change: 2 percent

     

    Two things: Every measure is on the rise, which is overall good news for restaurants. The other interesting note is that curbside and beer, wine, and spirits delivery show the smallest leap. This isn’t a negative point—it hints these COVID-19 behaviors could stick. They remain as viable today as they did in the middle of May.

    Although customers remain concerned with dining in, comfort levels are slowly improving. To the point made by The Manifest, carry-out, delivery (and outdoor dining) are still preferred.

    “Today I feel comfortable and safe …”

    Off-premises

    • Getting restaurant food from a drive thru: 78 percent
    • Getting restaurant food for curbside pickup: 72 percent
    • Getting restaurant food delivered to me: 68 percent
    • Going inside restaurants to pick up my takeout order: 65 percent

    On-premises

    • Dining in the outdoor seating area at restaurants: 50 percent
    • Getting drinks in the outdoor seating area at bars: 45 percent
    • Dining inside sit-down restaurants: 38 percent
    • Dining inside fast-food restaurants: 36 percent (higher for millennials at 45 percent)
    • Getting drinks inside at bars: 35 percent (also higher for millennials at 43 percent)

     

    An early September CDC report linked dining out to increased COVID-19 risk. The lead point was adults who tested positive during the summer were twice as likely to have eaten on-site at a restaurant or drinking establishment within two weeks of being tested compared to those who were coronavirus negative. The study was met with plenty of criticism from industry officials.

    Still, did it matter to potential guests?

    Datassential asked respondents if they were aware. Fifty-five percent said they were (men higher at 60 percent, as well as the Western region at 61 percent).

    Reflecting a day one truth, whether or not people considered the official stance credible was pretty split. Forty-eight percent said the CDC's report was “very credible.” Thirty-nine percent said “somewhat credible.” Thirteen percent believed it to be “not credible.”

    Diners in Datassential’s study, mostly, said they’d heed CDC findings. Yet they would also continue eating out.

    “Does the new report from the CDC change how you feel about dining at restaurants/bars?”

    • 39 percent: Haven’t dine out during pandemic due to safety concerns
    • 26 percent: Will dine out with more precautions
    • 20 percent: Will stop until it’s safer
    • 15 percent: Not worried and will continue to dine out

     

    The CDC report did appear to make guests more discerning, at least when presented with the findings and then asked how they felt.

    The following percentages are “true” responses.

    • Restaurants should require guests to follow safety guidelines: 84 percent
    • I’ll check places are strictly enforcing safety precautions before deciding where to eat: 80 percent
    • I’ll wear a mask at all times, before and after eating while in a restaurant: 80 percent
    • I’ll expect other diners to wear masks at all times, before and after eating: 76 percent (Boomers placed this at 81 percent)
    • I will probably only get restaurant food for takeout/delivery: 69 percent
    • I will probably eat out less overall (compared to the past few weeks): 68 percent
    • I will probably choose fast food more than sit-down restaurants: 68 percent
    • Restaurants shouldn’t be allowed to offer dine-in service (inside main dining room): 58 percent
    • I will only eat at restaurants where I can be seated outside/on the patio: 48 percent
    • Restaurants shouldn’t have to follow specific safety guidelines; guests should act responsibly: 35 percent
    • I will dine out more anyway; I've been waiting so long for restaurants to reopen: 31 percent (a full 10 points higher for millennials at 41 percent).

     

    Here were some responses from guests on what they want to see to feel more comfortable:

    “Allow me to witness the wiping down of the table and chairs, everyone inside wears masks, all the employees wear gloves, nothing on the table except freshly washed dishes, tables spaced far apart.”

    “Making sure the table and chairs you will be dining and sitting on are totally wiped down, including the menu, pen which used to sign the bill, etc.”

    “Because the threat comes from ignorant, selfish customers, I suggest all restaurants temporarily invoke a reservation process to control the traffic better.“

    The overarching takeaway is that restaurants are still playing a balancing act with guests. It’s not time (if it ever fully will be) to abandon an omnichannel approach. Guests are at very different need states today—something that varies by demographic, market, personality, and a lot of other things restaurants can’t pinpoint to an exact science.

    Thus, the best approach is one that’s been in play for months now. Only presently it comes with even better tech options and solutions, and a guest that feels better about their ability to prevent contraction. Simply, customers need options. Safe dine-in practices. Off-premises channels to tap, from curbside to delivery to enhanced pickup methods (like order-ahead and pickup shelves) to take-home kits to virtual offshoots. Agility, leading with safety, and multiple order points build the loyalty foundation in a COVID-19 world.