Most Restaurant Customers Aren’t Waiting for a Vaccine

    They’re more concerned with how operators are handling the crisis today.

    Chairs by an empty bar-top in a restaurant.
    Unsplash/Jonas Jacobsson
    Some COVID-19 realities are external and out of operators’ reach. Others can be controlled

    Coca-Cola’s first round of COVID-19 research looked into how operators perceive the pandemic and the road out. The headline being only 45 percent of operators polled believed they’d last a year as things stand today.

    The company shared its second half with QSR, which centered on consumers. When will guests return? What will convince them to do so? And how has the social justice movement impacted intent to visit Black-owned restaurants?

    Here’s what Coca-Cola uncovered:

    Starting with concerns, 65 percent of diners said they were or were somewhat troubled about getting takeout.

    As you’d expect, the number jumps—to 80 percent—on the prospect of dining in.

    Half of respondents said they expected to be ready to order takeout within a week to two weeks of a restaurant reopening. To dine-in again? At least a month.

    Consumers said they were more comfortable returning to quick-service and fast-casual outlets, following by casual dining and fine dining.

    • Quick-service and fast-casual takeout: One to two weeks
    • Casual-dining takeout: Two to three weeks
    • Fine-dining takeout: Three to four weeks
    • Quick-service, fast-casual, and casual dine-in: Five to six weeks
    • Fine-dining dine-in: Seven to eight weeks

     

    How can restaurants accelerate the process? Some realities are external and out of operators’ reach. Others can be controlled.

    Consumers in Coca-Cola’s study said they were more concerned about restaurants demonstrating safe health practices than they were about a COVID treatment or vaccine. The latter options feel ages away to most. And there’s plenty of skepticism out there. But what’s happening inside restaurants today is something consumers can see first-hand.

    Consumers tapped the most important factors driving their decision to return to restaurants as follows (in descending order):

    • 1. Restaurants demonstrate health practices: 50 percent
    • 2. Restaurants reopen without spike in cases: 46 percent
    • 3. COVID treatment available: 45 percent
    • 3. COVID vaccine available: 45 percent
    • 4. Government declares it safe: 35 percent

     

    This final point is a unique one for today’s COVID climate. You could argue government regulations restricted demand for restaurants, not economic conditions, or even sentiment toward dining out amid a pandemic (although that has played a role in circles). There’s some proof if you follow the bounce back during early reopenings. It bears asking if the switch flips back on, will the traffic flood in, as opposed to slowly trickling over time? Hard to say. It could depend on whether or not people trust the message, and if it’s accompanied by anything tangible, like a treatment. Either way, it’s best restaurants focus on Coca-Cola’s top two spotlights—the only factors they can take ownership of.

    Speaking of the message, when deciding whether it’s safe to eat at a restaurant, consumers said they most trust information from friends, family, and other restaurant patrons (51 percent). They also trust what restaurants say about themselves (33 percent).

    Here are the precautions guests would like to see:

    • 1. Provide hand sanitizing stations/wipes for patrons: 80 percent
    • 2. Increased visibility of cleaning and sanitizing efforts: 78 percent
    • 2. Require employees to wear masks: 78 percent
    • 2. Limit the number of patrons in restaurants: 78 percent
    • 3. Temperature checks for employees: 75 percent
    • 4. Require employees to wear gloves: 74 percent

     

    This next set of data is invaluable, too. Restaurants, while needing to show enhanced safety measures, also don’t want to drown consumers in it. At the end of the day, eating out is supposed to be an escape from quarantine drag, not a reinforcement of it. There’s a balancing act to play for restaurants.

    Precautions consumers do not want to see at restaurants:

    • 1. Requiring personal info for contract tracing: 35 percent
    • 2. Require patrons to wear masks: 15 percent
    • 3. Temperature checks for patrons: 13 percent

     

    Ninety-four percent of consumers said a set of universally recognized standards and rating systems that all restaurants could follow would be helpful in understand whether or not a restaurant is safe. State-by-state it’s somewhat hard to imagine this coming to fruition, but the idea would provide relief and clarity to many operators, particularly multi-unit ones, as well as consumers.

    On the topic of social issues, more than a third of respondents said they were more inclined to seek out and visit Black-owned restaurants when they reopen.

    • All patrons: 35 percent
    • Patrons in New York: 39 percent
    • Patrons in Washington: 34 percent
    • Patrons in Florida: 31 percent
    • Patrons in urban communities: 44 percent
    • Gen Z and millennial patrons: 46 percent
    • Black patrons: 60 percent

     

    Some other data points:

    • Eighty-four percent of Black-owned restaurants said they’ve made staff reductions due to COVID.
    • Black restaurant owners have invested an average of $7,300 to adapt to new operations.
    • Sixty-six percent said it would take at least six months to recoup the expense.
    • Ninety-percent want a consistent set of guidelines for reopenings. The same percentage worry a second wave of infections would force another shutdown.