The decision to reopen dining rooms or keep them closed, despite regulations lifting, is one restaurants have not taken lightly. While the pros and cons differ by brand and circumstance in states like Georgia, Texas, and Tennessee, the goal pretty much stays the same: Keep customers and employees safe.
But what do soon-to-be guests want from restaurants? What are the questions operators must answer before greeting them?
VIPinsiders, a platform run by fifth-generation restaurateur Philipp Sitter, took a unique approach to answering these dilemmas. The company sent a mass poll through restaurants clients’ email, text, and social sites; ran independent social media ads; and engaged with active Facebook groups. In about 24 hours, it received 8,511 responses.
The result isn’t information from politicians, doctors, and local governments, the company said, but rather the thoughts of everyday people who will actually open up their wallets in the coming days and weeks.
“The results reflect a shocking number of expectations from diners including how much they are willing to spend and what type of restaurant marketing they will be receptive to moving forward,” Sitter said in a statement.
Let’s start with one of the most-widely asked questions: Should your restaurant invest in personal protective equipment, or PPE?
“What type of PPE do you want restaurants to use after reopening?”
- Gloves: 14.1 percent
- Masks: 24 percent
- Both: 61.9 percent
This seems a pretty standard reality for most. The below question, however, is harder to gauge or predict. And it might change quicker than people assume. Or much slower. That’s kind of the jagged story of COVID-19 thus far, isn’t it?
“How long would you like restaurant employees to use PPE?”
- 30 days: 39.1 percent
- 60 days: 20.8 percent
- 90 days: 12.7 percent
- Rest of the year: 12.1 percent
- Indefinitely: 15.3 percent
It’s pretty interesting more than 1,200 people believed restaurant employees should wear masks for the foreseeable future. That could turn into a hefty investment for multi-unit chains. Yet one they have no real choice but to shoulder. Some concepts have gotten creative with making their own in-store for first responders. Perhaps that might turn into making masks for their own employees. Regardless, it’s a conversation operators are already having with suppliers—planning not just to equip workers today, but also developing plans to update, replace, and continue to provide as time goes on. The mask and glove conversation won’t go away when the off-premises-restricted world does.
In some states and local jurisdictions, face coverings are required by government officials; some employers require them, too. In all cases, those coverings worn by employees should be kept clean in accordance with CDC guidance and cleaned daily. You can find that here.
“Are disposable, single-use menus important to you?”
- Yes: 58.7 percent
- No: 41.3 percent
This might be a larger concern for full-service operators, those restaurants that bring menus to the table. Quick-service chains could, in theory, just take their menus off the dining-room floor and let people look solely at the menuboard. Or just have disposable to-go paper options for customers to grab if needed.
Despite there being no evidence of coronavirus being transmitted by food or food packaging, it’s still on guests’ minds. Rewards Network offered up some marketing tips to help restaurants connect with consumers through to-go materials.
One option is to place a “thank you” flyer into each to-go order bag. That could also be a way to divert some consumers to direct delivery instead of third-party, if viable and desired. Restaurants could provide instructions on how to order and where, along with the precautions they’re taking.
Operators are also finding success with incentives designed to encourage repeat business. Things as simple as special offers for an appetizer, drink, dessert, etc. with each takeout/delivery order. COVID-19 has narrowed the decision-making process for diners. They’re putting more stock in trust and familiarity than variety. And now could be a great time to supplement a positive experience with a deal that inspires another one.
“Is it important to you that a restaurant checks all guests and staff temperatures before dining?”
- Yes: 46.3 percent
- No: 53.7 percent
A recent Datassential study showed that 61 percent of customers said they would support having their temperature taken before dining out. Another 41 percent said they’d show proof of wellness. Although those numbers aren’t small, they were the lowest on the company’s list of options, falling behind 6 of more feet of distance (85 percent); customers sanitizing their hands upon entering (81 percent); customers at bar must have a seat (81 percent); must wait outside if waiting for a table (73 percent); seating by reservation only (69 percent); and no physical menus (65 percent).
It’s a balancing act to ensure safety and not be invasive. Also, constantly taking these measures with guests can be unsettling. To some extent, people will want to forget their COVID-19 troubles when they’re dining out. How restaurants can sate their fears and yet also manage not remind them constantly of what’s happening will be an intriguing challenge.
The employee part is a different story, though.
Houston restaurateur Levi Goode, chef/owner of Goode Company, announced last week that it’s instituting mandatory COVID-19 testing for all current employees. The company is working with Hamilton Health Box, a primary and urgent care microclinic operator. Additionally, the company is providing masks and gloves, and temperature screening employees as they arrive. It’s rolling out paper menus, single-use condiments, and increasing space between tables in the dining rooms for guests.
On April 23, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated its guidance to address employer testing for COVID-19, noting that it is permissible during the pandemic under the ADA.
The ADA requires that any mandatory medical test of employees be "job related and consistent with business necessity.” Applying this standard to the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers may now take steps to determine if employees entering the workplace have COVID-19 because an individual with the virus will pose a direct threat to the health of others. Therefore, an employer may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus
The CDC has not mandated taking an employee’s temperature and any operator who chooses to do so should engage health officials first and adopt policies aligned with proper procedures. CDC guidance states the minimum temperature that indicates a fever is 100 degrees.
“How often did you dine out before the COVID-19 crisis?”
- 1–2 times per week: 37.9 percent
- 2–4 times per week: 36 percent
- 2–4 times per month: 18.8 percent
- 1–2 times per month: 7.3 percent
And the big question: “How often do you plan on dining out after restaurants reopen?”
- Same as before: 50.9 percent
- Less than before: 45.9 percent
- More than before: 3.2 percent
In sum, from where we stand today (in the middle of a pandemic) people remain wary of dining out and unsure what the future of social distancing holds. But this could change in a matter of days. Hopefully it will, for the better.
“When do you feel your normal dining-out routine will be back to normal?”
- Immediately: 14.5 percent
- Few weeks: 16.3 percent
- 30 days: 13.8 percent
- 60 days: 17.3 percent
- 90 days: 14.4 percent
- End of the year: 16.7 percent
- My dining routine has changed for good: 7 percent
This is really all over the place, as you might expect. It’s the type of question restaurants need to be proactive with and drive the narrative.
Rewards Network believes operators can get creative to garner revenue and capitalize on sales during stay-at-home mandates. However, these decisions also have the potential to stir up business later on by catching diners’ eyes when they’re ready to venture out. And as noted before, winning a customer over during a crisis has long-term sticky possibilities.
Curate a to-go picnic basket: Maybe people are ready to go outside, but not sit in a crowded restaurant. A restaurant might offer a more attractive one-day option than another harrowing trip to the grocery store. The concept could compile its best, easy-to-eat options and a few refreshing beverages along with to-go containers, cups, and cutlery in a branded basket for a set price. “People are excited to enjoy the outdoors during these times, and now they can enjoy their favorite dishes from your restaurant, too,” Rewards Network said.
Build a themed menu: If people are binging TV shows, or there’s a highly touted launch coming up, restaurants could offer on-theme dishes from ingredients already in store for delivery and takeout. Rewards Network suggests raising the stakes and encouraging customers to share a photo of themselves enjoying their meal while watching their favorite show.
Share your skills: Present deconstructed versions of popular items, or cocktails, and go live on social media to host virtual cooking classes. Step-by-step and/or time-lapse cooking videos are also a great engagement tool for a restaurants’ social media pages. Consumers can share their final creations and tag/follow a brand’s page.
Host a game night: Cater to social engagement. Include bingo cards with a takeout/delivery order and then pick a night to host a virtual bingo game on Facebook or Instagram Live, Rewards Network offers. It could spur more off-premises business and become a weekly habit for guests looking for something different.
“What’s the most effective way restaurants can market their offers to you?
- Social media: 23.2 percent
- Text message marketing: 27.1 percent
- Emails: 14.7 percent
- Loyalty/rewards program: 35 percent
"A restaurant's ability to market itself and earn its customer base back is more important than ever, and specifically, knowing how customers want to receive the offers is crucial. According to this survey, they no longer want emails and social media won't do the trick like it once did," Sitter said.
This comes back to the trust factor. There’s not a ton of discovery going on among consumers looking for dinner. But people are undoubtedly leaning on the restaurants they’re comfortable with. And rewards programs also tend to involve some sort of order functionality, which caters to another powerful contactless COVID-19 tool. Frictionless operations haven’t gone away in light of the crisis. In some cases, they’ve become even more important. One of the setbacks with digital ordering, however, especially as it pertains to full-service restaurants, is the beverage attachment. There isn’t as much room to upsell at one checkout point as there is throughout a sit-down meal. This is where rewards incentives could come in handy, and check-backs to generate business from infrequent users.
“What price range are you looking for when you dine out again?”
- $10–$15 entrée range: 42.8 percent
- $15–$25 entrée range: 26 percent
- $25–$40 entrée range: 2.6 percent
- Doesn’t matter: 28.6 percent
This is simply a dynamic that needs to be monitored closely as the economy emerges out of COVID-19. How much will it hurt discretionary income? Will we be in a recession? All of these notions are fluid, and will affect restaurants’ menu and marketing calendars for months to come. Perhaps years. Restaurants have proven adept at adjusting to recession-like trends—more so than retail and other industries. Just what that means exactly for a post-coronavirus world, we’re not sure. McDonald’s said last week it’s seeing heightened focus on value and convenience. Additionally, larger checks as people order for groups and not just themselves.
COVID-19 could redraw value lines between segments that were starting to blur before the crisis. Fine dining, for example, might get more expensive given the changing competitive set and shift in demand. Some fast casuals might take that route, too. Others might pull closer to quick service. It’s a monitor-and-adapt situation.
“Has this price range changed due to the recent events?”
- Yes: 21.3 percent
- No: 78.7 percent
“After restaurants reopen, how likely are you to use curbside delivery as a service””
- Not so likely: 15.5 percent
- Somewhat likely: 34.4 percent
- Very likely: 31.9 percent
- Extremely likely: 18.2 percent
This is a data point that speaks for itself. We don’t know if the “new normal,” will take hold forever. Curbside, though, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. For a lot of restaurants, especially full-serves with parking, it might sustain for good. Here’s a look at why it’s been so popular to date.
“Do you agree the restaurant shutdown was necessary and we should do it again if another outbreak occurs?”
- Very disagreeable: 1.6 percent
- Disagreeable: 2.7 percent
- Somewhat disagreeable: 6 percent
- Somewhat agreeable: 16.5 percent
- Agreeable: 22.2 percent
- Very agreeable: 51.1 percent
It’s difficult to fathom a second wave and hopefully that day never arrives in force. Or if does, there’s ample safeguards in place to make dining-room business still viable. But if COVID-19 round two takes football season with it, it could be a catastrophic turn for many.
“What would you like disposable after reopening [for the next 90 days]?”
- Plastic ware: 22.1 percent
- Plates: 6.4 percent
- Cups: 10.6 percent
- Menus: 18.7 percent
- Single-use condiments: 17 percent
- None of the above: 14.1 percent
- All of the above: 22.1 percent
Another conversation to be having today with suppliers.
Despite all the precautions and concerns and operational changes ahead, there’s another, more positive reality to pull from. People miss dining out. Not just for the food, but also for the psychological benefits.
“When dining rooms reopen, there will be a heightened appreciation for them and the sense of normalcy they evoke,” Datassential said.
Americans links restaurants with better pre-COVID-19 days and milestone moments. They’re the connective tissue people miss and want to bring back into their lives.
These are the responses from a May released 1,000-consumer study:
- Eating at restaurants reminds me of better times: 71 percent
- Eating at restaurants will help me feel normal again: 70 percent
- Dining in will feel more special once restaurants reopen: 70 percent
- Dining out lets me to do my part in helping the community: 63 percent
- Celebrations at home haven’t been the same: 62 percent
- Dining out will make me feel connected to community again: 60 percent
- Local restaurants feel like part of my home/community: 53 percent
- It’s a big part of how I socialize: 51 percent
- Ordering from restaurants is an escape/treat during COVID: 50 percent
- I have missed dining in restaurants more than other things: 50 percent
Why will people return to restaurants? These are the emotional benefits people are most looking forward to:
- Relaxation: 41 percent
- Joy: 38 percent
- Satisfaction: 35 percent
- Indulgence/rewards: 34 percent
- Warmth/comfort: 24 percent
- Appreciation/gratitude: 22 percent
- Peace/contentment: 22 percent
- Excitement/anticipation: 21 percent
- Relief: 21 percent
- Inspiration: 9 percent
- Curiosity: 7 percent
- None: 12 percent
Put plainly, there are no shortage of reasons customers will flock back. It comes down to a few things for restaurants: Getting through the crisis, being ready for what’s on the other side, and building loyalty through differentiation and familiarity.
Not easy tasks, but light at the end of the very long COVID-19 tunnel.