Once COVID-19’s assault on dine-in business settled into long-term reality, restaurants turned to meal kits and family bundles. The rush reflected changing behavior. When consumers made the leap, whether via curbside, drive thru, or delivery, they simply ordered more food. Solo occasions or small-ticket hauls fell dramatically. People wanted to make experiences last. Or, they were just ordering food for multiple people. In some ways, it mirrored pandemic grocery store habits. This was stocking up for restaurant goers.

So a natural extension of the dining shift, from the operators’ side, was to meet consumers head on. And family bundles were the answer. Everything from Memorial Day take-home kits to straightforward options that feed four and cost X amount.

As is the case with most COVID-19 trends, however, restaurants today are debating whether bulk menus will endure. The answer is going to be critical to covering revenue gaps as unknowns disrupt the traditional cash-flow conversation.

Global strategy and marketing consulting firm Simon-Kucher & Partners recently conducted a survey that examined dining habits pre, during, and post COVID-19. One note it circled was a 4 percent shift in favor of “home-cooked meals,” over restaurants six to 12 months post lockdowns (from 33 to 37 percent).

If you go off the National Restaurant Association’s 2020 projected sales figure of $898 billion (a pre-COVID-19 estimate), operators could be staring down a $50 billion hole created by the crisis.


1. Coronavirus & The Impact on Eating

2. Fear and Response

3. Into the Home

4. Hands Off 

5. Sheltered

6. Pent-Up Demand

7. The Operator Story

8. Making Money Move

9. Reinvention

10. Money Matters

11. The Trust Issue

12. Ready or Not

13. The Next Phase


One possible, clear solution: Give people food they can substitute for “home-cooked meals.”

Datassential’s recent report, “Here I Come,” polled 4,000 U.S. consumers. Forty-two percent of respondents said they’ve ordered a family meal bundle at least once during COVID-19. And 38 percent said they would likely continue ordering them when the pandemic abates.

Where there’s demand, there’s opportunity, too.

Datassential first wanted to identify barriers. The things keeping people from ordering twice? A lack of variety or unwanted items. Consumers also want to see fewer and more eco-friendly containers. “Restaurants should consider flexible or mix-and-match choices and minimizing packaging to raise demand,” the company said.

“Regarding the family meal bundles now available from restaurants, please rate the following statements true or false.” (the answers reflect “true” levels).

  • I’d prefer if takeout came in more eco-friendly containers: 57 percent
  • I’d prefer if family meal bundles came with fewer containers: 47 percent
  • I’ve avoided family meal bundles because people want to choose their own dish: 44 percent
  • Family meals have been great during COVID, but I wouldn’t order after the pandemic: 44 percent
  • I haven’t ordered family meal bundles because I don’t like all of the items included: 40 percent
  • I’ve been ordering family meal bundles because they’re a better value for the money: 36 percent
  • I’ve been ordering family meal bundles so I’ll have food to eat over multiple meals: 33 percent
  • I started ordering/increased orders from a meal-kit service due to COVID: 21 percent


When you consider nearly four out of every 10 people don’t like all the items in a bundle, offering product flexibility appears a powerful bridge to repeat visits. And it could be a great time to get customers used to digital ordering, if viable. Trying to make those types of changes over the phone might get messy when dine-in service return to prior levels.

The value note is an interesting element as well to spotlight as time progresses. It’s played a powerful COVID-19 role in luring consumers from grocers and massive two-week bills. That market-share battle might soon shift back to normal levels—the wallet war against other restaurants offering meal kits. As always, it will come down to how consumers define value and what market trends reflect. Is it abundance? Quality? Eco-friendly packaging? Straight price?

Family meals could very well evolve into the post-pandemic version of the dollar menu. Value wars for a social distant consumer.

Let’s explore the flexibility opportunity further. One of the benefits of ordering carryout is that family members have freedom of choice. Consistent with a past Datassential report, which showed demand for build-your-own meals, guests are most interested in family meal bundles that lead with flexibility; mix-and-match choices or foods that are customizable.

As Americans become more price conscious, they’ll also appreciate family meals that give them stretchable bang for their buck. One price that can last multiple meals, in other terms.

“If restaurants continue to offer family meal bundles, which types would you prefer?”

Family meals with mix-and-match options

  • Extremely interested: 34 percent
  • Somewhat interested: 37 percent
  • Not interested: 29 percent


Family meals you can customize for each person

  • Extremely interested: 31 percent
  • Somewhat interested: 36 percent
  • Not interested: 33 percent


Family meals with two entrees, for choice

  • Extremely interested: 30 percent
  • Somewhat interested: 41 percent
  • Not interested: 29 percent


Family-size portions of single dish for multiple meals

  • Extremely interested: 30 percent
  • Somewhat interested: 39 percent
  • Not interested: 32 percent


Multiple individual servings to eat over several days

  • Extremely interested: 29 percent
  • Somewhat interested: 38 percent
  • Not interested: 33 percent


Family meals: one large entree and small side dishes

  • Extremely interested: 29 percent
  • Somewhat interested: 39 percent
  • Not interested: 32 percent


Heat & Eat/Take-and-Bake meals

  • Extremely interested: 29 percent
  • Somewhat interested: 39 percent
  • Not interested: 33 percent


Full multi-course meals

  • Extremely interested: 27 percent
  • Somewhat interested: 35 percent
  • Not interested: 38 percent


Restaurant meal-kits

  • Extremely interested: 22 percent
  • Somewhat interested: 35 percent
  • Not interested: 43 percent


Family meals for breakfast/brunch

  • Extremely interested: 20 percent
  • Somewhat interested: 32 percent
  • Not interested: 48 percent


The type of family meal itself will really come down to the restaurant. But there are nuances operators can explore.

Datassential said households with kids seek family meals that offer “easy to please” options for the entire family, like classic comfort foods (meatloaf, chili) or customizable, build-your-own meals (sandwiches, tacos). One in three consumers said they would like better-for-you options. This could pick up as people emerge from quarantines looking to get back to fitness goals. For now, though, the classics reign during uncertain times. A sense of the familiar.

“What types of family meals would you like to see more of?”

  • Comfort/classic foods: 40 percent (more likely among households with kids at 48 percent)
  • Build-your-own foods: 35 percent (also more likely among households with kids at 47 percent)
  • Healthy/better-for-you foods: 32 percent
  • Indulgent foods: 29 percent
  • International/ethnic foods: 24 percent
  • New/trendy foods and flavors: 21 percent (more likely among millennials at 30 percent and households with kids, 30 percent)
  • Upscale/chef-inspired foods: 17 percent (higher among millennials at 22 percent)
  • Specific diet-based foods: 14 percent (more likely among Gen Z at 26 percent, millennials at 23 percent, and singles at 20 percent)
  • Vegetarian/meatless/plant-based foods: 13 percent (higher with Gen Z at 21 percent)
  • None/not interested in family meals: 23 percent


As we’ve seen throughout the crisis, many consumers want to go big or cook at home. The middle ground isn’t as defined as it once was. This applies to family meals, too.

“If restaurants were to offer family meal bundles, what would you want them to include?”

  • Entrée plus appetizers/sides plus desserts: 32 percent
  • Entrée plus appetizers/sides: 46 percent (highest among Midwest region at 55 percent)
  • Entrée only: 22 percent


This below measure offers a lot of categories to consider for restaurants. Generally, the core is always the best place to start. Whatever the brand is known for. Take the icons and present them in bundle form. But that doesn’t mean operators can’t get creative throughout a week. Taco Tuesday deals. Wings for big events (maybe it’s a TV launch if there’s no sports). Pizza night with unexpected ingredients. And so on.

“What kinds of family-meal bundle options would you like to see from your favorite restaurants.”

  • Mexican food: 34 percent
  • Italian food: 33 percent
  • Pizza: 31 percent
  • BBQ: 28 percent
  • Asian food: 27 percent
  • Burgers: 26 percent
  • Fried chicken: 25 percent
  • Pasta: 22 percent
  • Seafood: 20 percent
  • Wings: 18 percent
  • Grilled chicken: 18 percent
  • Lasagna: 17 percent
  • Chicken strips/nuggets: 16 percent
  • Steak: 15 percent
  • Sub sandwiches: 15 percent
  • Entrée salads: 13 percent
  • Mac & cheese: 12 percent
  • Greek food: 12 percent
  • Breakfast entrees: 10 percent
  • Soul food: 8 percent
  • Pancakes/waffles: 8 percent
  • Cold deli sandwiches: 8 percent


One of the most consistent COVID-19 trends centers on average check. It’s soared for quick-serves (thanks to bundles and bigger orders) and dropped for full-serves (due to fewer beverages sold via takeout).

To put this into perspective, Black Box Intelligence reported, in the week ended May 10, beverage comp sales in four states with dine-in reopenings (Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, and Florida) averaged negative 67 percent during the period. At the national level, it was down 95 percent.

That proves just how massive a difference dine-in service makes when it comes to beverage attachment. Those are restricted markets operating under limited capacity, and yet the shift was instantly dramatic.

How does this play for family meals? Datassential found that while most consumers don’t want beverage included in bundle options, one in three customers among the younger generations and households with kids would prefer the option.

“How do you feel about beverages being included in family meal bundles?

  • Don’t want beverages, have drinks at home: 46 percent
  • I like beverages included in family meals: 24 percent (more likely among Gen Z at 39 percent, millennials at 37 percent, households with kids at 37 percent, and singles at 31 percent)
  • Don’t want, everyone in the household picks their own drink: 18 percent
  • Don’t want beverages, it’s too risky due to COVID: 7 percent
  • I don’t want beverages (other reason): 5 percent


A return to normal?

This could change in the weeks to come, but, for now, it seems clear many consumers would prefer restaurants keep social distancing options in place when getting food to go. Consider those old days when restaurants had to have non-smoking and smoking sections. You have to please both crowds or risk sending one to the nearest competitor.

This data set is for quick-service restaurants, including fast casual.

“Which would you like counter-service restaurants to continue offering even after they reopen for dining in?”

  • Curbside service: 42 percent
  • Order-ahead options: 39 percent
  • Drive-thru staff comes to car to take orders and bring food: 32 percent
  • Walk-up order windows: 29 percent
  • Staff takes order while you’re waiting in line: 24 percent
  • Expanded delivery zones: 23 percent (more likely among millennials at 33 percent)
  • Expanded delivery hours: 21 percent (more likely among millennials at 28 percent)
  • None of these: 19 percent


Shifting focus to full-service, however, the conversation really doesn’t change much. Diners hope for the same social-distancing measures from sit-down restaurants.

One in four said they would also appreciate the option of adult beverages to-go. Millennials want to keep convenience-driven services like order ahead and expanded delivery zones.

“Which would you like sit-down restaurants to continue offering even after they reopen for dining in?”

  • Curbside pickup: 47 percent
  • Walk-up order windows: 29 percent
  • Order-ahead options: 29 percent
  • Expanded delivery zones: 24 percent
  • Expanded delivery hours: 21 percent
  • Adult beverages for takeout/delivery: 21 percent
  • None: 21 percent


What can buffet concepts do?

Here’s a conversation that has come up before (and will surface again). People trust restaurants more than they trust other diners.

During the pandemic, delivery and carryout established themselves as tried-and-true ordering methods. Most people will also consider options, though, where safety is in the hands of the restaurant staff, like dine-in service or assembly lines. There remains a high level of discomfort with anything that involves self-service and open food, like buffets and salad bars.

“How risky do you consider each of the following ways to get food?”

Buffet-style restaurant

  • Too risky: 57 percent
  • Somewhat risky: 29 percent
  • Not risky: 14 percent


Salad bar-style restaurant

  • Too risky: 54 percent
  • Somewhat risky: 31 percent
  • Not risky: 15 percent


Salad/soup bar at the grocery store

  • Too risky: 50 percent
  • Somewhat risky: 33 percent
  • Not risky: 17 percent


Cafeteria-style serving line

  • Too risky: 42 percent
  • Somewhat risky: 41 percent
  • Not risky: 18 percent


Dine-in at fast-food restaurants

  • Too risky: 35 percent
  • Somewhat risky: 43 percent
  • Not risky: 22 percent


Sit-down service at restaurants

  • Too risky: 34 percent
  • Somewhat risky: 43 percent
  • Not risky: 23 percent


Hot/prepared foods from convenience stores

  • Too risky: 34 percent
  • Somewhat risky: 44 percent
  • Not risky: 23 percent


Restaurants where workers assemble food in front of you

  • Too risky: 26 percent
  • Somewhat risky: 48 percent
  • Not risky: 26 percent


Delivery from restaurants

  • Too risky: 14 percent
  • Somewhat risky: 43 percent
  • Not risky: 43 percent


Carryout/takeout food from restaurants

  • Too risky: 13 percent
  • Somewhat risky: 41 percent
  • Not risky: 46 percent


There’s no question salad bars and buffet-style restaurants face a turbulent path forward. Garden Fresh Restaurants, the parent company of self-service chains Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy earlier in the month, meaning it surrendered assets and closed all 97 locations permanently.

Datassential said these kinds of concepts are going to require more precautionary steps in order to ease consumer concerns. Anything that promotes social distancing, protects open food, and eliminates the need for multi-touch contact with surfaces will be a requirement, or at least “nice to have,” almost universally, the company said.

Requiring staff to serve food is a positive, but it is lower on the list of requirements. Boomers and women are most stringent in their requirements, while Gen Z consumers are much less demanding.

“How do you feel about precautions that salad bars and buffet-style restaurants are taking to make you feel comfortable?”

Sneeze guards/shields placed above the food

  • Requirement: 69 percent
  • Positive, but not required: 21 percent
  • Not needed: 10 percent


Limited number of diners allowed to get food at once

  • Requirement: 59 percent
  • Positive, but not required: 30 percent
  • Not needed: 11 percent


Guarantee that food is rotated at regular intervals

  • Requirement: 58 percent
  • Positive, but not required: 31 percent
  • Not needed: 11 percent


Staff makes sure people interact with the food safely

  • Requirement: 56 percent
  • Positive, but not required: 31 percent
  • Not needed: 11 percent


Only single-serve condiments

  • Requirement: 56 percent
  • Positive, but not required: 30 percent
  • Not needed: 14 percent


Covers for each food compartment

  • Requirement: 55 percent
  • Positive, but not required: 32 percent
  • Not needed: 13 percent


Single-use serving utensils for each container

  • Requirement: 55 percent
  • Positive, but not required: 31 percent
  • Not needed: 14 percent


Gloves/masks for customers at self-service stations

  • Requirement: 54 percent
  • Positive, but not required: 33 percent
  • Not needed: 13 percent


Staff at each food station serves you the food

  • Requirement: 46 percent
  • Positive, but not required: 38 percent
  • Not needed: 16 percent


Order items you want; staff brings to you

  • Requirement: 39 percent
  • Positive, but not required: 43 percent
  • Not needed: 19 percent


The power of contactless

Although providing a contactless experience at every level is the utopian image, nearly half of consumers told Datassential they want restaurants to prioritize limiting contact during food prep, followed by contactless pickup or delivery. This was salient for Boomers, who generally perceive themselves as high risk during COVID-19.

“When is it most important to have a ‘contactless’ experience at restaurants?”

  • Low/non-contact food preparation: 46 percent (higher among Boomers at 60 percent)
  • Contactless pickup/delivery: 25 percent (more likely among millennials at 32 percent)
  • Contactless ordering: 16 percent
  • Contactless payment: 13 percent (higher among Gen Z at 27 percent)


How do you promote contactless food preparation? That’s not as simple as contactless ordering or pickup. This is where transparency and marketing comes into focus. Thank you notes into takeout packages, or confirmed receipts upon digital orders. These could be good places to include a message about how the food was prepared and all the steps the restaurant took to ensure safety. Website tabs for COVID-19 actions, email communications. Blasting out a feature on specific employees could be a proactive way to share personal stories and provide a peek into what goes into preparing food in this coronavirus world. Every effort made, find a way to showcase in a manner that provides a sense of security to customers looking for that one extra thing to hold onto.

Here are some dos and don’ts from Datassential’s respondents.


  • “Place customers at tables that are spaced at 6 feet apart.”
  • “Plexiglas/shields between workers and patrons.”
  • “Close down all self-serve food stations.”
  • “If there is no drive-up window and it’s not feasible to open a drive-thru, set aside a parking space for pick-up.”
  • “Allow mobile/online ordering from table instead of in-person waitstaff.”
  • “Individual packs of condiments at table (instead of communal multi-use bottles).”


And don’ts:

  • “Pretend everything is back to normal and act like we did before the pandemic.”
  • “Offer finger foods or shared plates.”
  • “Allow sick people to work, but do not fire them—jobs are hard enough to get.”
  • “Have community condiments, beverage dispensers, or bread baskets.”
  • “Be disrespectful, be mean to the elderly, and forget about hospitality.”
  • “Have runners or multiple people serving one table.”
Consumer Trends, Customer Experience, Menu Innovations, Restaurant Operations, Story