COVID-19, and the 4 New Paradigms of Guest Perception

    How operators handle these shifts and adapt today will predict how well guests receive and perceive restaurant concepts tomorrow.

    Hamburger on the window of a food truck.

    pexels/Adrianna Calvo

    In partnership with the rise and acceptance of takeout and delivery orders, meals prepared in food trucks, ghost kitchens and consolidated take-out/delivery units will continue to gain a broader customer base.

    I have spent my career defining and designing restaurant brands in partnership with some of the world’s greatest restaurateurs, from multi-unit operators to independents, and nothing has or (hopefully) will challenged us more than this global pandemic.

    Consumers are feeling and experiencing things they never have before. From what they deem “necessary” to how accepting they are to social gatherings, consumers are being forced to make decisions for very different reasons than before. While we don’t quite know exactly how this will manifest long-term, we can reshape our operational future by relying on what we do now and moving forward.

    For restaurant operators, there are four new paradigms of guest perception that should be focused on. How we handle these paradigm shifts and adapt today will predict how well guests receive and perceive restaurant concepts tomorrow. Now is a time to embrace change, look forward and create stronger concepts in the process.

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    Prior to the pandemic, guests really didn’t have to think through a risk/reward analysis associated with dining out. The decision-making process was much more focused on dining occasions tied to convenience, socialization, and entertainment or escape. Now, guests must consider the potential health risks associated with dining out. Therefore, operators must work to minimize these risks through a focus on: social distancing, cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting, and personal protection equipment.

    While I do not believe dining rooms will go away, we will definitely see table spacing and seating capacity changes in the short-term and an overall move toward more micro-social dining environments. We recommend restaurant operators reduce their seating by 75 to 50 percent in the near-term, depending on the size of dining rooms, to comply with social distancing guidelines. It’s not as easy, however, as simply removing or “closing” every other table.  Booths or tables that are back-to-back are significantly more “protected” than loose tables next to each other. Creative divider panels (wood, glass, acrylic anti-microbial coated fabric) also can allow for protection against the spread of germs when 6 feet spacing isn’t practical. So, look at this as an opportunity to rework your dining room seating to maximize capacity while maintaining social distancing. 

    Another aspect of social distancing is limiting the number of people allowed in your facility at one time. This may require all restaurants to move toward only accepting reservations, have pre-set seating times, utilizing no-wait technology solutions and/or staffing the entry with a greeter (in the bar business we would call them bouncers) that would only permit the proper number of quests in the restaurant at any one time. Utilizing text messaging apps also will allow the guests to stay outside, in their cars or even at home, until they receive the message from the greeter that they can enter the restaurant.  

    While this may impact potential revenue and increase overall costs in the short-term, it’s critical to make guests feel safe and comfortable in our restaurants again. Once inside the restaurant, guests will expect a higher level of cleaning and sanitization when restaurants reopen. While we all know the pandemic wasn’t caused by or transmitted through food, there are a great many “touch points” in today’s restaurants that can easily allow for germ transmission.  

    Cleaning and sanitizing are now critical aspects of having and maintaining a healthy dining environment. This includes hand washing, cleaning surfaces between each table seating and dayparts, disinfecting touch points, and sanitizing food contact surfaces. It’s not just about the process of cleaning and sanitizing that are important, it’s about communicating to the guest that your environment is safe and healthy—the psychology of cleanliness—or how clean consumers perceive the environment is the key. Light colors and smooth surfaces portray a sense of cleanliness, even if they are empirically no safer than a dark, rougher textures.

    It’s also not just consumer trust that we have to keep in mind. As we reopen, restaurant operators also have to protect their employees. This means providing them with the right PPE to ensure they feel safe doing their jobs, delivering food and interacting with guests. This means giving them gloves, face masks and equipment that facilitates contactless food delivery. Again, this is an opportunity to be creative and express your brand. At this stage in the pandemic, customized masks and various colored gloves are fairly available. Think about how these new requirements can enhance your team’s uniforms and make both staff and guests feel more comfortable during these uncertain times. 

    Remove barriers to dining out or eating-in

    In the post COVID-19 world, we are already seeing fantastic changes that increase and improve the off-premises experience. These include integrating technology and processes that foster safe person-to-person connection, not completely replacing it. The goal is not to replace person-to-person contact. Rather, it’s to create a space for the safe ordering and distribution of meals prepared away from home.

    Mobile ordering and payment apps are becoming much more widely accepted and the glitches are being fixed incredibly quickly. Many concepts are moving toward curb-side delivery and / or rapid pick-up stations that continue to limit social contact. They key to making these work in the long-run is going to be looking at the overall guest / user experience and eliminating the friction/pain points. For example, how does a guest easily customize or modify a standard menu offering? How do we really dial-in the timing & scheduling to prepare, properly package, and present the food so that guests don’t have to wait. 

    In partnership with the rise and acceptance of takeout and delivery orders, meals prepared in food trucks, ghost kitchens and consolidated take-out/delivery units will continue to gain a broader customer base. This should further limit the inherent friction between the convenience based off-premise experience and the socially based dine-in experience. 

    COVID-19 also has paved the way for a new take on healthy and healthful—it no longer just means offering salads, grass-fed meats or plant-based proteins. It means offering better cleaning and sanitization methods, crisp and ‘clean’ designs, and additional open, outdoor space to accommodate space for social distancing.

    It also may come to mean “more local” or familiar. New data shows that a growing number of people believe food sourced locally, where it is touched by fewer hands in the transit process and where guests know (and are comfortable with) the controls in place at the source— is considered healthier and safer than food traveling great distances and going through many different processes. 

    Additionally, natural sunlight flooding the restaurant during lunch, while soft glowing light at dinner will communicate a greater sense of healthfulness than some of the dimly lit intimate dining rooms today.  All of these factors come into to play when guests are subconsciously evaluating how “healthy” a restaurant concept is going forward. And, as we mentioned above, safer equates to healthier in the post-pandemic mindset. People will gravitate toward cleaner environments and ones that facilitate controlled food service processes and environments, contactless food delivery and sanitized surfaces.

    Restaurant operators coming off weeks and even months of closures will inevitably have to raise prices to make up for the additional labor necessary to meet these new requirements and ensure that guests are happy and safe. We believe that consumers will bear some of the burden of these increases. We also believe that the guests will willing accept price increase, IF they believe they are getting true value and a quality experience. It appears that they’re also willing to spend more if they believe that restaurant(s) support a noble cause. They won’t, however, tolerate higher prices for the same-old thing serviced with gloved and masked wait staff. 

    As long as restaurant operators communicate price increases with honesty and transparency, consumers will appreciate the chance to rise to the occasion and support their favorite brands. We have seen this already with the popularity of Takeout Tuesday and campaigns to support impacted industry workers. Operators should take comfort in knowing that their loyal customers will remain true to the cause, as long as it’s one worth believing in.  

    With decades of experience in the industry, Steve Starr has become a nationally-recognized leader in restaurant and retail design. While his insight and expertise spans the hospitality industry, his focus is on branding, consumer behavior and the development process. Steve leads a creative, multi-disciplinary team of architects, interior designers, graphics designers and branding professionals at Starr Design in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they concentrate on connecting people with brands through creative environments and responsible processes.