Before COVID-19 jostled years of trends and consumer habits, roughly 80 percent of full-service restaurant traffic took place on-premises, according to The NPD Group. Within two weeks in March 2020, dine-in was leveled in 70 percent of all U.S. restaurants. It plunged transactions 43 percent across the spectrum, and 77 percent at sit-down brands.
As we know today, recovery diverged. Many quick-serves, like Domino’s, which saw same-store sales lift 11.2 percent in Q4 of 2020, benefited. Not just from the tailwind of fined-tuned off-premises channels, but also thanks to the reality there were suddenly fewer options. Either due to closures or simply guest awareness gaps—brands known for delivery and takeout versus those that were not.
As dine-in floods back and recovery follows, however, where does that leave off-premises gains made during the pandemic for counter-service chains? While there’s no one-size-fits-all figure, Healthline suggests it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.
Of course, COVID put the high-end mark of those timeframes to shame.
According to website, e-commerce, and marketing platform BentoBox, nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) current delivery/takeout customers plan to continue to order at the same frequency they do now (the study was released in April). The key is why. Consumers tapped these channels long enough to progress past the “only option available” mindset. The No. 1 reason respondents gave was “overall convenience,” at 74 percent. What this suggests is guests crossed the adoption canyon during COVID—when they had no choice—and aren’t going back. The benefits of digital and mobile ordering are ingrained in their purchasing behavior. Why queue in line for a pickup order when you can grab it off a shelf?
Lockdowns and vaccine distributions might be fluid topics. But convenience is not.
These shifts are playing out in menu ideation. In the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Industry dive for 2021, 35 percent of quick-service operators said they’ve cut back total menu items compared to pre-pandemic. Only 9 percent added options; 56 percent offer “about the same.” In fast casual, it was 34, 12, and 55 percent, respectively.
Additionally, 22 percent of quick-service operators, and 27 percent of fast casual, said they’ve tacked on menu items specifically tailored for takeout and delivery.
Where the opportunity rises, though, is in a changed landscape. Seventy-seven percent of respondents told the Association they’re more likely to stay at home and watch on-demand TV and videos than ever.
Thus, restaurants can target a more nuanced off-premises guest. Fifty-two percent of adults, including 63 percent of millennials, said they’re more likely to incorporate restaurant fare into home-prepared meals than pre-COVID. Think of it as delivery and takeout a la carte. Or “blended meals.”
Essentially, customers are willing to mix restaurant items, like a main dish, side, dessert, or alcohol, into at-home dining. They want to vary experience, ease preparation, or just miss signature items from their favorite spots.
On that token, an off-premises-centric arena proved more of a channel disruptor than a brand one. In fact, it’s the opposite. Nearly one in two diners in BentoBox’s study cited a desire to “support local eateries” as a factor in their takeout and delivery decisions. Pre-virus, there was a relatively stark divide between app loyal and brand loyal users. Guests pulled up DoorDash or Grubhub, for instance, in search of burgers, not a specific restaurant.
When COVID clamped dine-in, however, an increasing number of people sought restaurants over products, and then looked for a way to order. Trust moved up the priority ladder.
A good example: Only 3 percent of quick-service operators in the Association’s report said their most-popular menu item was newly added after March. It was more likely consumers ordered classics, perhaps repositioned for off-premises. But staples nonetheless.
Other developments appear to have staying power as well. Thirty percent of off-premises customers said they’re more likely to choose a restaurant that offers meal bundles during the next few months.
Nearly 30 percent of quick-service brands said they’ve added bundles. It was even higher (35 percent) for fast casual.
Early on during COVID, studies and guest surveys showed trepidation with restaurant ordering. Who handled my food, and how? And meal kits—take-home options to cook—gained steam. They also helped bridge the grocery store gap with essentials such as toilet paper and bread.
Meal kits remove some prep duties, but also allow guests to control the experience.
More than half of adults said they’d likely purchase a meal kit if it was offered by one of their favorite restaurants. The number rises to 75 percent for millennials and Gen Z.
Yet only 12 percent of quick-serves said they added meal kits since COVID’s onset.
Another room for growth for operators, according to the Association’s data, is meal subscriptions. Fast casual Coolgreens got on board in February. For about $40 per week, people could choose four salads or wraps for delivery or shipping. Delivery took place one day after the food was ordered, and the meals lasted for up to five days. Each salad or wrap could be customized to meet dietary or lifestyle preferences, and guests could also order a bundle called “The Weekender” that fed six to eight people for $75.
Urban Plates created a “Plate Pass” program exclusively on its app that made all individual entrees $10 for two months when guests purchased a $20 membership fee. On average, entrées cost $13.50 at the brand. Clean Juice unveiled a subscription-based “Cleanse Club” in partnership with Lunchbox, which gave guests exclusive educational content, promotions, discounts, and access to their online cleanse community to engage with other cleansers.
Even so, this remains an underserved category. Only 1 percent of family dining, quick-service, casual dining, and coffee and snack; 2 percent of fine dining; and 3 percent of fast casual operators added them in recent months, the Association said.
Meanwhile, more than half of consumers surveyed said they’d likely participate in a meal subscription program if it was offered by one of their favorite restaurants. For millennials and Gen Z, it was roughly seven in 10.
Also, more than half of consumers—and nearly 70 percent of millennials—said they’d buy groceries (things like meat, produce, dairy, bread, or pasta) if restaurants offered them.
Fifty-two percent said they’d be likely to purchase fresh, uncooked food items such as meat, produce, dairy, bread or pasta, if they were available.
At the end of the day, restaurants can’t say for certain how much digital and off-premises business they’ll hold when the sector returns to some semblance of its previous norms. But there’s little question convenience has its hooks in for good.