Recent conditions, at times, have made it difficult to picture life after COVID-19. Instead of a “new normal,” it’s more fitting to call the coming era a “next normal,” given how many layers and stages this pandemic has presented. One “next normal” is going give way to another. The days of static operations are over.

But consumers have a clear vision of how they expect to interact with restaurants once COVID ends (or whatever amounts to an ending). Coca-Cola recently surveyed diners to get a read on what post-pandemic behaviors might look like.

Six major themes emerged, which will drive operator profitability and beverage attachment on the other side, said Diana Retter, director of commercial and portfolio insights at the North America operating unit of Coca-Cola.

They were: pent-up demand, off-premises growth, expectation for ease and convenience, need for reassurance, trust in fountain beverages, and assortment optimization.

Firstly, respondents didn’t agree on what indicator would signal the end of COVID. Yet most believed it wouldn’t be over until the numbers said so. The most popular response (55 percent) was when “no or insignificant number of new cases are reported.” Only 42 percent expected that moment to take place in 2021.

The alluring point, though, is consumers appear ready to ramp up restaurant frequency to both sectors, even soaring ahead of pre-virus habits. On average guests said they expect quick-service trips to lift by 1.7 percent per month and full service 3.4 per month. Meanwhile, they don’t expect to abandon off-premises activity, like increased takeout and delivery.

When asked which activities they would resume immediately, 54 percent picked “dining indoors at restaurants.” Airline travel (46 percent), attending live events (43 percent), and seeing movies in theaters (39 percent) followed.

Breaking it down:

Full service

Pre-COVID: 5.9 visits per month

  • 2.9 dine-in visits
  • 1.2 delivery
  • 1 takeout
  • 0.8 pickup/curbside


Mid-COVID: 4.3 visits per month

  • 1.4 dine-in visits
  • 1.1 delivery
  • 0.9 takeout
  • 0.9 pickup/curbside


Post-COVID: 9.3 visits per month

  • 3.6 dine-in visits
  • 2.2 delivery
  • 1.8 takeout
  • 1.7 pickup/curbside


Quick service

  • 2.2 dine-in visits
  • 1.6 delivery
  • 1.8 takeout
  • 0.9 pickup/curbside
  • 3.8 drive thru


Mid-COVID: 8.7 visits per month

  • 1.1 dine-in visits
  • 1.6 delivery
  • 1.3 takeout
  • 1.2 pickup/curbside
  • 3.5 drive thru


Post-COVID: 12 visits per month

  • 2.7 dine-in visits
  • 1.9 delivery
  • 2 takeout
  • 1.5 pickup/curbside
  • 3.9 drive thru


The takeaway: pickup and curbside are going to play a larger role for quick-service restaurants than they did before the virus. And, essentially, every off-premises option will become more relevant for sit-down concepts, nearly double pre-COVID measures.

What will drive those visits?

Just like those distant days before COVID, consumers looking to dine out are considering price. As the first fact in determining which restaurant to visit, price narrows the consideration set to the type of establishment in general, whether full or quick service, Retter said.

After price, the top five determining factors in post-pandemic restaurant choice were the same across segment type: craveability/quality, safety, ease/convenience, service, and food/beverage variety. Another top determining factor for full-serves (tied with ease/convenience) was experience. While conscious of safety, consumers are not over-emphasizing safety as a differentiator in which outlet they choose, the report showed.

Naturally, COVID shifted expectations. Customers today now expect to be able to pre-order and find new menu items online before walking in the door. That’s not going away.

In a study of consumer outlet motivations, the factors that showed the largest percent change in motivation from Q2 2020 to Q1 2021 in quick service were:

  • Convenient way to pre-order: +12.9 percent
  • Always something new on the menu: +8.6 percent
  • Healthy options for kids: +7.1 percent
  • Kid-friendly: +6.7 percent


Full service hasn’t been spared the convenience bug, either.

  • Convenient way to pre-order: +23.3 percent
  • Always something new on the menu: +5.3 percent
  • Get something quick: +10.8 percent
  • Specific food item I like: +5.3 percent


Indeed, Darden CEO Gene Lee noted this Thursday in the Olive Garden parent’s earnings recap. “One of our underlying beliefs is that convenience is going to continue to matter,” Lee said, talking about future unit growth. “We’re going to need to build restaurants closer to where people live. And we also believe in—especially in Olive Garden—that we can build in more remote areas that have these large, what I would call these like 60-mile trade areas where people travel in and out to get things and dine. And so we’re pretty excited about where we can take Olive Garden, especially if we can maintain over 20 percent off-premises, that opens up some more trade areas.” Off-premise accounted for 27 percent of total sales at Olive Garden in Q1.

COVID also caused consumers to reevaluate other dining-related options and behaviors, Retter said. Since Q1 of 2020, 10.9 percent more consumers said they became more comfortable with mobile pay; 5.6 percent more respondents agree they like fast food; 4.9 percent more now plan well in advance where they’re eating; and 4.4 percent more search specifically for kid-friendly restaurants. Overall, price has become less of a differentiator. Customers who base their choices on coupons and price fell 2.2 and 3.3 percent, respectively.

Things to be aware of

Not only did consumers say safety would be among the top-five determining factors of restaurant choice after COVID, but they want to see cleanliness in action. That sanitation score on the window? It might not be sufficient for some. In full and quick service, respectively, 65 and 64 percent of guests said it’s important that the restaurant conduct extra-thorough cleaning of all surfaces. Sixty (full service) and 55 percent (quick service) noted they want to see tables spaced out. Post-COVID cleanliness concerns and expectations also could impact capacity, with 35–38 percent of respondents saying they plan to take note of people in the restaurant and 33 percent will factor in whether a restaurant has good air ventilation.

In this world, guests said they’ll be more likely to order fountain beverages than bottled beverages. Nearly the same percentage of people who said they typically ordered fountain beverages pre-COVID will do so again. And comfort with fountain was true across diners of all demographics. Of those surveyed, 70 percent or more reported feeling comfortable ordering fountain today.

Per survey data, self-serve will continue to be strongly preferred in quick-service restaurants, among those who consumed fountain drinks pre-coronavirus. In full-service, there was a slight preference for crew-serve beverages, likely due to higher service expectations in the channel, Retter said. The nearly equal preference for self-serve in full-service restaurants was largely driven by desire for customization and accuracy, she added, not hygiene concerns. Only 16 percent of consumers were concerned about having an employee pour their drinks. Plus, guests were more likely to say they can customize fountain flavors when self-serving, and they placed continued importance on order accuracy.

Getting deeper on this beverage topic, which, of course, fit the bill for Coca-Cola, one in 12 diners said they were ordering bottles/cans more often. These consumers were more likely to be millennial (59 percent), working remotely (52 percent), and have children (48 percent). In a separate study of consumer off-premises beverage preferences, nearly one in four said they preferred a multi-serve package when ordering for takeout.

Delivery seems the strongest fit for bottle/can both pre- and post-COVID, with opportunities to go premium. Ninety-seven percent of consumers said they were open to ordering bottles from third-party delivery, and, among heavy users of full-service restaurant delivery, 33 percent were even willing to pay a premium for bottle/can. In quicks service, the percentage was 30.

Consumer Trends, Story