FSR Magazine: Restaurants Will Help America Return to a Sense of Normalcy

Posted: April 7, 2020

Published by FSR Magazine
Written by: |

It’s a question hovering near the surface. When COVID-19 is over, will it truly be over? Even if social distancing guidelines relax and cases taper off, will people feel ready to return to normalcy, or at least some semblance of it?

Sense360 asked a panel of nearly 1,300 consumers on March 28–29 when they expected coronavirus restrictions to end, and how long it might take to return to “normal” daily activity.

As the chart below shows, more than half remain relatively optimistic. But a full 43 percent are bracing for a timeline that could stretch into the summer.

Sense360 chart.

Here’s a look at the demographic differences. Interestingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly, there is a correlation between the hopeful and eating at restaurants more recently.

Sense360 graph.

In Datassential latest coronavirus report, titled “Pent-Up Demand,” the company dove into this dynamic and how restaurants might be able to play an active role in getting society back on steady footing—a purpose they’ve met for more than a century.

There’s little doubt, barring something really concrete occurring on a broad scale, in record time, like a vaccine or treatment, people are going to be wary out of the gates. Sure, some might rush into society like they’ve rediscovered humanity, but the overall picture is going to be one of caution.

Datassential’s 1,000-customer survey showed that larger crowds and situations where people are tightly packed together are going to be tough sells. Outdoor activities or places that allow people to keep some distance, like dine-in restaurants, zoos and hotels, however, could offer consumers an opportunity to get used to being around others again.


1. Coronavirus & The Impact on Eating

2. Fear and Response

3. Into the Home

4. Hands Off 

5. Sheltered

Datassential Coronavirus Landing Page

Remember those early days when dine-in restaurants were restricting seating? Cutting the number of tables in half, making sure there was 6 feet between patrons, etc.? That might evolve into the crawl before the run for operators, instead of the saving grace it once promised to be, before complete shutdowns swamped the landscape.

Typically crowded restaurants, especially those in urban, dense markets with small square-footage setups, might want to take it even more slowly, regardless of whether officials take their foot of the brake or not. Doing so could go a long way in showing customers you’re still cognizant of their fears, despite there being less reason to be constantly vigilant. There’s nothing worse than forcing somebody into a behavior they aren’t ready for or don’t want to embrace. This is a key and lasting tenet of hospitality. Let that thinking extend here until the floodgates truly open. Just let the consumer dictate when that will be.

“When the COVID-19 starts to improve and social distancing is eased, how will you feel about …”

Attending social events, celebrations, etc. with friends or family

  • Very comfortable: 16 percent
  • Somewhat comfortable: 38 percent
  • Not comfortable: 46 percent

Shopping for fun (non-essential items)

  • Very comfortable: 16 percent
  • Somewhat comfortable: 36 percent
  • Not comfortable: 49 percent

Visiting public places (parks, museums, zoos, etc.)

  • Very comfortable: 15 percent
  • Somewhat comfortable: 37 percent
  • Not comfortable: 48 percent

Staying at hotels, Airbnb / vrbo, etc.

  • Very comfortable: 15 percent
  • Somewhat comfortable: 31 percent
  • Not comfortable: 55 percent

Eating inside restaurant dining areas

  • Very comfortable: 13 percent
  • Somewhat comfortable: 35 percent
  • Not comfortable: 52 percent

Shopping during crowded times

  • Very comfortable: 10 percent
  • Somewhat comfortable: 27 percent
  • Not comfortable: 63 percent

Taking planes/air travel

  • Very comfortable: 10 percent
  • Somewhat comfortable: 27 percent
  • Not comfortable: 64 percent

Going to bars, nightclubs, etc.

  • Very comfortable: 9 percent
  • Somewhat comfortable: 22 percent
  • Not comfortable: 69 percent

Attending events with large crowds (concerts, sporting events, etc.)

  • Very comfortable: 9 percent
  • Somewhat comfortable: 22 percent
  • Not comfortable: 70 percent

Taking mass transit

  • Very comfortable: 9 percent
  • Somewhat comfortable: 20 percent
  • Not comfortable: 71 percent

So, restaurants fall right in the middle of this. As Datassential explains, these numbers might look completely different in a month or two. Today, consumers predict they will err on the side of caution. Once a sense of normalcy kicks in from going to work or hanging out with friends and family, however, their comfort curve could surely ease up.

Again, though, take the pulse of customers before doing anything drastic. Perhaps an email survey to guests or just some metric digging could serve as a guidepost. If there are still concerns, the pared-down dining room, with limited reservations, might be an option. Or maybe just continue to showcase sanitary measures in the open. But if all signs point to green, get ready to be the answer to cabin fever everybody’s been waiting for.


People will flock back to restaurants to help regain a sense of normalcy.

This following data set provides a real glimmer of hope. One of the inescapable realities of a takeout- and delivery-only restaurant world is that it’s left Americans craving for activities where they can socialize and be entertained. When it comes to food and drink, Datassential said, people are most excited to get back to dining in with family and friends, whether at restaurants or family gatherings, as well as entertainment venues like movie theaters and shopping centers. Baby Boomers reported the strongest preference for dining with family and friends, while food courts and music venues scored higher with Gen Z.

“Which of the following food and drink places are you most excited to get back to.”

  • Dining at my favorite sit-down restaurant: 41 percent
  • Visiting recreational places (movie theaters, shopping centers, etc.): 40 percent
  • Meeting family/friends out at restaurants: 38 percent
  • Meeting family/friends at someone’s house (potluck, picnics, etc.): 35 percent
  • Attending events at stadiums or arenas: 23 percent
  • Visiting my favorite fast food or counter-service restaurant: 22 percent
  • Drinking at bars: 18 percent
  • Going to coffee shops: 17 percent
  • Watching the game at sports bars: 12 percent
  • Having supermarket deli/prepared foods: 12 percent
  • None: 11 percent
  • Visiting convenience stores: 11 percent
  • Splurging on fancy meals at upscale restaurants: 10 percent (this is something to keep an eye on based on whether or not we slide into a recession or not and value suddenly becomes a bigger draw)
  • Going to food court/food halls: 10 percent
  • Getting self-serve food (salad bars, buffets, etc.): 10 percent
  • Going out to nightclubs, lounges, music venues, etc.: 9 percent
  • Visiting cafeterias (in offices, schools, hospitals, etc.): 5 percent

It’s simple: People miss their favorite sit-down restaurants. And that’s one of the better sentiments to hang onto these days.

Pre-COVID-19 conversations around restaurants more than likely started with the food, Datassential said. Which trendy place should we try next? Did you see what this spot was rated, and so forth. However, too much time “sheltering in place” has shifted the role of restaurants for housebound Americans. More than anything, the ability to dine in again will provide some emotional relief that life is returning to normal.

“Not to mention, a much-needed change of scenery for the masses with cabin fever. This is especially true among Baby Boomers, who are more adherent to social-distancing orders,” Datassential said.

Basically, we will get past this “eat-to-live” society we suddenly find ourselves in. Food will return to being an experiential event as much as an essential, elementary one. And restaurants will fill that need.

“If dining rooms reopen, what are your top reasons for wanting to visit restaurants and bars again?”

  • Needing to feel normal again: 45 percent (greater among Boomers at 58 percent)
  • Cabin fever—I’ve been stuck inside too long: 38 percent (greater among Boomers at 46 percent)
  • Change of scenery—tired of being in my house: 35 percent (also greater among Boomers at 43 percent)
  • Needing to socialize in person and be around other people: 34 percent (once again, greater among Boomers at 42 percent)
  • Supporting restaurants in my community: 33 percent
  • Getting foods I can’t make at home or easily get delivered: 30 percent
  • I’m tired of cooking at home: 26 percent (ask this question again a month from now; it will probably be higher)
  • For special occasions I wouldn’t normally celebrate at home: 25 percent
  • Need a date night/romantic night out: 20 percent
  • None of these—still nervous about restaurants and bars: 13 percent
  • Need a night out away from the kids: 9 percent (also ask this a month from now)

Returning to this idea of taking one step before the leap, Datassential suggested consumers will seek reassurance after COVID-19. Sanitation and social distancing are key, it said. But don’t just talk about, demonstrate it.

Guests will need to see everything from frequent cleaning of high-touch areas to employees in safety apparel to making sure food is covered for protection. In many ways, it feels like the early days of the pandemic.

The good news for restaurants, though? Most of these practices should now be business by usual by the time restrictions lift. Whatever your brand built into its culture during this downturn, from hygiene to hospitality, don’t let those slide.

“Extra precautionary measures, like serving all items individually wrapped or providing contactless ordering and payment, fall lower on the importance scale, yet may provide operators with an opportunity to offer extra reassurance as customers rebuild their comfort with dining in,” Datassential said.

“If dining rooms reopen, what can restaurants do to make you feel safe?”

Regularly/visibly wiping down tables, kiosks, other things people touch

  • Absolutely required: 71 percent
  • Helpful, but not required: 21 percent
  • Not that important: 9 percent

More food covers/sneeze guards/enclosed cold cases, etc.

  • Absolutely required: 57 percent
  • Helpful, but not required: 32 percent
  • Not that important: 11 percent

Providing disinfectant wipes for me to use

  • Absolutely required: 54 percent
  • Helpful, but not required: 35 percent
  • Not that important: 11 percent

Employees visibly wearing food safety apparel (masks, gloves, hairnets)

  • Absolutely required: 54 percent
  • Helpful, but not required: 33 percent
  • Not that important: 13 percent

Visible food safety inspection results

  • Absolutely required: 53 percent
  • Helpful, but not required: 34 percent
  • Not that important: 13 percent

More space in between tables/no communal seating

  • Absolutely required: 50 percent
  • Helpful, but not required: 38 percent
  • Not that important: 12 percent

No open containers of food

  • Absolutely required: 46 percent
  • Helpful, but not required: 38 percent
  • Not that important: 17 percent

If restaurants made it so you don’t have to touch door handles

  • Absolutely required: 38 percent
  • Helpful, but not required: 48 percent
  • Not that important: 14 percent

Enabling mobile ordering for contactless payment

  • Absolutely required: 38 percent
  • Helpful, but not required: 42 percent
  • Not that important: 20 percent

Serving everything individually wrapped

  • Absolutely required: 33 percent
  • Helpful, but not required: 43 percent
  • Not that important: 24 percent

The big takeaway is to keep in mind, even during an unprecedented, seemingly unrelenting crisis, that people will look to comfort zones to ease back into regular life. Consumers are excited at the prospect of re-engaging with friends over food, but not quite ready for big crowds just yet, Datassential said. While there remains a lot of uncertainty, guests will gravitate toward places that allow them to self-protect.

“Restaurants can help ease this transition, by providing a balance of levity along with COVID-19 safety precautions,” the company said.