COVID-19 has changed everything, including how restaurants operate and the way customers use them.
The restaurant industry has experienced catastrophic losses and profound changes resulting from the pandemic. Nevertheless, its businesses continue to evolve in order to thrive again.
As restaurants start to reopen and prepare for dine-in service, they’re noting that while consumers are exhibiting a pent-up desire to return to restaurants, they’re also sending a message that they expect a different kind of experience — one that demonstrates commitment to safety, embraces technology, and practices social distancing and hospitality.
Heartland, in partnership with the National Restaurant Association, presented a webinar, “From Surviving to Thriving: Reimagining the Return of Restaurant Experiences,” that explained how restaurant businesses could address the social and safety anxiety issues consumers feel, change those perceptions, and make customers feel more comfortable about dining out again.
Tama Looney, Brand Analytics & Customer Engagement Expert for Heartland, shared insights to help operators understand consumers’ emerging behaviors on everything from how they engage with others, to ordering and payment preferences when they eat out. Here’s a look at where the industry has been, where it is now, and what the future looks like.
Where we’ve been
When the pandemic hit, states issued shelter-in-place mandates and restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms, operating takeout and delivery services only. The following statistics tell the story of the industry since March.
- The National Restaurant Association research found that the industry lost more than $80 billion during the first two months of the pandemic
- Datassential reported that
- 92% of restaurant traffic moved to off-premises foodservice
- Drive-thru made up the largest service category
- Order-ahead for pickup followed at 23%
- Delivery made up 21% of sales
- To-go registered at 18%.
- Online ordering and delivery increased 7%.
According to Looney, brands that were able to come up with innovative ways to create and keep revenue flowing will be the ones who will succeed in spite of the many challenges they face. She also said the world now sees the importance of restaurants and the role they play in our everyday lives.
Where we are today
As the states have lifted their stay-at-home orders, more Americans say they long to return to a semblance of normal life, and dining in a restaurant is part of that picture. To keep customers and employees safe, restaurants have adopted guidelines from assorted sources including the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Reopening Guidelines, the Food & Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, creating ways to incorporate them into everyday operations.
However, published reports indicate that 80% of consumers are still anxious about the safety of dining out. For example, consumers say they would rather place their orders through a mobile device or at a kiosk instead of speaking to a cashier or server.
In addition, when it comes to payment, they generally agree that contactless payment is safer for personal health than using cash or swiping their cards. An American Express survey, conducted in May, found that 58% of diners who used touchless payment before COVID-19 are more likely to use it now.
To meet these consumer needs, operators have ramped up the technology available at their restaurants.
“Restaurants are battling to get back up and running so consumers can feel normal again, and they’re also moving new technologies into the space to make them feel safer,” Looney said. “The industry is changing, demand is shifting, and consumers are rewarding brands that have thought through the safety of their return, and this is not changing any time soon.”
What happens now?
Despite the anxiety, Looney said consumers would continue to dine out, still wanting to celebrate the special occasions in their lives. They will still want their basic expectations met — delicious selections, hot food served hot and cold food cold.
The biggest and most critical expectation, however, is personal safety. Diners will choose their dining destinations more thoughtfully, with safety determining where they go, and operators know it. Consumers expect their safety needs to be visible, and that restaurants should ask patrons who don’t practice social distancing to leave.
What do restaurateurs think? They believe that current COVID-19 safety precautions are the new normal and could continue long after the disease is gone.