by Bora Kang
You’ve re-opened your restaurant, congratulations! But much has changed since you’ve last had dine-in guests; consumer spending behavior and eating habits have been reset. Other than your most loyal customers, there is no guarantee that your old guests will return to dine with you while social distancing and other public health recommendations remain in effect. So how will your restaurant appeal to your guests when they walk through your doors? We’ve come up with a short list of items that we think will be important to your guests based on available research.
A Safe Environment with a Touch of Convenience
First, we know that consumers will continue to regard safety and sanitation in high importance, possibly going towards 2021 (1). According to Philip Daus, partner with Simon-Kucher & Partners, a global strategy and marketing consulting firm, consumers are expected to “remain vigilant about staying safe and limiting potential exposure to COVID-19… (This) value driver will stick around for a long time, at least until mass vaccination has been rolled out” (1). This sentiment is illustrated in a recent survey conducted by Technomic, a research and consulting firm servicing the food and foodservice headquartered in Chicago, IL: about half of survey takers felt that they would be comfortable dining at restaurants that had at least a 6-ft distance between tables (2). An additional 25% said they would be comfortable with table 9-15ft apart.
We think restaurants should implement transparency and visibility to alleviate these fears. “It will not be sufficient to have the proper sanitation procedures in place,” said Daus (1). “Restaurants need to openly communicate their safety standards to their customers and make sure they are being perceived as a safe establishment.” For example, Datassential, a market research firm for the food industry in Chicago, IL, recommends that restaurants have a staff member to frequently wipe down high touchpoints (i.e. door handles, soda fountains, and condiment bottles, kiosks, tables, public restrooms) in plain view of their customers (3). It would also be helpful to give customers as many touchless/self-service options as possible, such as automatic doors, self-checkout or touchless pay. The latter would not only eliminate the need for your staff to constantly sanitize, but offer a touch of convenience that may not have been available for your customers before the pandemic that your guests are sure to appreciate.
With social distancing behaviors expected to last long term, we may see an upward trend in food delivery. McKinsey’s analysis of the Chinese consumer response during the COVID19 crisis revealed that consumers were more likely to spend more on food delivery, prepared goods and groceries than they did pre-pandemic (3). According to Datassential, “high-risk,” environments such as arenas, movie theaters, buffets, bars, cafeterias, and anywhere else one could be exposed to large crowds were likely to be affected most (4). A recent survey they conducted also found that 54% would most likely decrease their visits to sit-down restaurants (4). Delivery (particularly, self-delivery*) and curbside could be what keeps operators afloat during these trying times.
*more on self-delivery discussed in our previous blog articles
A Sensible, “Value-Driven” Menu
Next, restaurant-goers may be more selective with their spending and spending decisions after the pandemic. The economic downturn would have affected job security, especially those in the lower socioeconomic groups, people of color, women and the young (5) and consumers will seek value to compensate the loss of income and save money.
Datassential, in their “Money Matters” article released in April, found that 38% of consumers planned to get restaurant food less often; 23% find and use more coupons; 22% choose less expensive restaurants; 19% choose less expensive menu items (6). Technomic, too, found that coupons and promotions were significant restaurant drivers, especially popular among consumers with children under the age of 18 (55%) and consumers in the age range of 25-34 (54%) (2). What this data shows us is the shifting perception of consumers regarding their eating habits. Brands, quality, flavors and convenience will still matter, but their decisions will also be influenced by the price and value of a menu item. This is not to consumers will be less willing to pay, just that they will be “more deliberate as to where and how they will spend their money” (1).
In accordance with these changes, some operators are remodeling their menu so that they “make sense.” Restaurants will have to rethink how they will get their vendors to supply ingredients and whether they are cost-effective to serve. For example, The Spillover Restaurant in Miami is changing its menu to an appetizer-entree-dessert format, focusing more on salads, sandwiches and entrees (7). They will be removing the shareable dishes—to emphasize guest safety—and implementing the $12 lunch specials during the weekdays. As the restaurant owner remarked, “a customer may not casually choose a $15 burger in the future” (7).
Trust, a Human Element
According to Danny Klein, Director of Digital Content at Food News Media and contributor to QSR and FSR Magazine, “Trust will mean everything to restaurant customers after COVID-19” (8). But you’ll have to earn it. The pandemic would have affected consumers more than just financially, and consumers who discover you through social media, as well as those who return to your establishment after lockdown will start to evaluate whether you truly care about their well-being. As we discussed earlier, transparency will be vital. Ask yourself these questions constantly: are you adhering to sanitation practices as posted? Are you producing quality food? Are the items offered in the menu in stock and fresh? Are the new contactless / touchless systems (self-checkout, touchless pay, for example) functional and convenient? Are your staff trained to use these new systems? Expect to be reliable and strive to be consistent. Customer loyalty will be valuable after the pandemic. Reliable consistency is how you will retain your guests.
While “trust,” as discussed above, comes from operators earning it through measurable results and transparency, it is also important to note how trust is also a human element built on emotions. Monica Ho, from Modern RestaurantManagement.com, recommends that businesses “lead with empathy,” focusing on connection and awareness (9). Many restaurants in the Atlanta area as well as other urban cities have actively participated in providing meals for food kitchens, for out of work restaurant employees and many frontline workers in the hospitals, while others have contributed to community issues by fighting hunger (10). Similarly, consumers have been very eager to support local restaurants and local food sources during lockdown, buying more take-out and ordering from local food suppliers to help small operators stay in business (8). It is this collaborative relationship that may have helped many small and local businesses navigate through the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Independents have been predicted to be most vulnerable to closures in this pandemic due to “minimal off-premise presence, limited digital capabilities, low emphasis on value-based menu items and because of their unfavorable economics (thin margins and poor access to capital) according to this McKinsey & Company research (11). Projected consumer spending for restaurants overall is also at a negative: people are expected to continue cooking at home and recovery is not expected to start early (11). Despite the odds, however, some restaurants have managed to thrive. Eric Rivera, owner of Addo Restaurant in Seattle, reported higher than last year’s sales and doubling of staff to 10 since the beginning of the month (12). His secret was systemic change: first, he shifted order to pick up and delivery only and sending his staff to make drop-offs rather than relying on third-party delivery. He also decided to continue to offer a new menu every day, ranging from simple $9 bowls to family style meals, such as a $45 pasta for two with a bottle of wine or a $105 Hawaiian feast for two. He’s also removed higher-end menu items and implemented a system where customers can “pay forward” the $9 bowls to a local homeless shelter (12). More details of this and his social media strategy can be read in the Wired article referenced here (12), but the key takeaway from Rivera’s success story is that a restaurant’s future outlook is not limited to what is defined by projections. The wonderful thing about trust is that it’s got a human element that cannot be predicted. Consumers are people, and these people will support and return to restaurants they trust and want to be associated with.
There is a big question mark over when the restaurant businesses will return to pre-COVID19 levels. The fact remains, there is a lot that remains unknown about future consumer behavior, as this pandemic is new to all of us. But studies have so far illustrated that nationwide spending has been gradually ticking upwards and that most businesses are expected to bounce back in 2021 (2). An article from Escoffier School of Culinary Arts even forecasted a positive outlook: that “extreme social distancing has created pent-up demand for social interaction. And once the economy opens up, customers will likely prioritize those businesses that have adapted the quickest to the new trends” (13).
It will be a difficult battle ahead, and every restaurant will be striving to regain what they’ve lost during the lockdown. It takes courage to transform and let go of your old business formula, and we’ll all have to proceed despite uncertainties. But like with all success stories, we think it’s the operators who are willing to learn and evolve with the time who will reap the benefits of tomorrow.
- Nicola, M., Alsafi, Z., Sohrabi, C., Kerwan, A., Al-Jabir, A., Iosifidis, C., Agha, M., & Agha, R. (2020). The socio-economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19): A review. International journal of surgery (London, England), 78, 185–193. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijsu.2020.04.018