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Restaurant readiness: What guests expect as places re-open after the COVID-19 lockdown

June 16, 2020
Dara St. Louis

Dara St. Louis

SVP & Founding Partner, Reach3..

In the post-COVID-19 world, consumer expectations have shifted heavily toward safety. 

Restaurants have started opening up now that many states and provinces are easing up their shelter-in-place orders. This re-opening is a key phase for restaurants of all kinds (QSRs, Fast Casuals, etc.) as the lockdown put a huge dent on sales and revenue in the past few months. Getting things right is key to attracting and keeping customers.

QSR-covid-19-conversational-surveyAs part of Consumer Closeness in the Age of Social Distancing—a complimentary research program we launched to help our clients and partners navigate the COVID-19 crisis—we recently engaged our mobile community of American and Canadian consumers to find out people’s expectations and attitudes as restaurants start re-opening. Using software from our sister company Rival Technologies, we engaged hundreds of consumers in a series of mobile messaging-based conversational exercises to get a deeper understanding of the underlying motivations restaurants need to consider at this time.

Some pent-up excitement to visit a restaurant 

A majority of American consumers we engaged said they’re planning to visit restaurants in the next month. But not everyone is in a hurry: 32% said they are waiting more than 4 weeks before going to a dine-in restaurant. And 27% of Americans don’t see themselves eating in a restaurant in the foreseeable future!

restaurants-dine-in-plans-01

Given that a majority of people plan to visit a restaurant in the next 30 days, it’s critical that companies understand the underlying motivations that would attract and retain guests during this crucial time of reopening. Here’s a look at three big themes that emerged from our study.

Putting safety above everything else    

Eating out is one of the activities people are most looking forward to in the next two weeks. Fast-food restaurants, in particular, are a popular choice, with 39% saying that they plan to visit establishments like McDonald’s and Taco Bell in the near future. Twenty-one percent also plan to visit a dine-in restaurant soon.

That said, for those wanting to go out, there are specific expectations around safety. And interestingly, restaurant guests expect very similar safety measures for both sit-down restaurants (where a server takes your order) and fast casuals/quick serve (where you go to the counter to place your order).

restaurants-dine-in-safety-measures-01

Before the pandemic, things like speed of service, the atmosphere and menu selection were considered important aspects of the dine-in experience. But in the post-COVID-19 world, consumer expectations have understandably shifted heavily toward safety.

At its core, this concern around safety measurements is all about trust. The question potential guests are asking is this: Can I trust that the restaurant is doing everything it can to protect me and its staff? Are restaurants following government-mandated rules to avoid COVID-19 infection?

Being too cautious will take the fun away from the dine-in experience.

It’s worth noting that consumer attitudes at this time are anything but static. As the COVID-19 situation evolves, so will guest expectations. For instance, while close to 30% expect temperature checks on entry at this time, this number may go down if outbreaks within communities remain controlled.

Restaurants, however, will need to meet guest expectations on safety measures but also provide an enjoyable dine-in experience. Being too cautious will take the fun away from the dine-in experience, which may turn off some guests. Capturing real-time customer feedback and adjusting quickly will be key in providing the right guest experience.

Looking for the familiar   

At least in the initial phase of the re-opening, people will be going back to places they already know and love. When asked about how they’d be choosing places to visit, 58% said they will be choosing places they’ve previously tried; in contrast, only 32% said picking a new place is a factor at this time.

There are several potential reasons why people are eager to go to their tried-and-true favorites. For one, going to familiar places provides that sense of normalcy many people are craving during this time of so much change. Similarly, some want to support their favorite restaurants get through the COVID-19 crisis.

58% said they will be choosing places they’ve previously tried.

But perhaps the biggest factor at play is once again trust. Given the uncertainty of the last few months, consumers want to go to places they know they can rely on for good food, service and value. Rather than trying something new, people at this point would rather go to places they already trust to provide the dine-in experience they are looking for.

For restaurants, the consumer appetite for the familiar means it may make sense for the time being to focus marketing efforts towards those who are already loyal to your brand. Rather than focusing on new customer acquisition, restaurants may see more ROI from marketing campaigns that target those who have missed your brand.

The key is to come up with messaging that would create urgency. Reaching out to your community of customers and getting a sense of what’s important to them is crucial to hitting the right marketing message.

Not forgetting about environmental sustainability 

While safety is top of mind for people, it doesn’t completely eliminate consumer expectations for environmentally friendly practices. In fact, 27% of consumers said avoiding disposable or single-use packaging is more important to them now than before the pandemic. One-in-four consumers also said that compostable packaging is more important.

27% of consumers said avoiding disposable or single-use packaging is more important to them now than before the pandemic

Environmentally friendly practices that increase the chances of inadvertently passing the coronavirus are, understandably, taking a back seat. For example, 25% said Bring Your Own Container efforts are far less important today than before the pandemic.

While the pandemic has made environmental concerns a secondary priority, it doesn’t mean this will always be the case. Companies need to invest in ongoing engagement with customers to track how developments in this crisis shape expectations around environmental sustainability practices.

Keeping track of shifting expectations 

The COVID-19 crisis has dramatically changed the value equation for restaurant guests. As you can see from our research, safety and familiarity have become the dominant criteria that people use right now when deciding which restaurants to visit.

That is not to say that this will always be the case. One of the biggest lessons we’re learning so far from our Consumer Closeness program is just how fast and frequently consumer sentiments, attitudes and behaviors can shift during a global crisis. More than ever, restaurants need to be diligent in capturing accurate and robust quantitative and qualitative data to make the right decisions on time.

The COVID-19 crisis has dramatically changed the value equation for restaurant guests.

To that end, at Reach3 we’ve developed a new solution that can help restaurants capture in-the-moment, in-restaurant, experiential insights that track shifting consumer attitudes and provide the reality check your brand needs as you navigate the new restaurant guest and their experience dining in or on the go. This solution uses conversational, mobile messaging-based techniques to reveal the underlying motivations driving guest behaviors and expectations. Reach out to our team if you’d like to learn more.

Dara St. Louis
Dara St. Louis

SVP & Founding Partner, Reach3 Insights

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