Data Intelligence

What the August Blackbox Guest Intelligence Snapshot Reveals

As is evident for most of us in the hospitality industry, the anticipated recovery is slowly making headway with emphasis on the word slowly. August’s Black Box Intelligence Report verified that, while same-store sales improved in August—the best since February—the pace of the recovery has slowed. Restaurants are still facing major headwinds that may not ease until well into 2021.

Two significant areas seem to have the greatest impact on sales: Service and Cleanliness.


Implementing and maintaining your brand’s standard for excellence in service has always been a priority for successful restauranteurs. Fulfilling these standards is proving challenging, at best, as the pandemic continues.

Despite the return to some form of in-house dining, customer expectations continue to include takeout, curbside pickup, and delivery options. Restaurant Business reported that 30 percent of operators had trouble keeping up with their customer’s demand for off-premise orders, according to Technomic.

Most guests also expect safety protocols to be in place that may include contactless ordering and payment processes, virtual waitlists and “table-ready” texts, and minimal contact with a masked server.

According to Blackbox, guest “service sentiment is less than one percentage point lower than it was in August of 2019.” Pretty impressive when considering the new demands placed on operators. They also found that the “full-service brands with the best sales results improved service sentiment by almost 20 percentage points.”

Of the 192 brands included in the Snapshot, these ranked in the top 5 in terms of service: Fleming’s, Lazy Dog, Smoothie King, the Capital Grille, and Seasons 52. Fleming’s was the only brand that managed to make the top 5 in all categories: food, service, and intent to return.


As with service, the brands with the highest sales also had higher cleanliness scores. Restaurant brands that landed in the top 25 percent of same-store sales all had better cleanliness scores than those that fell in the bottom 25 percent.

Cleanliness takes on a whole new paradigm in our current “new normal.” Guest’s expectations include hand sanitizer at every table, disinfecting frequent non-food contact touchpoints such as doorknobs, the back of chairs, and rails, and sanitizing tables between guests. And, as stressed by the CDC, hand washing is also vital for the safety of both staff and guests.

Some restaurants, such as Sea Dog Brewing Company in Bangor, Maine, have gone so far as to ring a bell every 15 minutes which prompts employees to stop what they are doing and go wash their hands. While slightly disrupting, it is certainly a visual cue to guests that the restaurant is taking their safety seriously.

Let guests know the steps you’re taking to keep them safe, whether ringing a bell or shouting it out from all your social media platforms.

A Decrease in Guest Sentiment: Intent to Return and Value

The two areas that showed reduced guest sentiment scores were intent to return, which showed a decrease of over 4 percent, and value. With restaurants needing to either add COVID-19 surcharges or raise menu prices to stay afloat, it makes sense that guests would take notice. Unfortunately, a third of consumers surveyed by Technomic reported that they would choose a different restaurant should either of these two additional costs occur.

With the rising costs in supplies and the diminished sales due to social distancing restrictions, most operators find themselves unable to continue to keep their doors open without raising prices in some form. The New York City Council recently advanced legislation that will allow restaurants to add a 10 percent surcharge to diner’s tickets. Called the “COVID-19 Recovery Charge,” the regulation will lapse 90 days after full indoor dining resumes.

Guest Sentiment on Food

Food showed an increase in guest sentiment of almost 3 percent—remarkable considering the current environment and economic impact. Chefs that have found a way to deliver food worthy of being served in their restaurants are reaping the reward. The Tex-Mex restaurant in Los Angeles, Bar Amá, offers a colossal nacho kit with creamy queso and charred cauliflower with cilantro pesto, all to go.

Twenty-five of the largest markets in the nation, including Los Angeles, were compared in terms of sales and meeting guest’s expectations. Let’s take a look at who took the top spot.

The Top Restaurant Designated Market Areas (DMAs)

Phoenix, San Diego, New York, and Philadelphia all had the most improvement in same-store restaurant sales in August. Phoenix also had the highest guest sentiment in terms of intent to return, service, and beverages.

On the other side of the spectrum is Cleveland which saw the largest loss in sales growth for August as well as the lowest intent to return guest sentiment.

While the immense challenges the restaurant industry currently faces will not be dissipating any time soon, there is a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. All states have begun phased reopenings. Some states, such as Alaska, are allowing restaurants to operate at 100 percent capacity, while states like Arkansas, Indiana, Montana, and North Dakota have increased restaurant capacity to two-thirds.

You can find up-to-date coverage on each state’s current regulations here.

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