Restaurant Experience

Casual Dining Post-COVID

There’s an old standup bit in which Jerry Seinfeld describes the aftermath of a meal at a restaurant. The food’s been eaten, and the wine and coffee have all been drunk, and all that’s left is the small matter of assessing the damage. It’s time to pay the check.

“What?? Who ordered all this food? I’m not even hungry!”

The evening began with hugs and jokes, and cocktails and excited jaunts through the menu, and now, with the energy burned off and the witching hour approaching, it’s a case of…

“Did I really have three cocktails? And, seriously, why didn’t anyone tell me they were $14 apiece?”

It’s a standard case of sticker shock. It’s perfectly normal. Of course, that’s not to say that it’s particularly pleasant, but it’s not weird. And a heaping helping of it is awaiting us, just around the bend.

Almost fourteen months after COVID-19 upended life across the globe, in the United States (and parts of Western Europe), the After Times finally seem to be more than a flickering light at the end of an interminable tunnel. After a hellacious year-plus, the worst of which called for total in-home isolation, a near-complete lack of human contact, and cast each individual as an existential threat to every other individual, it’s safe to assume that, once it’s fully safe to do so, we are emphatically seeking out social schedules that involve neither “Zoom” nor “driveway drinks”.

WE’RE GOING OUT!

For a while, at least.

In-Restaurant Dining

A year ago, Simon-Kucher & Partners, a strategy and consulting firm that works with several popular fast/fast-casual dining brands, shared the results of one of its studies, entitled “The New Normal for Restaurants: Consumer behavior in a world after COVID-19”. The study examined pre-COVID trends among restaurant categories and, based on the results of a consumer survey, aimed to identify the mindset of diners, both at the time and in a post-COVID environment.

The results of the survey suggested that as much as 5% of in-restaurant spending could simply be lost to home cooking. Based on the National Restaurant Association’s (pre-COVID) 2020 revenue estimate of roughly $900 billion, that’s about $45 billion in annual sales.

All the while, some of the shifts in ordering styles among customers, initially borne of necessity, may have staying power. Here we’re referring to the continued, if more subtle migration to takeaway and app-based ordering, and greater off-premises consumption of restaurant fare.

For the purposes of this conversation, however, we’re focusing most heavily on the outlook for in-restaurant dining. A year on from that survey, while the prospect of returning to restaurants is happily no longer a theoretical, and it feels as though solving for the future of the restaurant experience – and its impact on the health of the restaurant industry – entails as much art as it does science.

Consumer behavior in the aftermath of COVID-19 is going to be a study in mass psychology. Of course, this has, to some extent, always been the case with such things. The difference – and a potential pitfall – here is that we’re not exiting a standard seasonal or economic cycle. There is no intel on just how quickly and definitively consumers will put the trauma, overt and latent, of the pandemic behind them. We’re dealing almost exclusively in educated guesses.

In the pandemics’ early days, Simon-Kucher found among consumers an increased “willingness-to-pay” and forecasted a return to pre-COVID levels, if not higher. This is possible. However, it’s worth wondering whether some of the behaviors – unrelated to cost – that have become ingrained in our behavior will prove somewhat sticky.

What’s going to happen to “normal” going out?

Going Out Experiences

As much as the loss of our favorite bars, restaurants, and cafes has stung over the past year, there are certain comforts to home entertaining to which some will have grown accustomed: a lack of crowds (even unrelated to COVID); the option to dress casually and comfortably; full control over what exactly goes into one’s food and drink; similar control over sanitation; and the ability freely move about a home, yard and/or deck, rather than being confined to a table, booth, or spot at a bar.

And then, as always, there is still the issue of money.

Whether it’s evening out at a spectacular restaurant, a weekend away or a long, long-awaited trip, our most special experiences shape us in a way that’s unquantifiable. The pleasure we derive from our experiences cannot (and should not) always be reduced to money. And yet, after that inevitable initial surge, there’s a decent chance that some among us take a look at, if not how much is being spent, then how that money is being spent.

Consider a modest evening out for two, at… Applebee’s. One drink apiece (let’s say a beer and a glass of wine, averaging $6 each), a single $9 appetizer, and a pair of $13 entrées, come to $47. Throw in tax and tip and the outing will cost you and your companion a total of $60 and (based on average menu items; almost 2,000 calories.

I’d meant to present this “without judgment”, but to say that would be disingenuous. I have nothing personal against any restaurant brand, and there is, of course, a time and a place for everything. At the same time, the evening described above is about as entry-level as “going out” gets.

Competition for Consumers

We’re not about to become a nation that sits at home on Friday and Saturday night eating homemade turkey sandwiches. However, restaurants of all types must critically assess their value propositions. More than ever, these establishments are competing not only against one another, but also against the comfort, convenience, and, yes, relative lack of cost of home entertaining.

This, of course, isn’t to suggest that consumers have lost their ability or (every bit as important) their willingness to pay for a quality experience. What’s going to be vital for the restaurants that not only survive, but thrive in such an environment is the recognition that competing on price alone isn’t going to do the trick. “Pricy” and “overpriced” are not the same thing, and eateries will do well not to conflate to two.

Value-for-money, rather than raw cost will likely be the order of the day post-COVID. This means well-constructed menus, comprised of flavorful dishes, prepared with care, using high-quality ingredients. This also means “quality, atmosphere – and quality atmosphere” – will be at a premium.

More than any other market segment (even fine dining;) casual and “upscale casual” establishments will be under pressure to thread this needle. To lay this demand on them – particularly the independent eateries – on the heels of the most brutal period in their history seems unnecessarily cruel. Let’s be honest, it is.

And yet, for these restaurants, the short and intermediate-term present an opportunity.

In the coming months, many (all?) of us will return, delightedly, to restaurant dining. This rising tide will temporarily lift a lot of boats. At some point, however, this wave of euphoria will break, and genuine quality and value will win the day – and the regularly returning customer.

After so much doom, gloom, existential dread, and, sadly, a great many closures, those independent eateries that weathered the storm will be well-positioned to channel their quality, artisanal care, and personal touch to take the fight to their larger competitors. These are the establishments that, during the pandemic’s darkest days, fought tooth-and-nail, to not only survive as going business concerns but to help communities maintain some physical and emotional well-being. And it’s around these types of places that communities rallied.

Is it David and Goliath? As it always was. On the bright side, David is equipped for the tussle.

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Restaurant Experience
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