As restaurants continue to open their dining rooms around the country, operators are left with a growing concern: Is the public ready to return? According to a recent Zagat study, that answer for many would, unfortunately, be no.
Zagat’s Future of Dining study found that, of the almost 7,000 diners surveyed, two out of three responded that they would wait at least one week after re-opening to dine out, and 93 percent of those plan to wait at least three weeks before returning to in-house restaurant dining. A whopping 20 percent plan on waiting for more than 3 months. Keep in mind that 76 percent of those that responded dined out two or more times per week before the pandemic struck.
The study made it clear that the shutdowns and virus have left an indelible mark. Before the pandemic, 41 percent cooked meals at home 5 or more times per week, during the crisis, 80 percent found themselves in front of the stove, and after (if we can call it after), 57 percent report cooking more meals for themselves.
The good news is that you are missed. When respondents were asked what they missed the most, 57 percent said their favorite neighborhood spot, while 33 percent missed their favorite fine dining restaurant. While they certainly miss the food, they also mentioned socializing as a prime consideration.
What can restaurants do to ease the public’s fears?
As expected, the number one reason people opted to dine out less had little to do with finances and more to do with safety. Three out of four diners reported that their biggest obstacle to eating out was for health concerns. The study also found two factors that were most likely to ease customer’s concerns and influence their return—outdoor seating and reducing the capacity for indoor dining.
Over 75 percent reported that they were more likely to visit a restaurant with outdoor seating, 70 percent mentioned the importance of reduced seating indoors, and 80 percent reported that they would be less likely to visit a restaurant that was seating at full capacity.
Tips for Operators: With outdoor seating being such an important element in reducing the concerns of your guests, creating or enlarging your outdoor space is an important consideration. Several states have passed regulatory relief for restaurants that includes expanding outdoor seating on public property, including sidewalks. Be sure to check with your local and state authorities to see to what extent they will work with restaurants in your area.
Almost 85 percent said that they would also be more comfortable if social distancing measures were in place and the staff wore masks. Close behind was a restaurant’s ability to notify them when their table was ready, instead of having to wait inside the restaurant and the availability of hand sanitizer.
Tips for Operators: There are several options available that will allow you to notify your guests from a distance. These include digital waitlist and paging apps such as TablesReady to software that calls and texts guests when their table is available like the CAKE guest manager app from Sysco. Guest pagers, such as those provided by LRS, are also growing in popularity. And for the many that are reducing costs to stay afloat, a simple text from your host or hostess certainly fulfills the main objective—helping your guests feel safe.
It was interesting to note that one of the main comments submitted in response to what would make guests feel more comfortable referred to the need for contact tracing. Some states, such as Washington, have made logging diners’ personal information part of the reopening guidelines, albeit voluntary, in order to facilitate contact tracing. This includes a daily log that contains every person’s phone number and email that eats at your establishment. Some, of course, will consider this an invasion of their privacy. Others will appreciate the fact that they can be notified should it be determined that they were in the vicinity of someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19.
One respondent reported that their biggest deterrent to dining out was, “Restaurants that don’t take new health regulations seriously. Restaurants that are “polite” to non-compliant customers and employers at the expense of properly behaved customers and employers.”
The main takeaway is that it’s important to make your guests feel comfortable and secure. Nearly one in two questioned whether they would feel comfortable when dining in a restaurant.
What does the future look like for the restaurant industry?
For those restaurants that developed a growing delivery platform, the news is good. Pre-COVID-19, 69 percent of consumers ordered restaurant delivery. Since the virus struck, that number has risen to 88 percent—almost a 20 percent increase.
Tips for Operators: Digital ordering and delivery has grown 300 percent faster than dine-in traffic since 2014. When you consider that 70 percent of consumers would rather order directly from a restaurant than a third-party delivery service, it’s clear that now is the time to ensure you have an online ordering system available for your patrons. This can be accomplished through a website or app. Several companies offer assistance in this area including GloriaFood which advertises a free online ordering system for restaurants.
Another avenue restaurants took, that stretched them beyond their usual business model, was the sale of meal kits, grocery items, and alcohol to-go. Close to 60 percent of respondents reported that they would continue to use these services if available.
According to Chris Stang, CEO of Zagat, the company decided to conduct the study in order to illustrate the extreme challenges that restaurants are facing during this time, and that the information may be used to urge local, state, and federal governments to respond with some type of assistance.
Restaurant owners can also use the information depicted in the study and speak directly with government officials in their area. If there was ever a time to speak up and look to support from government agencies, and the hundreds of other organizations that are willing to lend a helping hand, now is the time. As our history demonstrates, when America faces a crisis, people rise to the occasion in support of each other and the many challenges this industry and others are currently facing.