As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues in fits and starts, restauranteurs wonder how this inoculation will affect their business and if it will be enough to bring wary guests back to indoor dining.
As of January 6, about 5.3 million people in the U.S. had received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the federal government, they have shipped over 17.2 million doses. Between people leery of the potential side effects and an overextended healthcare system, it may be some time before the nation reaches “herd immunity” — when 80-90% of the population has either received a vaccination or contracted the disease. Goldman Sachs predicts that over 70% of the population in developed markets will have received their vaccinations by the fall of 2021.
In December, the CDC released an updated COVID-19 vaccine priority list. Restaurant workers are in line following frontline essential workers and individuals over the age of 74. Of course, we know little about this disease or the vaccinations made in haste to stop its onslaught. How long does immunity last after infection or inoculation? Experts are not really sure.
What we do know is that the world and its inhabitants are wary of social distancing measures, ready to hug a stranger walking down the street, and oh-so ready to return to their favorite dining establishment for exceptional food and shared conversation. Here’s a look into in-house dining as the nation begins to recover.
The Transition to Indoor Dining
Restaurant operators opened their doors to indoor dining, only to shut them again weeks or months later as the pandemic surged in their cities and states. The Chicago Tribune laid out the COVID-19 timeline and its effect on restaurants and bars in Illinois and Chicago. The chronology included the first and then second closures for indoor service for Chicago bars and restaurants, some never recovering from the second October 27 shutdown.
Restauranteurs that have endured, continue to adjust and readjust, making quick decisions that enable them to hang on for one more day. Like a chameleon, the restaurant model morphs from moment to moment and will continue to as the world prays for strong immune systems and a vaccine that will enable some to return to the lifestyle we now value more than ever before.
While the number of consumers looking to return to in-house dining will continue to rise, the tightened market increases the value of every guest that enters a restaurant’s reopened doors. The following represent opportunities for operators looking to bring guests back to on-site dining as the industry slowly returns to some sense of normalcy.
The Dining Experience
Here are a few promising statistics from the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) 2019 Restaurant Industry Factbook:
- Nine out of ten consumers enjoy going out to restaurants.
- Three out of four consumers agree that dining out is a better use of their leisure time than cooking at home.
- Four in ten consumers stated restaurants were an important part of their lifestyle.
- Over 50% of consumers prefer to spend money on an experience than an item.
What these numbers mean for chefs and restauranteurs is that those offering a greater experience may expect a larger market share. While it’s difficult to compete with some of the bigger entertainment concepts, restaurants that provide intimate experiences that engage all the senses will appeal to the experience-deprived guest.
A well-designed tasting menu combined with beverage pairings creates an occasion guests will long remember. Include brand stories and the culture or mythology of food, herbs, or beverages, and you can count on customers sharing their experience with friends and family.
On the experiential side, though growing in popularity, the dining in the dark venues offer guests the opportunity to focus on their sense of taste, smell, and sound as they enjoy multiple courses paired with wine and cocktails while immersed in darkness. In the U.S., you can find BLACKOUT Dining in the Dark in Las Vegas and Abigail’s Kitchen in New York City, to name a few.
The NRA’s survey reported on the changing tastes and expectations of today’s guests. A few consumer trends chefs should consider:
- Two-thirds of consumer’s favorite restaurants offer food that provides flavors that they cannot easily duplicate when cooking at home.
- 62% of consumers say the availability of locally sourced food affects their choice of restaurants.
- 61% of consumers order healthier options than they did two years ago.
Chefs offering global, uncommon food and flavors will find these customers searching out their fare. Machine: Engineered Dining & Drink in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood boasts a globally inspired menu along with an on-site flower shop. The eclectic winter menu includes a house-cured smoked salmon with wasabi tobiko roe and a harissa grilled eggplant with smoked carrots, watercress, and pistachio oil. The brand is also known for its high-concept cocktails such as Dragon’s Breath, a blend of tenjaku Japanese whisky, cinnamon tequila, lemon, and orange flavors. Machine is currently open for curbside pickup and delivery.
“We’re open!” is the number one message restaurants need to convey. With over 110,000 permanent closures, customers will lean on messaging through social media and sites such as Yelp to determine which of their favorite dining spots made it through the pandemic. Operators need to assume responsibility for these online listings and make sure they contain a direct link to the restaurant’s website.
Despite an increase in inoculations, guests will expect continued safety measures that became the norm throughout the pandemic. Mobile menus, ordering, and payment solutions via QR codes will remain important considerations for guests still concerned about the transmission and spread of COVID-19.