I went to a popular on-the-water restaurant the other day that had seemingly mastered all the current COVID-19 protocols. Staff were wearing masks, they had a QR code for downloading the menu, used plastic silverware, and sanitized the tables after every use. The only problem? The service was subpar and the food substandard. Will I return? No. Despite their attempt at creating a safe environment, the two most important factors in the restaurant industry are still food and service. Or so I thought.
What Factors are Influencing a Guest to Return to Restaurant In-House Dining?
Toast’s Guide to the Restaurant Guest survey revealed the factors that influence if guests will return to a restaurant. The number one response was the quality of the food which came in at 50 percent. Surprisingly, staff friendliness (21 percent) was 6th on the list, surpassed by attention to cleanliness and safety (43 percent); value (31 percent); menu options (27 percent); and desire to support local businesses (22 percent).
We all remember when Bain & Company came up with the following statistic that put an exclamation point behind the importance of return guests: A five percent increase in customer retention can increase a company’s profitability by more than 25 percent. If Toast’s survey of 700+ restaurant guests aligns with the views of most returning restaurant diners, the quality of food and the attention to cleanliness and safety are now the top two considerations.
How Can Restaurants Ensure the Quality of their Food During the Pandemic?
On the surface, it would appear that ensuring the quality of food would entail the same protocols as before the pandemic: know thy supplier, use FIFO methods, and hire talented chefs that can create recipes that lead to consistent delicious fare. But the pandemic is no-holds-barred when it comes to the massive effects it has had on our world at large, including the global supply chain. Distribution channels have been upended and uncertainty has led to instability.
Beef took an early pandemic hit. According to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, ranchers are facing a loss of approximately $13 billion through 2021. Consolidated Concept’s October 6 Market Report noted that, despite the sharp rise in beef production, Choice and Select cutouts continue to price higher.
When Buyer’s Edge Platform compared $1.3 billion in restaurant purchases from February and May of 2020, they found an overall increase of 38 percent with standard beef cuts up over 86 percent, chicken breasts up over 23 percent, and standard pork cuts up over 70 percent.
Bon Appetit reported that Oasis, a Mediterranean restaurant in Gallup, has faced shortages and corresponding inflated prices of chicken, beef, cleaning supplies, to-go containers, and plastic silverware for months.
Add in the reduced capacity restrictions and consumer fears, and you’re left with restaurants having to walk an exceptionally fine line, with profit margins at all-time lows.
To maintain the quality of their offerings, restaurants have had to adapt and change. One of their options is limiting and redefining their menu, reducing high-cost, low-profit entrees. Some brands removed menu items that included brisket from their menus due to price increases.
Saffron De Twah, a Moroccan-influenced restaurant in Detroit, told Eater that they have had to make several adjustments to their menu to cut costs. “At the end of the day, no one’s going to pay 20 bucks for a dish they used to get for $10.”
Which leads to the other decision operators are having to face: to raise or not to raise prices. Toast’s survey suggests that guests understand the need to raise prices, though some restaurants have found the actual act has led to disruption.
Are Guests Willing to Pay More at Their Favorite Restaurants?
According to the survey, 80 percent of diners are willing to pay anywhere from $1 to $10 more per check, with the highest percentage of respondents coming in at an additional $2 to $5. Restaurants are increasing prices through either direct menu pricing or adding COVID-19 surcharges.
Which tactic seems to appeal more to guests?
In May, restaurants started adding a COVID-19 surcharge to offset rising costs including an estimated 35 percent increase that went to the products required for PPE, single-use items, and cleaning. The move was not well received. A tweet showing a 5 percent COVID-19 surcharge on a receipt from Kiko Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Lounge in Missouri went viral, and the restaurant was forced to raise prices on the menu and end the surcharge. Other restaurants, such as Purple Cow and Bootleggers BBQ, followed suit. There were some restaurants, however, that found their patrons supported an added surcharge.
Whichever route restaurants take, clear communication is important to ensure that guests know what to expect and are not surprised when the bill arrives.
How are Restaurants Ensuring Safe and Clean Environments?
Toast’s survey found that 64 percent of guests reported that seeing staff take safety precautions and wearing PPE was their most important consideration when returning to in-house dining. Hand sanitizers at every table came in next (49 percent) while single-use menus came in third (40 percent).
These important cleaning and safety implementations were followed by contactless payment, single-use utensils, a posted statement about cleaning procedures, and order at table capabilities.
As with pricing, communication is vital. Guests are discussing and sharing the restaurants that they feel safe to dine at. Toast’s survey suggests that guests are still finding restaurants in much the same way as before the pandemic struck with almost 50 percent obtaining recommendations from family and friends, and 35 percent coming in because of online reviews and a restaurant’s website.
Restaurants are using their website to communicate to guests the protocols they’ve put in place to ensure their safety. Ruth’s Chris Steak House has an Enhanced Safety & Precautions page designed to ensure guests that they have created a comfortable and safe environment. The information includes their cleaning protocol, use of PPE, and social distancing measures.