To Sharpe’s point, getting customers off the couch and into the restaurant is often a task of providing a familiar escape. But there’s a line to walk. Consumers’ standards for cleanliness aren’t just higher than before—they’re far more demanding. Brands are under a constant microscope, Sharpe says. Employee protocols. Where other guests sit and how they act. How servers and staff respond.
Meanwhile, brands can’t push the envelope so far that diners feel they’re grabbing a meal in some apocalyptic dystopia where efficiency and cleanliness trump experience and hospitality.
All-you-can-eat brunch is one of XRG’s biggest draws at some of its brands, including El Torito, where it’s the No. 1 daypart. Sharpe says this came “roaring back” when restrictions lifted. “Not crawling, [but] roaring back when we reopened,” he reiterates.
Instead of abandoning the feature, XRG reconfigured the setup, erected plexiglass, and put attendants behind the barrier at each station to guide diners through the entire process.
Even when mandates dropped, XRG left updates in place. It helps with cleanliness and sentiment, speed, portion control, and even guest experience by providing service at every station.
It’s an example, Sharpe says, of how the return of the dining room remains an exercise in feedback and flexibility.
Edithann Ramey, chief marketing officer at On The Border, notes guest listening is an area COVID lifted the lid on in myriad ways. Interaction and engagement across social skyrocketed as it became the only connective avenue for many people. On Cinco de Mayo, typically On The Border’s biggest day of the year, it hosted a Facebook Live where the brand talked to guests and “had a party through social.”
“As such, it’s been two-way communication channels,” Ramey says. “Not just to talk about complaints, but also to give us feedback on some of the things that are working and some that are not.” Everything from menu changes or pare-downs to the aforementioned QR codes.
Preserving the guest experience
Quick serve Fazoli’s has also been on a mission to drive more guest reviews as it tries to sort operating myth from reality, CMO Jodie Conrad says. “The majority of those come through Google,” she says. “But that really is a way to get real-time feedback on what the experiences are like and where the pain points are. And what people find is working for them versus not working for them.”
Has this been a frustrating process at times? No question. Higher prices, standards, and elastic regulations stir a cauldron of problems that make it difficult to deliver the experience consumers demand. Limited-service turnover was 106 percent in June 2021, according to Black Box Intelligence. It was 144 percent for quick serves. Both are higher than 2019 levels of 102 and 135 percent, respectively. More than 25 percent of employees claimed less than a year on the job.
The number of hourly workers in a limited-service restaurant was down 1.2 percent and 6.2 percent for full serves (but only 2.8 percent in the full-service back of the house).
“The classic review [today]: I know we’re in a pandemic, but …” Sharpe says.
Consumers want service, supply, and labor from two years ago in the dining room, Bartek adds. In recent months, he’s noticed a slight decline across the board with Jinya’s reviews.
“It is those little things, but it makes a huge difference for these people now because it’s more expensive; it’s taking the family out,” Bartek says. “We want that thing we had. But it’s different. Why is it different? That’s something [customers] are not thinking through. … How do we combat that? The labor isn’t going to change. The supply chain isn’t going to change immediately.”
Indeed, Conrad says, it’s challenging for consumers today to find a great experience, whether they’re spending $5 or $50. You can say the same of retail and grocery, where supply has stretched expectations of time and availability.
Navigating this current stretch has become the present and future of the dining room. Per a Q3 dive from Black Box, as quarter-over-quarter traffic growth eased and restaurants caught their breath, a new connection emerged.
In full-service restaurant reviews, when “speed of service” and “attentiveness” net sentiment improved, perception of “food quality” often did as well. When positive chatter around “fast,” “quick,” and “prompt” coincided with quality mentions of “attentive,” “refills,” and “checking back,” upbeat comments of “fresh,” as in the food was “hot and fresh,” trended higher.
One example: “They were short on staff, but the manager stepped in to help. We had hot, fresh food. Server and manager were friendly and checked on us several times.”
Richardson says restaurants have to be careful at this inflection “to not let our expectations of what makes us different and what makes guests choose us slip.
“There are so many very significant and real challenges in our business,” he says. “It would be very easy to start rationalizing because we experience it everywhere else we go. But the minute you start letting your teams think that way it becomes corrosive,” Richardson says. “It is a reality they have to deal with. But it also becomes an excuse to not be passionate about those standards.”
Eggs Up Grill is a predominantly franchised system. So the message from corporate down, he says, has been to remember why consumers picked the brand in the past and find ways to make it right for every guest in the restaurant, in a positive and memorable way.
Sharpe agrees. “You are who you are,” he says, “and your guests use you for who you are. I think there’s a perception—and some of it is real—that during the pandemic a lot of brands tried to make it a little easier on [franchisees], which is completely understandable. But if you go too far you actually lose your identity, and your sales are going to fall.”
Putting sanitation front and center
That identity, as mentioned earlier, needs to includes what Conrad calls “sanitation theater.” It’s an operating practice she believes won’t ever go away. Hand sanitizer on display. Guests watching employees clean tables.
“I think, formerly, the expectation for all of us was to provide a clean and safe environment,” she says. “But the point was, I didn’t need to see you cleaning; I just needed to notice the place was clean. Now, I need to see you cleaning. I need to see you demonstrating these steps for my safety and my crew’s safety.”
Gregg Koffler, vice president of franchise development at Roy Rogers, had a unique challenge at hand when COVID arrived. The classic quick serve has long differentiated with a “Fixin’s Bar” where guests self-serve their add-ons. Once dining rooms reopened, Roy Rogers had to remove it. Guests could request a “Fixin’s Cup,” but it was a feature outweighed by a new expectation of cleanliness and safety. That’s come back, however. “But we’re still cleaning at a level that we’ve never had before,” Koffler says.
And speaking of operating on the fly in the dining room, dividers and other physical changes have propped up and come down, too. Richardson says in Eggs Up Grill stores that have removed partitions, there’s been “no pushback from our guests.” Again, what has fundamentally changed, however, “is the expectation around sanitation,” he says.
About 40 percent of XRG’s units are in Los Angeles County, a market where a health order claimed dividers didn’t, in fact, compensate for 6 feet of distance. “So that went out the window [more than a year] ago,” Sharpe says. “The dining room looks like it did before at this point. The cleanliness theater is predominant.”
“People are very, very conscious nowadays of cleanliness in a restaurant environment,” says Nils Hughes, executive vice president of sales in the Americas for FLAT Tech. “And it’s almost become a show. People are over-exaggerating the cleanliness and getting rid of things like menus and putting a QR code on the table. So there’s been some fundamental shifts that have definitely happened. Creating environments is more important than ever. ‘Micro-social environment’ is becoming the buzzword now of the industry—to make sure that people do feel protected.”
Sharpe and Richardson say their brands’ dining rooms are stuffed these days. It’s one reason patio extensions, originally made to combat fears of dining inside and expand capacity, aren’t going away. Richardson says they’re a near requirement for new builds at Eggs Up Grill.
That’s important considering the density inside restaurants doesn’t appear to have changed all that much, a fact, Richardson admits, surprised him. “If you had asked me a year ago, I would have told you that new restaurants would have been less dense in terms of seating,” he says.
In truth, there’s been a “very small amount of guest feedback” concerning seating adjacencies. “You occasionally get that, but it’s not consistent at all,” Richardson says.
The new rules of dine-in
Quick service could end up telling a different story.
Drive-thru, which represents 52 percent of off-premises traffic, according to NPD, was up 9 percent through October last year, and 23 percent higher than 2019. Carryout (39 percent of off-premises mix) was 3 percent better, year-over-year, and delivery 32 percent. An eye opener—delivery was tracking 123 percent above 2019 levels.
You see this progressing with futuristic prototypes, everything from conveyor belt drop-ins to Shake Shack’s multiple-lane drive-thru entry to Taco Bell’s Go Mobile unit, which has turned a typical site pad into an omnichannel transaction center, complete with smart technology and spaces dedicated to curbside orders.
Before COVID, 40 percent of Fazoli’s sales were dine-in. Even fully open, as of December 2021, it was down to about 27–28 percent. “To be honest, I don’t think it’s ever coming back to 40 percent for us,” Conrad says. “Because people have figured out how they’re going to live their lives and adapt, and it hasn’t included eating in, at least as much, at quick-service restaurants as they used to.”
Roy Rogers has started to reexamine footprints and shrink square footage accordingly. Fewer seats can equal a lower development cost, Koffler says—“an unintended consequence of the pandemic.” And also a pretty clear answer to whether quick serves, broadly, need dining rooms as large as before.
“It gave us an opportunity to really look at what we do in our physical building and how do we increase the value proposition for our franchisees overall,” he says. “Wendy’s and Taco Bell and their new prototypes are shrinking their footprints 500–700 square feet for a restaurant, which is a big deal in the [quick-service restaurant] space.”
If COVID has proven anything, though, it’s that you can’t paint a single stroke for any trend. Jinya’s Bartek is seeing franchisees actually build larger spaces than ever. “It’s a product of the way the real estate market was and how some things became available that weren’t there before for our guys,” he says.