Pasta delivery

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Even when guests are ordering, they're not spending as much.

Fine Dining Faces an Uphill Battle Ahead

Pivoting to takeout and delivery isn't always feasible.

There are a few reasons fine dining is getting hit especially hard by COVID-19. One key point is check size.

Pivoting to takeout and delivery presents its standard challenges—quality control, packaging, third-party fees, etc. And then there’s what it looks like for fine dining.

Given the high-quality product, prep times, and chef staff involved, the sector generally pads the bottom line through beverage add-ons and multiple layers to a meal, not delivery and sheer order volume. Higher-margin products like dessert and starters are the lifeblood. And more often than not, off-premises strips those same check builders out of the equation.

Black Box Intelligence’s latest coronavirus report, released last Thursday, showed rapid check decline across the full-service landscape. It was especially steep for fine dining.

READ MORE: How some fine-dining restaurants are adjusting to a new normal



The segment, which was one of the industry’s steadiest performers over the last couple of years, saw average guest checks drop 43 percent in the week ending March 27. Family dining witnessed a 7.3 percent decline, while casual dining decreased 6.6 percent.

Essentially, even when people are looking to fine dining for takeout and delivery during the pandemic, they’re spending far less than usual. It’s a sensible, if not troubling notion. Many fine-dining restaurants promote lengthy visits and thrive on hospitality and, again, (something that can’t be understated) the mark-up of alcohol sales.

Black Box said March 27 was the second week to show the full impact of COVID-19 shelter-in-place and stay-at-home restrictions on a wide, national scale. Same-store sales plummeted by more than 60 percent for the industry, representing a 2.1 percentage point decline from the previous week.

The company said the ability to fare better, relatively speaking, has been linked mostly to the strength of off-premises business before the pandemic arrived, followed by the ability to quickly pivot and ramp up those offerings in recent weeks. This is another reason fine dining has struggled to gain footing—a lack of experience. There was little reason for scores of fine-dining concepts to invest in off-premises before COVID-19. It didn’t reflect their brand and it wasn’t part of their customer’s behavior

So the typical off-premises benefits, things like incremental sales and broadened customer reach, just didn’t appeal. Fine-dining operators didn’t want to introduce themselves to guests via takeout or delivery and they weren’t trying to reach app-loyal users who frequent top aggregator platforms. If customers couldn’t get the 360 experience, it was preferable just to offer none.

For many fine-dining restaurants and the prices they charge, trying to serve food sans table service simply didn’t add up.

In Datassential’s recent operator study of 400-plus decision makers, fine dining lagged the field when asked “how many of you are closed for dine-in, but still open for delivery/carryout?” The segment clocked in at 56 percent. Casual dining (64 percent), midscale (75 percent), fast casual (87 percent), and fast food (90 percent) climbed the other direction.

And for “closed completely,” fine dining topped at 44 percent. Casual dining was 36 percent; midscale 24 percent; fast casual 13 percent; and fast food 10 percent.

In sum, according to this study, close to half of all fine-dining operators are electing to just batten down the hatches and attempt to ride the storm out. They don’t see a lifeline in delivery and takeout.

Datassential also found that, on average, sales declined 82 percent among fine-dining operators in the survey. And a full 72 percent said they laid off 75 percent or more of their staff already. Only 4 percent said they’d avoided staff cuts. For comparison, those figures were negative 42 percent and plus 49 percent, respectively, for fast food. Just 45 percent of casual-dining brands said they’d let go three-quarters of their staff, and that was the closest segment to fine dining. So the gap between fine dining and its nearest full-service peer group was almost 30 percent.

Darden recently revealed its fine-dining category, which includes The Capital Grille and Eddie V’s, absorbed an 89.1 percent drop in comp sales in the week ending April 5 (year-over-year). That marked the third straight week in the 80s, after declines of 85.4 and 87.9 percent leading up.

The Capital Grille Facebook

Darden's The Capital Grille is weathering the impact.

Other findings

The breakfast daypart has seen a significant drop in sales throughout COVID-19, Black Box said. You can credit that to daily routine disruption and hordes of people working from home. Grabbing a coffee on the way to the office just isn’t what it used to be.

Black Box said breakfast comp sales plunged 80 percent in the week ending March 27, which represented a 19-percentage point drop in performance from the previous week. People are stocking up and staying in, and breakfast is feeling the burn because of it.

Pizza concepts, following a steady trend, continue to hold up the best, down just 15 percent in comp sales, followed by chicken and hamburger (negative 30 and 32 percent, respectively). Performance across all cuisine types varies widely, with bottom performers within the breakfast-centric concepts and bar and grill sector declining 83 and 74 percent apiece.

Grocery stores have started to stabilize a bit, Black Box said, with year-over-year growth of 15.5 percent last week. The previous period it soared 73.6 percent. This is likely the result of people trying to make their last trip’s haul last. Online grocery sales growth remains high, up 62.3 percent.

Quick-service restaurants experienced an uptick in share of consumer food spend by 3 percent, week-over-week, as grocery stores endured a 2 percent pullback and full service lost another 1 percent. Last week’s report showed that full-service share-of-stomach spend slipped below 5 percent. It’s now a tick lower.

While restaurant spend continues to decline for all age groups, the average restaurant is reporting a larger mix of spending from millennials and Gen Z consumers than it did a year ago.

Seventy-two percent of consumers who were dining weekly at full-service restaurants in early 2020 stopped doing do so during the week. Similarly, quick-serves vanquished 35 percent of their regular weekly guests.

High-frequency spenders, though, still exist among the consumers who have not eliminated their restaurant spend. Of those that doled out funds on restaurants during the week, 39 percent made at least five or more transactions during the period.

Additionally, in the week ending April 5, Black Box said the conversation around delivery and takeout on social media fell over the last two weeks with 15 percent fewer off-premises mentions (this is the week ending April 5 compared to the week ending March 22 when #TheGreatAmericanTakeout provided a lift.

And for two consecutive weeks, guest satisfaction for takeout has grown more positive while delivery satisfaction tracks more negative. The message there: Push even further into curbside, if possible.

This is a notion also backed by recent data from Sense360. The company, on April 2, ran a survey examining the types of ordering channels people are using, and whether they are switching to fresh types of products along the way.

Sense360 discovered that 60 percent of respondents reported placing an order online for takeout or home delivery since COVID-19. But takeout, which refers to order-ahead in this case, has been the most popular.

One in five people said they placed online orders for home delivery and takeout. Twenty-two percent said takeout only. Eighteen percent have tried only delivery. Forty percent have avoided both.

Also, 21 percent of people said they’d used online restaurant ordering for home delivery. Yet 31 percent said they’d tapped online restaurant ordering for in-store/curbside pickup.

Among the first-time delivery adopters, 42 percent said they ordered as least one new product category for pickup/takeout, and 64 percent plan to do so again after COVID-19.

The same numbers were lower for delivery—38 percent and 62 percent, respectively.