The No. 1 mandate concern for Peabody’s restaurants was the potential stress of having staff check patrons’ vaccination cards. So far it hasn’t been difficult, and customers are understanding of restaurants following the law. But there are rare exceptions, like what occurred at a Carmine’s restaurant in New York City when a hostess was attacked for asking guests to show proof of vaccination.
Clearly, customer sentiment will vary greatly depending on the customer’s individual view on vaccines. Those against mandates may not support restaurants, while those in favor could feel more confident with in-person dining, Krueger says.
“They know that if they have to show the proof of the vaccine to get into a restaurant, and they still go to that restaurant, they're just looking for a fight,” Krueger says. “But I think what this does is for the vast majority of the population who don't oppose vaccines, I think it is going to give them reassurance.”
Perhaps one of the greatest impacts of the new federal mandate is on the already troubling labor shortage. Peabody says there is a larger intersection between restaurant workers and the unvaccinated than the general public. While he believes higher wages are necessary to get through the shortage overall, the mandate creates another barrier.
“The labor issue is just going to continue to be a problem,” Peabody says. “The more things you put in the way of people working at restaurants, the harder it's going to be for restaurants to expand and for new ones to open.”
One restaurant, The Player’s Retreat in Raleigh, North Carolina, took matters into its own hands long before any vaccine mandate. The Player’s Retreat was one of the first restaurants in the country to require proof of vaccination to dine indoors, starting in mid-June, for the safety of employees and guests. The decision worked for The Player’s Retreat, which is at 100 percent staffing, and saw more than 10,000 people sign up to be a part of the “PR: I’m Vaxxed!” program. Customers who are vaccinated and show proof get a badge from the restaurant.
Overall, those who still do not feel safe will likely not change their dining habits.
“There's a natural equilibrium among diners,” Peabody says. “I think that if you aren't comfortable going out, you're just not going to go out.”
In light of looming challenges, restaurants are embracing new technology in ways they never did before, Peabody says. One way restaurants can incorporate tech into how they handle new vaccine mandates is by making sure customers who make reservations know the rule prior to showing up to the host stand.
“That is the No. 1 thing that we can all do, is just make sure that there's no one that shows up to that restaurant that doesn't have proof of vaccinations because that's the worst,” Peabody says. “We call it a host stand issue. You don't want a confrontation at the host stand.”
For one subset of the unvaccinated population, going out to eat is important enough to them that they will choose to become vaccinated because of the city mandates, Peabody says.
The pandemic, and its restrictions, demanded restaurants shift models to favor off-premises orders, outdoor dining, and virtual offerings. Even before COVID, Chick-fil-A was one chain that came out with plans to open units without indoor dining space, something Krueger predicts will have a role in the future of the restaurant industry.
The true pivotal moment nationwide for larger groups returning to in-person dining with kids may depend on the day when children can receive vaccines, Krueger says. He thinks this might also be when Americans see less of a push for adults to get the vaccine. In Black Box Intelligence’s recent weekly update, casual dining was the only segment that didn’t improve week-over-week and family dining was the weakest segment based on sales growth.
“The real concern about going out and the safety is that their kids can't get vaccinated,” Krueger says. “Once that does happen, I think you're going to see a much larger return to going out to restaurants with kids.”