People sitting outside building.
Unsplash/ Louis Hansel

Many restaurants are electing to stay closed, even as states say they can open.

It’s Not Restaurants Customers Fear. It’s Other People

Keeping guests apart could be the key early on. Maybe later on, too.

No question there’s a serious divide over whether or not restaurants should reopen in the near-term. It’s basically split down the middle in Texas, according to the state’s restaurant association, which released a poll ahead of Friday’s 25 percent capacity reopening. Of those who responded—401 restaurants—47.38 percent said they were choosing to stay closed. A little over 9 percent said they weren’t sure, even days before the option became a reality. The rest (43.39 percent) were giving it a go.

And there’s already talk about the second phase in Texas’ plan. Restaurants might be allowed to serve 50 percent capacity as soon as May 18. The Texas Restaurant Association asked operators if they’d embrace that date instead of May 1. More than 47 percent said they would already be open. A few weeks is an eternity during COVID-19.

Dallas-based Brinker International noted it was scrambling to get more than 300 dining rooms open within a few days. But CEO Wyman Roberts even admitted he wasn’t sure if this was premature. “Those are questions above our pay grade,” he said. “We'll monitor that with everybody else in the country to see if we're too fast. And we'll probably end up dialing it back. … I feel really good that the distancing in our restaurants is safe.”

He voiced what pretty much every restaurant operator has felt over these crazy weeks. “No one knows for sure what lies ahead,” Roberts said.

Adding: “But I know this—if it's a half a dining room scenario, no one will get more out of a half a dining room than we will. When we return to full dining rooms, no one will outperform us.”

REOPENING? HERE'S EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW

About all restaurants can safely do right now is glean customer data and observe day-to-day response. A lot of the current anecdotal information has to be viewed through a crisis lens. It’s not easy to ask customers in the middle of a pandemic to comment about the future. Yet it’s those fears and concerns that can help restaurants understand where they need to start responding—and what steps can be taken to feel the kind of confidence Roberts portrayed. At least when it comes to making sure you’ve done everything possible to ensure customer and employee safety.

Public relations and digital agency Inspire PR Group conducted a nationwide survey, "Eating 2020: How COVID-19 Will Change Consumer Engagement With Food,” across 1,800 U.S. consumers. It looks at their purchasing trends before, during, and after COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions.

We’ll focus on the restaurant data (it also looked at grocers).

The two competing sectors shared one very important element in common: brands need to focus on helping their customers feel safe from other customers.

The pain point for most people today isn’t tied to the brands they’re putting their trust in; it’s the other patrons. There’s probably a good chance the guest looked up a restaurant’s mission statement before they decided to venture out. And they can see, hopefully, many of those directives in action once they walk through the door. Perhaps they’ve even frequented the concept for takeout and delivery during stay-at-home days and feel secure with the company.

The other customers, though? As anybody who’s walked outside can attest, everybody is judging everybody’s social distancing efforts. Vocally or quietly.

Although many diners said they would like to see employees wear gloves and face masks, their most preferred health and safety practices focused on mitigating the perceived threat posed by other customers.

Guests would like restaurants to do the following:

  • At least 6 feet between tables: 68 percent
  • Limit the number of customers in: 59 percent
  • Every employee wears gloves: 55 percent
  • Every employee wears a face mask: 52 percent
  • Bills paid with touchless technology: 39 percent
  • Tape on the waiting area floor: 37 percent
  • Require reservations (limited number): 33 percent
  • Every customer wears a face mask: 27 percent

Guests most prefer restaurants to do the following:

  • Limit the number of customers in: 24 percent
  • At least 6 feet between tables: 21 percent
  • Every employee wears a face mask: 15 percent
  • Every employee wears gloves: 11 percent
  • Bills paid with touchless technology: 7 percent
  • Require reservations (limited number): 7 percent
  • Every customer wears a face mask: 4 percent
  • Tape on the waiting area floor: 3 percent
  • Other: 8 percent

These top measures are pretty much mandatory for any restaurant opening right now, per city and state regulations. But the message moving forward is clear: Guests don’t want to be near other guests. Given they seem OK exchanging typical payment options, it seems clear most customers are going to put their faith in restaurants’ hands. (Keeping that trust is a different story, and something that could define the industry’s winners and upstarts for months to come). Early on, though, guests who make the conscious decision to pick a specific brand will do so believing in its precautionary measures.

This is why it’s vital to keep people apart, space wise. The ability to wait for their table from their car with text-on-arrival seating. A line at the counter that puts distance between customers. Keeping the bathrooms from getting overloaded and the lobby from packing up.

The National Restaurant Association suggested operators limit party size at tables and restrict service to only call-ahead seating (or digital reservations). Many brands are investing in physical barriers, such as partitions or Plexiglas barriers at registers, like Dunkin’.

Maybe restaurants even put up signage to point to an exit that differs from the entrance. Grocers nationwide have done this, along with one-way aisles.

For employees, workstations can be staggered. Break rooms monitored. Pre-shift meetings held virtually in some way.

There are a lot of options, but none more important than just making sure nobody is bumping into each other. It may take some creativity to accomplish that.

Inspire PR Group’s study found, to the earlier point, most potential diners are not all that worried about getting sick from employees. It’s not too much higher with other customers, but it is still higher.

  • 37 percent: Would be extremely or very worried about getting sick from other customers if they ate a meal inside a restaurant
  • 29 percent: Would be extremely or very worried about getting sick from employees if they area a meal inside a restaurant

Restaurants seem to be getting more credit as time goes on from guests. This could stem from a few factors. Attrition (getting tired of cooking at home). The perception if states are reopening it must be safer outside. Income from stimulus checks. And, maybe most vividly, experiences over the past few weeks with takeout and delivery, and feeling more comfortable with restaurants in general. "I ate here and didn't get sick," and so on.

Similar to how operators are split over reopening, customers are divided when it comes to eating out.

Immediately after COVID-19 restrictions lift, Inspire PR found that dine-in visits will increase, but not to previous levels.

Inspire PR Group chart.

A takeaway here is that dine-in remains, understandably, the real gray area. It will return, but nobody is quite sure when and to what level. It surely seems April was a bit too soon for most. Yet within the next two months the number jumps to nearly half. You’d have to think that will actually be higher (barring a setback of sorts, like a surge in cases) given how sentiment has tracked lately. The same driving factors of recent weeks—wariness with COVID-19 routines, better national news messages—could increase dramatically from now until then. It’s a mystery.

However, what seems crystal is that the channels gaining viability during crisis times—carryout, delivery, drive thru—appear good bets to hold real prominence down the road. There’s commentary from some experts the pandemic might have just accelerated channels that were coming anyway, especially curbside. That feature could develop into a full-service restaurant mainstay as the industry shifts more to a hybrid-type setup where everyone is better at serving convenience and tech-enabled occasions. If it feels like restaurants en masse are trying to become more like drive thrus lately, they are. And there’s a decent chance that doesn’t stop.

Speaking of such things … among those who go to restaurants, carryout, drive thru, and delivery visits increased significantly during the period when stay-at-home restrictions were in place, Inspire PR Group said. This will decrease after restrictions are lifted.

Inspire PR Group chart.

What this suggests is that customers might dial back their off-premises usage a bit. It’s a natural reality when you toss dine-in back into the mix and give customers more options. But that doesn’t mean they’ll stop using drive thru, curbside, and carryout, the mix will just shift back to some form of normal over the next two months. Maybe. Again, you’re asking people before the real end is in sight. We have no clue what could happen in the coming weeks.

Also, what this “new normal” looks like, and how long it takes to settle, is a guessing game. But having those off-premises channels up and humming will be important in case there is another setback.

Regardless if that happens or not, it’s valid to wonder if some guests move to off-premises consumption as their primary way to interact with restaurants.

Bruce Reinstein and Tim Hand of Kinetic12 consulting believe “curbside pickup will become part of virtually every full-service operation. Apps will allow for ordering, payment, communication, and pickup with the goal of zero contact between patrons and staff.” They even suggested we could see an expansion of “ghost kitchen” concepts that feature drive thrus and curbside pickup, where ordering and payment is done before arrival.

A lure of curbside is that customers can typically pick their arrival times and only restaurant staff have access to the food and packaging, unlike order-ahead takeout food, which often sits on an unprotected shelf where anyone can touch or tamper with it. Curbside, ideally, goes from the restaurant to the customer, with fewer touchpoints in between.

Reinstein said curbside carries higher-quality perception than delivery, too, since it’s not being tossed around by a driver. And it’s fresher. So curbside might end up being the off-premises solution that really offers full-serves, particularly casual dining, a chance to deliver restaurant quality outside the restaurant. The rage we’ve seen around delivery in recent years? Perhaps that shifts to curbside for sit-down chains. If anything, it could help customers see full-service chains in a new light.

“Going through a drive thru is often a timing gamble if you’re in a rush, and you still have to order and pay, which takes more time,” Reinstein and Hand said. “Curbside is the fastest and most convenient of all off-premises options. With a car full of kids, and maybe a dog, nothing beats curbside for fast and easy.”

Who thought it possible a full-service chain could have an option perceived as more convenient than the drive thru? If customers realized that during COVID-19, they’re going to want it after.

Inspire PR Group then looked at changing preferences across categories. Fast food, including pizza, have maintained visits more effectively in recent weeks.

Inspire PR Group chart.

After COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions lift, more than a third of Americans said they would prefer to eat a meal prepared by a local/neighborhood restaurant. Nearly a third said they would prefer one cooked by a chain.

For every 100 restaurant guests:

  • 35: Prefer a meal from a local or neighborhood restaurant
  • 37: Don’t have a preference
  • 28: Prefer a meal from a chain restaurants

Pent-up demand is building.

A serious question on the other side of COVID-19 is what kind of disposable income will people have.

CNN recently reported that when the Department of Labor releases monthly figures this week, the unemployment rate is expected to be around 14 percent, which would be the highest since the data was first recorded in 1948.

How will this affect what was driving most of the top-line growth seen in the sector over the last couple of years—higher checks to cover fewer guests?

Inspire PR Group noted that most Americans are unable to, or would feel uncomfortable, paying $75 for a family dinner. But most would feel comfortably paying $10 for a lunch for themselves.

$75 family dinner

  • 37 percent: Could pay this amount and not feel worried about the cost
  • 37 percent: Could pay this amount and would feel worried about the cost
  • 26 percent: Could not pay this amount

$10 lunch

  • 64 percent: Could pay this amount and not feel worried about the cost
  • 28 percent: Could pay this amount and would feel worried about the cost
  • 8 percent: Could not pay this amount

There are echoes of the Great Recession here. Then, the value of definition dominated restaurant menus. There were categories of consumers seeking deals to feed their families. And there were also those willing to fork up a little more for an experience—something that would amount to a cheaper “vacation” than an actual vacation. Essentially, people turned to restaurants for their outlet from tough times, which is why the industry has long been resistant to recessions.

But everything will be relative to a brand’s core guest. In an effort not to price themselves out, expect to see many chains put heavy emphasis on the barbell approach, shifting now more to that lower end. Incentives to get people to come back and see all the safety efforts they’ve put into place. And not feel guilty financially for doing so.

At the same time, fine dining will almost surely become more expensive since the competitive set has changed. There will be fewer customers and less demand in the economy. And thus, fine dining will take on a more exclusive feel than it did when the industry was oversaturated and many concepts had to scale back their prices to attract a blurring pool of customers.

A recession could segment those restaurant guests much more distinctly than before. It will be up to every brand and operator to understand where they slot into that conversation and act accordingly. Before COVID-19, the idea of value was quickly becoming rooted in experience over straight price.

That might very well change, broadly speaking, like it did more than a decade ago. It will still be the case, but not for every brand. And it could simplify the equation back to earlier definitions: Value based on abundance and the almighty dollar on one end, and something worth paying extra for on the other