Customers drinking beer outside, clinking glasses.
Jonathan Phillips

When customers opt to dine-in, food quality (68 percent) is the top priority when deciding where to eat.

Study: Dine-In Customers are Roaring Back

New data shows convenience hasn't replaced guests' desire to go out and seek food/beverage experiences. 

A recent study of restaurant consumers suggests the rise of off-premises is taking a backseat to dine-in's renaissance. 

TouchBistro, a POS and restaurant management company, partnered with research firm MaruMatchbox to survey 2,600-plus U.S. and Canada consumers from June 20 to July 8. The survey found that 44 percent are dining out at least once per week or more and 78 percent are going out at least once per month. Comparatively, 27 percent are ordering takeout/delivery at least once per week. The younger the age group, the more likely the guest is to dine out, which makes sense given older individual's vulnerability to COVID. Sixty-two percent of Gen Z guests are dining out weekly or more, followed by millennials (57 percent), Gen X (48 percent), and baby boomers (36 percent). 

“Our research shows that the pandemic hasn’t permanently changed habits among diners and that’s good news for today’s restaurateurs. While innovations have made it easier to order takeout, it’s clear that convenience hasn’t replaced the desire to dine in,” Samir Zabaneh, CEO of TouchBistro, said in a statement. “Restaurants need to return to the key actions they know worked before the pandemic and that their customers loved, as these go a long way in building customers for life.”

Public chains have seen these trends through financial results. For BJ's, dine-in earned $97,000 in average weekly sales per restaurant in the second quarter, up $10,000 versus Q1. At Applebee's, din-in represented 74.4 percent of sales in the second quarter, an improvement from 72 percent at the beginning of the year, and for IHOP, the channel mixed nearly 79 percent, an increase from 75.4 percent in the first quarter. 

The ONE Group Hospitality, parent of STK Steakhouse and Kona Grill, has used multiple value-based strategies to attract diners back, including Kona's $19 Power Lunch, a $3/$6/$9 Happy Hour Menu, and both concepts' growing brunch program. 

"It's a fun day to go—particularly Sunday brunches is a very high time that people like going out," The ONE Group CEO Manny Hilario told investors in early August. "So we feel pretty good that we still have a lot of runway on brunch. And promoting and product will be, if you will, the two things that will help us elevate that daypart.”

When customers opt to dine-in, food quality (68 percent) is the top priority when deciding where to eat. The next biggest factors are location (66 percent), customer service (64 percent), price (62 percent), and safety/hygiene (61 percent). Some of the least-important issues are dietary-specific menus (19 percent), live music (11 percent), and QR code menus (10 percent). 

When asked directly how much price influences dining decisions, 46 percent say "somewhat" and 27 percent say it has a "slight" impact. This fits with the ongoing trend of demand-driven inflation, in which consumers keep spending even if they have to pay more. Matthew Luzzetti, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, said these type of price gains are more persistent, therefore worrisome to the overall economy. 

A good example of this, BJ's in the second quarter didn't see any noticeable changes in guest traffic patterns. Customers are ordering the usual number of appetizers, drinks, and desserts, and there hasn’t been a rush toward value-based offerings to save money. The chain actually earned a record $329.7 million in quarterly sales, beating its previous mark in Q2 2019 by 9.5 percent. 

The survey found that a bad reputation is more likely to turn diners away as opposed to high prices. Seventy-three percent say a recent health inspection warning would keep them from visiting a location. 

Although off-premises is lowering slightly, it's still far above where it was pre-COVID, and that's influenced much growth in loyalty programs, according to the survey. Forty percent of Gen Z and 41 percent of millennials are members of a rewards program. Among diners who order takeout weekly or more, 58 percent engage with a loyalty program at least once per week. IHOP, one of full-service's largest powers, released a new rewards program in April called the International Bank of Pancakes. Brand president Jay Johns said enrollment and participation are exceeding expectations. In four months, there were 2 million loyalty members, 30 percent of whom were new to IHOP.