Inside an empty Italian restaurant.
Unsplash/Anthony Fomin

There's an opportunity for sit-down restaurants to capitalize on perceptions of food safety.

Trust Will Mean Everything to Restaurant Customers After COVID-19

Customers are going to the brands they know and love during uncertain times.

Black Box Intelligence recently shared an interesting data point concerning “high-frequency spenders,” and how they’ve remained active during COVID-19. While sales plunged industrywide—56 percent in the back half of March alone—that doesn’t mean everybody’s taken to the sidelines. The company found, of those consumers that spent any money on restaurants (in the week ending March 27), 39 percent made at least five or more transactions. Bottle Rocket, a digital experience consultancy firm known for its work on Chick-fil-A’s app, released survey data that showed much of the same—restaurant loyalists continue to narrow down where they go for food during the pandemic, but they’re still going. Some even said they’re visiting favorite spots more frequently now than before.


What this suggests is simple, yet vital. As Jon Taffer told FSR in a recent article, the very core of why people are eating is going to change post COVID-19. Rethink food quality as the No. 1 reason people get off the couch. The decision will come down to trust. “Not products,” Taffer said. “Everything is going to be about trust and transparency.”

Tropical Smoothie Café CEO Charles Watson adopted a similar tone: “Customer loyalty is pivotal right now,” he said.

To put it plainly, people are flocking to the familiar during a time when nothing feels normal. And when we emerge into a wary, strange new world, the same sentiment will ring true.

Consumers will put their dollars and personal safety into the hands of restaurants they trust.

Market Force Information shared an exclusive study with FSR looking into how consumers perceive restaurants amid COVID-19 conditions. How are their favorite brands responding to infection control? How is consumer behavior and attitudes changing toward things like contactless transactions and problem experiences?

The company, known for its annual benchmark studies, polled nearly 4,000 guests between April 6 and April 8. One of the big points to emerge: 80 percent of consumers said they continue to deal with the brands they know and love.

Let’s dive into the rest of the results.

An overall look

Eighty percent of respondents said they “completely agree” that the suggestion to stay at home and practice social distancing was appropriate. But only 6 percent believe the government has the current health crisis under control.

Additionally, 50 percent said the world will change as a result of coronavirus and 34 percent think their own behavior will never return to normal.

To the earlier point, 80 percent continue to deal with the brands they trust to ease some of these fears.

“From what you know today, rate your agreement with the following: I continue to deal with the brands I trust.”

  • 1 (do not agree at all: 2 percent
  • 2: 3 percent
  • 3: 16 percent
  • 4 (agree): 30 percent
  • 5 (completely agree): 50 percent

Keep in mind this is something that will linger. The restaurants that helped people get through the crisis will carry that standing into the future.

Below is a look at some positive traits consumers noticed (and gave retailers, restaurants included, credit for).

Market Force Information graph.

Market Force’s study suggested consumers are eager to support local restaurants. Forty-four percent said they have been purchasing more frequently from independent spots (not large chains) in recent weeks.

They appear content with safety measures, too.

Market Force Information graph.

Spending habits

Twenty-eight percent of people said they’ve visited or purchased items from a grocery store within the last two weeks that they normally don’t shop at.


  • Looking for items not available at other stores: 54 percent
  • Less busy/fewer customers: 37 percent
  • Better stocked in general: 36 percent
  • Cleaner location: 13 percent
  • Convenient store hours: 11 percent
  • Offered grocery delivery: 11 percent
  • Offered curbside pickup: 10 percent
  • Offered store hours just for elderly or high-risk customers: 7 percent
  • Other: 11 percent

This data lends weight to why so many restaurant chains are offering essential items lately, almost like pop-up groceries. There’s share to be won beyond the typical pillars—quality and service—and more with simply having what people are looking for. Essentially, tapping into the changes we’re seeing with why people are eating. It’s no longer so tied to things like flavor and convenience. Today, the question is: Can you get the product? Or can you not? People just want to put food on the table and essentials in the pantry.

Market Force found that 88 percent of respondents visited grocery stores in the past two weeks. Among those, only 30 percent were able to find everything they were looking for (this is worth circling for restaurants).

While 73 percent observed enhanced cleaning or sanitizing taking place during their trip, and 77 percent reported signage or communication that increased their confidence in cleanliness/safety, only 39 percent were “completely satisfied” with the personal cleanliness/safety standards they noticed from grocery employees.

Items not found:

  • Paper products (toilet paper, paper towels, napkins): 65 percent
  • Cleaning supplies: 48 percent
  • Meat (fresh or packaged); 41 percent
  • Dairy: 37 percent
  • Frozen foods (pizza, entrees, ice cream): 27 percent
  • Packaged dry foods: 26 percent
  • Packaged canned foods: 25 percent
  • Fresh produce: 24 percent
  • Bakery: 23 percent
  • Beverages: 17 percent
  • Personal hygiene: 10 percent
  • Other: 9 percent
  • Baby products: 7 percent

This could serve as a starting point for restaurants considering a pantry-type program. The employee note is something operators can embrace as well. Even if customers are showing up for curbside, they’re paying attention to everything workers are doing.

Break out the masks, gloves, dividers, etc. Whatever it takes and everything you can think of.

A shift to notice

Market Force discovered only 15 percent of customers used curbside pickup in the last two weeks. Adoption remains relatively low.

Among the customers that did so:

  • 58 percent had used curbside pickup before COVID-19
  • Only 27 percent were able to purchase all of the items they needed (this probably applies more to grocers)
  • 43 percent were very satisfied with personal cleanliness/safety standards observed (compared to 39 percent in store)
  • 26 percent of curbside pickup orders were inaccurate (Market Force credited this to a lack of availability).

A positive figure to latch onto for restaurants: Nearly 80 percent (79) said they plan to use curbside pickup even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. So if there’s a pop-up drive thru setup at your restaurant, it might be worth leaving it up for a bit, if possible. At least until there’s a tangible, near-normal return to dine-in traffic.

Reasons for using curbside pickup even after restrictions are lifted:

  • Time savings: 77 percent
  • My order was ready on time: 53 percent
  • Website was easy to use: 46 percent
  • Alleviated my safety concerns: 36 percent
  • No issues with the quality of the items selected by the shopper: 34 percent
  • Cost of service fees is worth the convenience (where applicable): 33 percent
  • I do not enjoy grocery shopping in the store: 32 percent
  • My items were handled carefully: 31 percent
  • No issues with the accuracy of my order: 31 percent

And here’s a look at why some people will abandon curbside service:

  • Prefer to shop inside: 71 percent
  • Concerned about the quality of the items selected by the shopper (this is a grocery store item): 29 percent
  • Cost of the service fees: 28 percent
  • Concerned about the accuracy of my order: 27 percent
  • Did not seem to be a time savings: 18 percent
  • Website was difficult to use: 11 percent
  • My order was not ready on time: 8 percent
  • Did not alleviate my safety concerns: 8 percent
  • Mu items did not seem to be handled with care: 5 percent
  • Other: 14 percent

The takeaway: Curbside could be a key tool for operators to not only ease food safety fears post COVID-19, but also to provide a convenience element they may not have been known for before.

A question for sit-down chains, though, is how much of this off-premises shift will level out? Will restaurants hold on to some of the extra business they’re seeing? Or will the fact it’s mostly coming from core, dine-in customers (and not incremental) result in a quick reset? Will those guests just go back to the dining room?

It’s pretty much impossible to say with any certainty right now. But there’s a good chance those same guests will feel more comfortable trying delivery/takeout from their favorite restaurants than they used to. Or perhaps some new customers were introduced to the brand during COVID-19 and will want to return to the dining room. Pretty hard to say for sure one way or the other. Yet there’s zero harm in trying to get the off-premises business humming.

Unsplash/Stefan Johnson

Why people will dine out won't be the same as before. At least not early on.

Casual dining, a deeper look

In Market Force’s study, just 14 percent of people said they visited a casual-dining restaurant within the last two weeks they normally don’t eat at.

A whopping 86 percent of casual-dining customers said they’ve stuck to the restaurants they are familiar with.

Reasons for visiting a new restaurant:

  • Offered carryout or curbside pickup: 52 percent
  • Local restaurant that I wanted to support: 47 percent
  • Available menu items: 34 percent
  • Less busy/fewer customers: 15 percent
  • Offered contactless carryout: 13 percent
  • Restaurants I normally visit aren’t open: 11 percent
  • Convenient store hours: 11 percent
  • Cleaner location: 3 percent
  • Other: 15 percent

Good news for these brands—cleanliness perception at casual-dining chains returned significantly higher than quick service.

Forty-five percent of people said they were “completely satisfied” with personal cleanliness/safety standards they observed from employees (a full 6 percentage points higher than grocers). Quick service was just 32 percent.

For casual dining:

  • 1 (not at all satisfied): 2 percent
  • 2: 3 percent
  • 3: 18 percent
  • 4: 32 percent
  • 5 (completely satisfied): 45 percent

So, 77 percent of people were satisfied with what they saw from sit-down restaurant employees. That’s something operators should continue to lean into moving forward.

Market Force added customers are finding family meal options more attractive from casual-dining brands than quick service.

Have you noticed more “family meals” available on the menu?

  • Quick service: 45 percent
  • Casual dining: 50 percent

How attractive/appealing were the family meal options?

  • Quick service: 24 percent
  • Casual dining: 31 percent

More on fast food

Similar to other studies, Market Force noted that 90 percent of people are preparing foods at home more frequently during the pandemic. And people are looking for ways to make meal prep easier.

Frequency of visits to quick-service restaurants within the last two weeks compared to how often you visited three months ago:

  • Less frequent: 57 percent
  • About the same: 22 percent
  • More frequent: 9 percent
  • I don’t eat at quick-service restaurants: 13 percent

Of those quick-serve guests, the vast majority are turning to drive-thru options. Close to 90 percent (88) said they’ve visited drive thrus within the last two weeks.

  • Carryout: 47 percent
  • Delivery: 27 percent
  • Dine-in: 2 percent

Twenty-one percent of respondents visited a quick-service restaurant within the last couple of weeks they normally don’t eat at.

The reasons:

  • Offered drive thru: 52 percent
  • Offered carry-out or curbside pickup: 32 percent
  • Less busy/fewer customers: 21 percent
  • Restaurants I normally visit aren’t open: 17 percent
  • Convenient store hours: 15 percent
  • Offered contactless drive thru: 13 percent
  • Offered contactless carryout: 8 percent
  • Cleaner location: 6 percent
  • Other: 25 percent

As mentioned in the casual-dining breakdown, customers are looking for more from quick-serve employees.

Forty percent observed enhanced cleaning or sanitizing taking place during their visit. Sixty-two percent saw a signage or communication that increased their confidence in the cleanliness/safety.

However, like with grocers, only 32 percent said they were “completely satisfied” with personal cleanliness/safety standards observed from employees.

  • 1 (not at all satisfied): 3 percent
  • 2: 6 percent
  • 3: 23 percent
  • 4: 35 percent
  • 5 (completely satisfied): 32 percent

The digital picture

Market Force found that 53 percent of restaurant customers had used an app or website to order ahead in the past two weeks.

Apps/website usage by age group

  • 18–24: 68 percent
  • 25–34: 59 percent
  • 35–44: 57 percent
  • 45–54: 53 percent
  • 55–64: 48 percent
  • 65 and older: 40 percent

Eighty-percent of current “order ahead” feature users said they plan to tap the service after COVID-19, too.


  • Time savings: 73 percent
  • Website or app was easy to use: 62 percent
  • I like deciding on my order ahead of time: 57 percent
  • My order was ready on time: 49 percent
  • No issues with the accuracy of my order: 37 percent
  • No issues with the freshness of my order: 27 percent
  • Alleviated my safety concerns: 17 percent
  • Other: 4 percent

What can restaurants do to encourage order placement adoption?

Here’s a look at why people said they are not using order-ahead service in the future:

  • Prefer to decide on my order when I get there: 50 percent
  • Concerned about the freshness of my order: 28 percent
  • Did not seem to be a time savings: 23 percent
  • Issues with the accuracy of my order: 20 percent
  • Website or app was difficult to use: 16 percent
  • Did not alleviate my safety concerns: 11 percent
  • My order was not ready on time: 10 percent
  • Other: 20 percent

Turning focus to delivery

Understandably, more people are trying delivery than ever before.

Market Force said 30 percent of people ordered delivery from a restaurant over the past two weeks. Thirty-seven said they order delivery more often than pre-COVID-19.

  • More frequent: 37 percent
  • About the same: 37 percent
  • Less frequent: 22 percent
  • This is the first time I’ve place a food delivery order: 4 percent

Food type ordered within the last two weeks:

While 81 percent of customers said they were offered a contactless delivery option, confidence remains low.

Delivery service were more likely to offer contactless delivery:

  • Ordered from restaurant directly: 74 percent
  • Ordered from a delivery service: 87 percent

Confidence with contactless delivery being a way to increase the safety of delivery:

  • 1 (not at all confident): 3 percent
  • 2: 4 percent
  • 3: 21 percent
  • 4: 32 percent
  • 5 (very confident): 40 percent