Focus on what customers love most about your brand, but with a healthy dose of visible safety protocols.

Another “perfect storm” is stirring for restaurants, says Lisa Miller, a consumer insights and innovation strategist who has tracked guest behavior throughout the pandemic.

But it’s not as straight-lined as you might assume.

Delta has become the dominant COVID strain in the U.S., where it is believed to account for at least 93 percent of all new sequenced cases in recent weeks. And according to data from the U.K.’s Delta outbreak, it could be as much as 60 percent more contagious than the Alpha variant.

So not surprisingly, consumer anxiety is climbing again.

Out of a group of 1,000 American consumers polled by Lisa W. Miller & Associates, 51 percent were “very/extremely concerned” about the Delta variant in July. Perhaps more troubling, 59 percent said the impact of the Delta variant would somewhat or significantly reduce their activities. And these numbers continue to lift.

The “very anxious” consumer segment mainly stayed on the sidelines until March, Miller said. But as dining out concerns increase in light of case surges, the “first out the door group” of consumers polled by Miller are also withdrawing from the restaurants they were previously so excited to get back to.

Here’s where a two-front battle is currently being waged, however. This group’s changing behavior stems not entirely from safety concerns, but instead poor dining experiences. In July, 43 percent of consumers were frustrated with not enough staff during a recent restaurant visit.

“They’re pulling back their behaviors, less about safety, and just more that they’re not having a good experience,” Miller says. “That’s why I call it that perfect storm. You’ve got anxious people pulling back because of safety issues. You’ve got the people at the front of the curve pulling back because it’s just not very fun anymore.”

Many restaurants demonstrated powerful Q2 sales growth, driven by re-entry from the anxious consumer segment. But these groups will remain watchful of safety protocols and quickly pull back from dining if they do not feel safe.

This means safety protocols are likely even more important today than a year ago as the composition of consumers returning to restaurants has shifted, Miller says.

“Obviously, it’s been a roller-coaster ride,” Miller says. “But what I tell restaurants is you have to lead with joy and then reassure with safety.”

She says restaurants can’t target the “really anxious” consumer segment because they aren’t ready to go out anyway. But restaurants can act to address the 43 percent of consumers who said visible cleaning of surfaces was a primary concern in choosing where to dine.

Additionally, consumers are even more anxious about social distancing than they were in January. Back then, 40 percent said they were frustrated by lack of social distancing in restaurants. Now, 44 percent report this frustration.

“What you need to do is focus on all those reasons they fell in love with your brand in the first place, but then make sure that visible protocols and safety stuff is there,” Miller says.

The study also found a significant gender gap in the “very anxious” category of consumers. In the week ending July 26, 69 percent of the category comprised of women. Miller says women generally displayed more anxiousness across the board, whether it was in terms of comfort dining out or receiving a coronavirus vaccine.

Restaurant owners are already seeing the implications of this study. Rob Guarino, the owner of 5 Napkin in New York City, says guest behavior and expectations definitely changed. Over the past 14 months, guests learned to be flexible, but that patience is waning.

“The honeymoon is over as far as guests being extra forgiving about a bad service experience,” Guarino says. “They now once again fully expect the restaurants they support to be able to provide a great experience whether it is indoor, outdoor, delivery or takeout. As changes in the pandemic influence guest comfort level, the way they choose to interact with a restaurant may change, but the service expectation will not.”

Similarly, consumers who are let down by their dining experience are often taken aback when the check is higher than expected. But price upticks are a common find these days as restaurants look to offset inflationary demands.

Restaurant menu prices rose 0.8 percent on a month-to-month basis in July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That marked the largest monthly hike since February 1981. Full-service restaurant prices increased 4.3 percent, while limited-service saw price hikes of 6.6 percent.

Restaurant prices rose in June as well, up 0.7 percent month-to-month and 4.2 percent on an annual basis.

Miller says restaurants can get ahead of consumers’ frustrations with simple and thoughtful measures, like putting up signs that tell guests they are understaffed and to please be patient. This nod of humanity lets consumers know they’re doing their best, Miller says.

“I think that that’s just a little friendly reminder to be kind, and I know that sounds so basic and pedantic, but it really can help set expectations,” she says.

Some see the return to offices as a pivotal point in the restaurant journey post-COVID. Steve Simoni, the CEO of Bbot, an order and payment software company serving the restaurant industry, admits he is worried office life will not come back in cities until 2022. Because of the Delta variant, restaurants that rely on lunch foot traffic may continue to struggle and be forced to find creative ways to push order volume.

To avoid another fallout from spiking COVID cases, restaurants could tap a digital ordering solution to achieve higher margin orders, Simoni says. Inside restaurants, QR code ordering and payments present greater guest convenience and safety, he says, and could see an uptick in preference in the coming days.

“I really hope the labor shortage will end,” Simoni said. “It is tough to see our partners have trouble filling roles even when they are trying to pay above market rates. I think once we see a return to office life in cities, that is when we will see more restaurant workers flocking back as well.”

Visible safety protocols in restaurants will be essential in driving consumers back when their anxieties spike. Over the past year, these dwindled a bit. But with the Delta variant dominating the news cycle, consumers will look for that, Miller says. Operators also need to figure out what type of capacity will most relax their customers.

There may be a turbulent set of weeks ahead, Miller adds, but operators can start thinking about which strategies worked a year ago to get ahead of these trends.

“Be a student of the past,” Miller says. “We shouldn’t be caught off guard by this wave because we know the protocols and the things that had to be done. So whether it’s pivoting to to go, whether it’s ensuring your safety protocols are there … No restaurant operator should be caught off guard this time.”

Consumer Trends, Feature