As states begin to reopen, operators will need to strike a balance between trust, food safety, and business as it used to be.

Buffalo Wings & Rings CEO Nader Masadeh cautions, be wary of the “foolish optimist.” Like many restaurateurs, he’s circled June as a possible COVID-19 inflection point. Dining rooms could start to reopen, albeit slowly and probably with restrictions. Limited hours. A reconfiguration of seating areas to keep people apart. “A slow shift back to the old norm, if the old norm is even a possibility anymore,” he says.

A full opening might arrive by August, Masadeh adds, with sales stabilizing in September. Regardless of the specifics, though, the process won’t be as cut-and-dry as government officials might hope.

As Masadeh explains, some studies show it takes only a few weeks to form a new habit. So even when consumers are told to go back, they’ll think twice. They’ve grown accustomed to eating at home, or accessing delivery and pickup. “To get them back into the restaurant is to shift their habits back,” Masadeh says. “That’s going to take some time on top of everything else.”

His point is an advisory one: Plan for the long-haul and embrace pleasant surprises if they come. “At the least, you need to be prepared for it,” Masadeh says of a long road back. “Better to be mentally and financially prepared than be an optimist and plan for the unrealistic, and just completely fail.”

This forward-thinking goal is becoming harder by the day for operators and consumers alike. The reason being, the only reality today is there isn’t one. We’re embroiled in an endless cycle of mixed messaging.

President Donald Trump recently unveiled plans for a phased reopening of the country’s economy, tentatively targeting May 1. Some governors pushed back. Others have done the opposite.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp Monday said nonessential business would be allowed to open Friday. Restaurants April 27. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee added his state’s stay-at-home order will expire at April’s end. South Carolina’s Henry McMaster announced the immediate reopening of nonessential retail just this week.

And to put the confusion in a bubble, Georgia’s decision arrived despite the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation recommending the state not loosen restrictions until after June 15.


1. Coronavirus & The Impact on Eating

2. Fear and Response

3. Into the Home

4. Hands Off 

5. Sheltered

6. Pent-Up Demand

7. The Operator Story

8. Making Money Move

9. Reinvention

10. Money Matters


There have been rallies on both sides. Some states witnessed a plateau in cases. Numbers have spiked elsewhere (on April 17, Illinois reported the largest number of new coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period).

Reports are now showing hydroxychloroquine to cause some fatalities when used as a coronavirus treatment. Gilead’s experimental treatment has shown promise.

There continues to be a lingering fear in circles that a fresh wave of COVID-19 could arrive in the fall, which could present catastrophic challenges to sports bar and grill chains nationwide if the NFL or college football cancel. Beef ‘O’ Brady’s CEO Chris Elliott said “all bets would be off” if that happened.

In truth, we have no real idea what’s going to occur a few months from now. And to a very strong degree, we also don’t know what’s happening today.

Insights company Datassential said Wednesday that conflicting information and political infighting has only left consumers less trusting of the future. They see government’s role in COVID-19 food-related issues as limited and will take their strongest cues as to when it’s safe to return to “normal” eating activities from medical authorities.

Echoing Masadeh’s point: “Even then, as we have been seeing in our research throughout the crisis, consumers will take precautions, since they don’t feel they can trust their safety to others, whether businesses or fellow diners and shoppers,” Datassential said.

The company’s latest 1,000-consumer study, called “The Trust Issue,” explores how restaurants can foster an even greater trust with their customers and encourage dining out again.

Basket Of Shrimp From Buffalo Wings & Rings

Buffalo Wings & Rings, like many grill chains, took a big hit when March Madness was cancelled. 

Concerns, fears, and where to begin

All this talk of reopening states doesn’t appear to be alleviating concerns. Consistent with March and early April levels, Datassential found that two-thirds of Americans remain “very concerned” and “hugely worried” about their own personal health.

We’ll look at three junctures in the timeline—the start, the middle, and most recent.

Very concerned

  • March 10: 41 percent
  • March 29: 60 percent
  • April 15: 60 percent

Somewhat concerned

  • March 10: 49 percent
  • March 29: 33 percent
  • April 15: 35 percent

Not concerned

  • March 10: 10 percent
  • March 29: 7 percent
  • April 15: 5 percent

A positive sign, however: Even though dining in restaurants remains banned across nearly all of the domestic map, consumer fear and avoidance is trending down. This is the first time Datassential’s study has shown positive movement since the pandemic began.

Talk of reopening the country and leveling the curve in some states could be helping here. And it’s stretching across all demographics.

  • Definitely avoid eating out: 59 percent (negative 9 percent since April 10; plus 39 percent since March 10)
  • Nervous, but will still eat out: 25 percent (negative 5 percent since April 10; negative 14 percent since March 10)
  • Have no concerns whatsoever: 16 percent (plus percent since April 10; negative 25 percent since March 1

Definitely avoid eating out

  • Men: 58 percent
  • Women: 60 percent
  • Gen Z: 44 percent
  • Millennial: 49 percent
  • Gen X: 56 percent
  • Boomer: 77 percent
  • Married: 62 percent
  • Single: 56 percent
  • Kids: 52 percent
  • No kids: 62 percent

Here’s how that looked just about a week earlier (April 10–13 versus April 15):

  • Men: 65 percent
  • Women: 71 percent
  • Gen Z: 62 percent
  • Millennial: 59 percent
  • Gen X: 66 percent
  • Boomer: 81 percent
  • Married: 72 percent
  • Single: 62 percent
  • Kids: 62 percent
  • No kids: 70 percent

It’s a significant change and clear proof customers are itching to dine out again. Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol spoke about this Tuesday in the company’s Q1 review, saying pantry-hording behavior appears to have slowed. Consumers have worked through their food stores. There’s fatigue in cooking. “Combine that with the fact that also tax refunds and stimulus money is starting getting into the hands of people and I think people were like, you know what, I’ve got the additional cash, I’ve worked through my pantry, and I think it’s time to break the routine of me cooking and being a little stir crazy,” he said, “and let’s reach out for restaurants to solve the solution.”

If you compound cabin-fever attrition with mixed messaging—the fact some states say it’s safe to go outside again—you suddenly get a restaurant guest more open to the notion. But it would still be wise to take small steps.

“For as excited as Americans are to get back to the life they knew, it is not without some trepidation,” Datassential said. “It will take time to rebuild comfort and trust that everyday life can be safe again.”

So, restaurants should approach the future by taking into account the reality consumers will progress through their own comfort phases to move back toward life pre-COVID-19.

This, of course, isn’t a universal truth. Some people want to dive back, this moment. Others might practice social distancing months after restrictions clear.

What cues should we look for to get a sense of this timing? Datassential said most people will turn to medical experts and milestones they can cite and latch onto. That colleague keeping a tally of cases on an Excel sheet? That’s not an uncommon thing. People will lean on whatever comfort crutches they need. It might come down to peer pressure even (seeing others out socializing without repercussions) or, naturally, a promising cure or vaccine.

For restaurants, following guidelines will be critical, but so will tactics that go beyond sanitation and social distancing. These efforts will help rebuild trust and may even speed up that “comfort timeline,” Datassential said.

The company suggests things like senior seating or designated hours. Keeping carryout practices in place. For reference, the Ohio Restaurant Association recently said restaurants should be prepared from day one to operate with:

  • Social distancing and capacity guidelines
  • Facial coverings
  • Heightened standards of hygiene and sanitization
  • Employee health monitoring 

All of this will become more defined as time progresses. Yet it’s a clear indicator that business as usual will be a gradual target, not an immediate one.

Let’s look deeper.

In Datassential’s study, almost half of respondents said they do not trust President Donald Trump when it comes to knowing whether or not it’s safe to go back to restaurants and regular grocery routines. Mainstream news also ranked low. Men were more trusting of the federal government, President Trump, physicians, and the mainstream news. Boomers were more likely to trust their primary care doctors.

“How much do you trust the following source to determine when it’s safe to turn to normal eating activities?”

Primary care doctor

  • Trust completely: 52 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 43 percent
  • Do not trust: 5 percent

Scientists and public health experts

  • Trust completely: 51 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 42 percent
  • Do not trust: 7 percent

Centers for Disease Control

  • Trust completely: 45 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 46 percent
  • Do not trust: 9 percent

World Health Organization

  • Trust completely: 31 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 44 percent
  • Do not trust: 25 percent


  • Trust completely: 30 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 58 percent
  • Do not trust: 12 percent

State government

  • Trust completely: 28 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 55 percent
  • Do not trust: 18 percent

Local/town/city governments

  • Trust completely: 26 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 61 percent
  • Do not trust: 13 percent

President Trump

  • Trust completely: 21 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 33 percent
  • Do not trust: 46 percent

Federal government (excluding President)

  • Trust completely: 19 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 54 percent
  • Do not trust: 27 percent

Mainstream news media

  • Trust completely: 17 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 48 percent
  • Do not trust: 35 percent

New Orleans landmark Commander’s Palace is considering every element of hospitality in life post-COVID-19.

What will it take to get there?

Datassential said Americans are split on the cues they would use to determine if it’s safe to frequent restaurants again. Seeing no new cases on more of a local level—city or state—is slightly more important than widespread testing or a vaccine. Boomers lean toward more available testing, while Gen Z prefers to see no new cases nationwide.

“How would you determine that it is safe to open up restaurants and eat out ‘normally?’”

  • Once no new cases in my city for a while: 20 percent
  • Once no new cases in my state for a while: 20 percent
  • Once no new cases in the U.S. for a while 17 percent (Gen Z wants to see U.S. cases decrease, and came in at 25 percent)
  • Once there is widely available testing for everyone: 16 percent (this was 22 percent for Boomers)
  • Not until there’s a proven vaccine: 16 percent
  • I feel safe eating at restaurants now: 11 percent

Most consumers said they will go back to eating in restaurants, but want safety measures in place, like social distancing and increased handwashing. Boomers—generally a more at-risk group—demanded reassurances. A third of millennials said they would go back to “life as usual.” Gen Z actually reported as the generation most likely to feel they would avoid dining in.

“How do you feel about going back to dining in at restaurants and bars when COVID-19 eases?”

  • Will dine in cautiously: 67 percent
  • May never go back to dining in: 12 percent
  • Will dine in normally: 21 percent

If you consider that “never go back” group a customer segment restaurants can eventually convince, operators are starting down 79 percent of people needing a new normal to brave what once was a staple of daily life. This is yet more evidence that reopening won’t—and shouldn’t be—as simple as flipping the lights back on.

Commander’s Palace proprietor Ti Adelaide Martin says the New Orleans landmark is looking at every detail, even working on teaching employees how to portray hospitality through gestures, like bowing. The brand is tossing around the idea of splitting its dining rooms, not unlike how smoking and non-smoking sections used to be. Only now, one side will be for customers who want to practice social distancing, while the other half goes about seating as normal.

“How can we convey the warmth that we want to convey without hugging and kissing like we used to,” she says. “You have to get into all of that.”

Put your trust where it matters

As explored in this earlier piece, restaurants can play a key role in bridging that trust gap for consumers. Datassential said people are likely to carry forward their COVID-19 behaviors as the country starts to reopen since they don’t have complete faith in people or establishments to take necessary precautions. Most have at least some trust in dine-in options, but were a little more way of cafeterias, where there is traditionally more traffic and open food options.

Younger generations were more trusting of restaurants, fellow diners, and some retailers. Females also were less confident in people they don’t know. “Restaurants can help mitigate concern by making sure increased sanitation and social distancing efforts are obvious to diners. Tactics like reducing seating capacity for more space between tables and making it easy to social distance in waiting areas are easy to carry out operationally,” the company said.

“When businesses reopen, how much do you trust the following to take necessary precautions to keep you safe?”

Our own dining companions (friends and family:

  • Trust completely: 40 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 47 percent
  • Do not trust: 12 percent

Traditional grocery stores/supermarkets

  • Trust completely: 26 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 62 percent
  • Do not trust: 13 percent

Supercenters (Walmart, Target)

  • Trust completely: 22 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 61 percent
  • Do not trust: 17 percent

Cafeterias (schools, offices, hospitals)

  • Trust completely: 18 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 49 percent
  • Do not trust: 33 percent

Counter-service restaurants

  • Trust completely: 17 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 55 percent
  • Do not trust: 28 percent

Sit-down restaurants

  • Trust completely: 16 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 55 percent
  • Do not trust: 30 percent

Convenience stores

  • Trust completely: 15 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 55 percent
  • Do not trust: 30 percent

Fellow diners in a restaurant

  • Trust completely: 12 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 43 percent
  • Do not trust: 46 percent

Fellow shoppers in a grocery store

  • Trust completely: 11 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 45 percent
  • Do not trust: 44 percent

Those last two measures, which are pretty close to even, suggest curbside and delivery could continue past COVID-19. One of the selling points for restaurants so far, versus grocers, is the safety of staying in your car. Cutting back touchpoints. Staying away from strangers in the aisles. These fears will apply to restaurant dining rooms, too. Things like stepping in the lobby. Waiting for a table. Walking to the bathroom.

This is why it might be worth it, early on, to cut back seating (if possible) and making sure distance is there. People appear fine sticking close to whoever they showed up with, but not so much with people they don’t know.

Perhaps a good idea would be to install guidelines to keep lobbies and waiting rooms from packing up. Many grocers have placed tape on the floor every 6 feet outside as they restrict the number of entrants inside. Restaurants have done this in certain carryout situations as well. Any step to promote space and keep people from feeling overcrowded will be key.

Reservations might also benefit from a little extra spacing in the system to ensure people aren’t waiting for extended periods of time. Or if the brand doesn’t currently have a text message system in place (where people can go wait in their cars or elsewhere and get a message when their table is ready) now could be a great time to add it in addition to the commonplace buzzer system.

Where the responsibility lies, and some anecdotes

Consumers told Datassential the government should play a role in COVID-19 issues and food. But, in most cases, they saw it as a shared responsibility between federal and state entities.

When there is ownership, people saw states taking on a more active role for dining-related issues, like deciding when to reopen restaurants, getting essential workers protective gear, or giving food advice. Younger generations were most likely to see restaurant reopenings as a federal responsibility.

“Who do you think should oversee the following issues related to COVID-19 and food?”

Decide when to open restaurants for dine in

  • Federal government: 11 percent
  • State government: 39 percent
  • Both: 41 percent
  • Neither: 9 percent

Keep our food supply at necessary levels

  • Federal government: 20 percent
  • State government: 19 percent
  • Both: 53 percent
  • Neither: 8 percent

Keep our food supply safe

  • Federal government: 21 percent
  • State government: 17 percent
  • Both: 56 percent
  • Neither: 6 percent

Provide personal protective gear to essential workers

  • Federal government: 14 percent
  • State government: 24 percent
  • Both: 50 percent
  • Neither: 12 percent

Provide health coverage for essential workers

  • Federal government: 20 percent
  • State government: 20 percent
  • Both: 48 percent
  • Neither: 12 percent

Provide food-related guidance to businesses and restaurants

  • Federal government: 15 percent
  • State government: 25 percent
  • Both: 52 percent
  • Neither: 8 percent

Help families who rely on subsidized meals like school lunches

  • Federal government: 15 percent
  • State government: 31 percent
  • Both: 45 percent
  • Neither: 9 percent

Datassential then asked consumers, “What could the government do to encourage you to eat out at restaurants more?”

“Making gift cards tax deductible so I could benefit. I could help those that need meals, and support restaurants all at the same time.”

Kind of interesting.

“Subsidized restaurant credits.”

Same vein.

“Give a stimulus check monthly until this ends.”

This would be welcomed news for retailers, to Chipotle’s earlier observation.

“Make it tax deductible and make food stamps a choice.”

“Any sort of subsidy would help. If a tax deduction is offered it would only be helpful to me if there was no business requirement and it was not an itemized deduction.”

A trend appears to be emerging.

“Discount coupon and voucher to be spent in restaurants.”

“Reassurance that the virus is under control.”

“I don’t need a reward for eating out. I just need to know it’s safe. We’re still supporting local businesses by ordering take-out.”

The rewards part couldn’t hurt, though. Could be a good way to get people through the door to prove how safe it is.

“Follow the data, and only open when it is safe and decrease exposure to the pathogen, instead of worrying about the almighty dollar.”

“Show statistics and data proving that there is no risk.”

At the end of the day, this is what it all comes back to. The risk-reward element of dining out. To date, it’s been heavily weighted against restaurants. But that appears to be sliding a bit. Let’s hope it continues to shift in a smart, safe, and profitable way.

Consumer Trends, Feature