Although the pandemic hardly invented digital discovery for diners, it did reinforce the habit out of necessity. Beyond scrolling a menu or searching for reviews, consumers had a baseline question to solve: Was the restaurant even open? For dine-in? To-go only?
So it’s no real mystery to see the journey adjust along the way. BentoBox surveyed 2,000 Americans to uncover how customers now find new restaurants, more than three years removed from the onset of COVID-19 and the digital rush that followed. The overall theme was easy to spot—when somebody shows up to your restaurant today, it’s likely they first paid a virtual visit.
Online research, the study found, plays nearly as big a role today as personal recommendations from friends and family do.
The least popular online channels in the survey were reservation platforms, where 46 percent of diners said they “never” use them, compared to 22 percent for food delivery platforms, and 13 percent for review sites.
Diners use these resources to find new restaurants:
- Recommendations from family or friends: 89 percent
- Doing online research: 86 percent
- Discovering by chance in-person: 75 percent
- Other media platforms (billboards, podcasts, etc.): 64 percent
Most popular review sites for online restaurant discovery:
- Google Maps: 40 percent
- Yelp: 27 percent
- Facebook Reviews: 19 percent
- TripAdvisor: 12 percent
BentoBox polled what diners looked for in websites as well. Seventy-five percent said they’d be more likely to choose an eatery with a high-quality site.
Most common channels for finding restaurant websites:
- Search engines: 61 percent
- Online map search: 45 percent
- Review platforms: 35 percent
- Social media pages: 33 percent
- Delivery platforms: 27 percent
- Reservation platforms: 22 percent
Most popular search categories:
- Location: 61 percent
- Rating: 38 percent
- Cuisine type: 36 percent
- Ambiance: 22 percent in fine dining and 16 percent in casual
- Occasion: 18 percent
In terms of serving as a driver of online discovery, social media was particularly meaningful to younger diners, those who live in cites, parents, and married couples.
Seventy percent of fine-dining high spenders use social media to find where to eat.
Here’s a look at some channel and demographic breakdowns
- Facebook: 44 percent
- Twitter: 23 percent
- Instagram: 54 percent
- Snapchat: 21 percent
- TikTok: 43 percent
- Facebook: 62 percent
- Twitter: 26 percent
- Instagram: 52 percent
- Snapchat: 17 percent
- TikTok: 33 percent
- Facebook: 63 percent
- Twitter: 21 percent
- Instagram: 34 percent
- Snapchat: 16 percent
- TikTok: 21 percent
- Facebook: 54 percent
- Twitter: 17 percent
- Instagram: 23 percent
- Snapchat: 4 percent
- TikTok: 13 percent
Another insight concerned influencers. BentoBox data suggested these ads target avid, frequent diners, with only 30 percent noting they pay attention to recommendations from social media influencers when they appear in their feed.
But frequent restaurant goers were more likely (37 percent) to pay heed than occasional ones (26 percent). The same rang true for high spenders (39 percent) versus low (23 percent).
How do diners use social media to find new restaurants?
Recommendations from friends and family
- 56 percent: Seek them out
- 44 percent: Pay attention when they appear in social feed
- 24 percent: Search social media with specific keywords
Recommendations from influencers
- 21 percent: Seek them out
- 30 percent: Pay attention when they appear in social feed
- 7 percent: Do not use social media to discover restaurants
Moving on to how to lure these different cohorts, visible approaches emerged.
Gen Z: Lean on social media—45 percent said they use it for restaurant discovery, more than any other generation. Gen Z uses TikTok four times more than Boomers.
Parents: BentoBox’s advice is to rank for occasion-specific searches: 21 percent of parents rated “occasion” as a type of search they use to find new restaurants—the highest surveyed. This fits when you consider why many parents go out in the first place; to celebrate (honor a birthday or graduation, Mother’s Day, etc.); and to break free of the house (date night).
For those who earns more than $100,000: Restaurants should monitor review sites to make sure their brand is consistently well-rated. Fifty percent of high earnings said they search for restaurants based on “Rating, such as ‘best burger’ or “most popular restaurant.”
The budget conscious: Unsurprisingly, these diners gravitated toward direct ordering. The percentage of diners who want white-label options decreases as income rises. Value over straight convenience.
Avid diners, or those who eat out weekly plus: Invest in your website. Fifty-two percent of frequent customers strongly agreed they “always look at a fine-dining restaurant’s website before deciding to go.”
More on the state of the consumer
Revenue Management Solutions recently conducted its own dive into digital preferences.
Three in five respondents said they currently have at least two restaurant apps. Eighty percent of frequent users (ordering from restaurants five-plus times a week) and 62 percent of moderate users (2–4 times) reported having at least two. Of infrequent users, it was 20 percent.
One in four people said they have more restaurant apps compared to last year. So it’s still growing in COVID’s wake. RMS noted back in February frequent users were twice as likely to increase their usage in the future. These customers also appear ready to use a restaurant’s app more often.
Forty-five percent of Gen Z respondents have more apps now than this time in 2022. Thirty-eight percent of those visiting restaurants frequently have more apps as well.
These app users said they download to view menus and access rewards. About half use them for loyalty or rewards programs.
- Use it to view the menu: 56 percent
- Use it for loyalty/rewards: 49 percent
- Use it to place a takeout order: 40 percent
- Use it to place a delivery order: 30 percent
And that differed by generation, too:
Gen Z: Use apps for most features, including viewing menus, ordering, and accessing promotions and rewards.
Millennials: Prefer using apps to place delivery orders and access rewards.
Gen X: Use apps for delivery and takeout, and rewards.
Boomers: Prefer to use apps to view the menu.
Increased usage spread to loyalty. One in four told RMS they’re members of more loyalty programs compared to last year. Sixty-six percent said “about the same” and only 9 percent are enrolled in fewer. Thirty-seven percent of family households are members of more loyalty programs now than they were a year ago.
Three in five respondents said they join loyalty programs to access rewards and promotions.
What drove you to join?
- Rewards: 63 percent
- Restaurant promotions: 60 percent
- Convenience: 36 percent
- Contactless payment: 13 percent
- Avoid third-party fees: 11 percent
- Shows previous order: 10 percent
TV remained the preferred channel for learning about promotions. Younger generations hear about promotions through apps and social media, while older generations rely on mailers and TV.
- TV: 47 percent
- Social media: 36 percent
- Websites: 36 percent
- Mobike apps: 31 percent
- Mail/newspaper: 26 percent
- Billboards: 6 percent
- Other: 9 percent
Similar to BentoBox, RMS took a look at how social media is influencing generations of diners. Important to note, but not shown: A sizable 80 percent of Boomers said their food and restaurant choices were not influenced by social media platforms.
What source do you rely on most when looking for recommendations?
- Family, friends, and colleagues: 56 percent
- Online search: 29 percent
- Social media: 8 percent
- Local influencers: 4 percent
- Other: 2 percent
The three most important factors when choosing where to dine:
- 1. Food quality: 44 percent
- 2. Speed of service: 24 percent
- 3. Budget friendly: 23 percent
Dinner with friends
- 1. Food quality: 46 percent
- 2. Atmosphere: 24 percent
- 3. Budget friendly: 17 percent
- 1. Food quality: 42 percent
- 2. Atmosphere: 33 percent
- 3. Budget friendly: 12 percent
Some other observations from RMS’ survey:
When out for lunch, food quality and speed of service were most important for Gen Z diners. All other generations prioritized food quality.
When dining out with friends, Gen Z placed more weight on a budget-friendly restaurant over food quality. All other generations prioritized food quality. Guests don’t seem to be in a hurry when socializing with friends, RMS said, as speed of service was the least selected factor across all generations.
When out on dinner dates, Gen Z respondents tapped food quality and atmosphere as most important. While millennials and boomers prioritized the overall experience on dinner dates, Gen Z and Gen X gave more weight to a menu that is budget friendly.