Restaurant consumer update: Are we happy yet?

In May 2020, RMS fielded a survey to assess consumer dining behaviors and perspectives during COVID-19. At the time, no one could have predicted we’d be at this for more than a year. But RMS adjusted, as we all did, and transformed a one-time COVID check-in to a series of quarterly surveys and insights.

In what is now our fourth check-in, we wanted to know more than just customers’ dining behavior. We wanted to understand their state of mind. What was worrying them most? Had it changed during the past 12 months? What was their current emotional state, and how did it impact dining habits?

Download the full report: 2021 Update – Consumer Well-Being

With the guidance of RMS’ Director of Behavioral Research, Dr. Christina Norton, we surveyed more than 1,100 respondents throughout the US about their well-being. As one would imagine, the findings were mixed. Yet one thing did come through for all: we miss experiences.

Here’s an overview of the findings:


When it comes to food away from home (FAFH), whether for fun or sustenance, most of the respondents were either frequent or moderate diners, with 46% of them ordering from restaurants at least 5x per week and another 35% ordering at least 2x per week.

Levels of well-being, income and outlook linked

When asked about their current well-being, almost 60% of respondents reported “good” or “very good.” We broke down the data further to determine if household size impacted levels of feeling good. Not surprisingly, it did. Infer what you will, but after a year spent nearly entirely at home, the RMS survey found that single households have higher well-being at 61%, versus 55% of those in family households.

Here, says Norton, a point of clarification is needed. Well-being and happiness are not synonymous. “Happiness,” she explains, “is a state of mind; well-being is associated with a broader value, such as having a purpose and meaning in your life.”

And while money might not buy happiness, it does seem to impact well-being. Seventy-four percent of those making over $100K rated their well-being “good” or “very good,” compared to 66% of those making $50,000 to $75,000 which is closer to the 2020 US median household income of $61,937.

Wondering who felt the best? It might surprise you. At 69%, retired respondents, or boomers, rated their well-being as either good or very good, while the youngest, Gen Z, reported the lowest at 48%.

As the pandemic lingers and shifts, people’s concerns are changing as well. RMS Chief Strategy Officer Dr. Joel Davis noted some surprising shifts in a recent Revenue Stream episode. “When we conducted our first survey, respondents answered that the top concern for their households was the economic impact of the pandemic,” he said. That’s not what we’re seeing today. Now, one of the top concerns is emotional and mental health.” By comparison, in our overall look at consumer behavior, emotional and mental health ranked sixth in the May 2020 survey and third in February 2021.

Yes, COVID remains a top-level concern, but now respondents, Gen Z in particular, are longing for human interaction. As evidenced by the third-most-pressing concern, respondents who are worried are most concerned about being able to celebrate milestones with friends and family. We long for experience and connection, so much so that it’s outpaced concerns over physical health, explains Norton.

Takeaways for restaurant brands and operators

But what does this all mean for restaurants? People really want to get out of the house, especially those who are feeling good or very good. This group was more likely to have dined at a restaurant during the pandemic (63%) and a greater percentage of them intend on dining out more post-pandemic (66%). According to Norton, restaurants should continue doing what they do best — taking care of customers.

There is a share of people who feel comfortable dining out — with a couple caveats, advises Norton. “Respondents with high levels of well-being believe restaurants can provide a safe dining experience indoors. Worriers do not. Restaurants need to keep providing a safe environment and communicating health and safety procedures.”

‘Experience’ has new meaning for consumers

Two main categories of dining have emerged since COVID: transactional dining and experiential dining. Norton says that while QSRs automatically get placed in the transactional bucket, she finds this classification oversimplified and possibly misleading. “The rationale is understandable,” she explains, “but QSRs are now in the business of experience-making.”

These days, going to the drive-thru is an experience, she went on to say, and we can all relate.

“We’ve seen from our previous research on delivery and drive-thrus that customers have different expectations, but they consider any type of dining an experience. QSRs have a chance to meet these expectations, recognizing the challenge of having to do so in shorter timeframes and with fewer human touchpoints.”

Francois Acerra, Director of Analytical Services at RMS, worked closely with Norton on combing through every write-in response as well.

“Consumers commented that they even enjoy the friendly voice coming over the drive-thru speaker and the interaction at the window as their order is passed to them,” says Acerra.

Operators should not overlook this opportunity to connect with their customers. Whether it’s a human at the window or a humorous marketing message on the reader boards or even in an app, diners are hungry for interaction — as well as dinner.

Whether happier people go out to eat more or the act of going out to eat causes greater well-being, consumers are optimistic — and restaurant brands can be, too.  

To access all consumer reports, visit our Consumer Reports page. If you would like to be notified when new reports are released, join our mailing list to stay in the know on all RMS insights.

If you’d like to learn more about how RMS’ solutions can help you optimize sales, menus and profitability, contact us today. We’re here to help.

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