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What consumers expect from restaurants now

More than 800 US consumers recently shared their views with RMS about restaurants in the current COVID-19 times. The respondents represented all generations, from boomers to Gen Z. When asked about their restaurant usage, more than half (56%) responded they order from restaurants at least 5x per week. Another 32% of respondents were moderate restaurant patrons, visiting at least 2x per week.

When the survey was conducted in late May, cases of infection had decreased; now, the numbers are rising again. As we enter a new “fourth wave,” the survey figures still inform about consumer sentiment and where their heads — and stomachs — are at. We’ll highlight a few of the findings below. Download the full survey here.

Guests’ COVID-19 service expectations: sanitize, sanitize, sanitize

As masking and distancing policies fluctuate, certain guest expectations remain static — topmost being diners’ continued desire to see sanitation processes and safety precautions in place. What specifically do they want to see most? A large majority of respondents expect staff to sanitize surfaces such as tables and counters after each customer.

RMS found that while a majority of respondents also expect staff to keep wearing their masks, it’s the older generations (boomers, Gen X and millennials) that most uniformly expect to see COVID-19 procedures in place.

Dining out vs. in

As vaccinations rolled out in the spring, diners began eating out more. This likely explains the rise in on-premise visits, which took off this past quarter: 62% of respondents in May reported at least one weekly dine-in visit vs. 42% in February.

Based on survey responses, for some guests, it appears familiarity breeds comfort. RMS found that among respondents who have returned to dining out regularly, they expect fewer COVID-19-related measures. For example, among those guests who dine out at least once a week, 58% of them expect socially distanced seating areas, vs. 75% of guests who have yet to dine out.

As reported in earlier RMS surveys, consumers still long to dine inside a restaurant. In fact, 6 of 10 respondents who dined out said they did so because they were craving “experiences.” Unfortunately, the majority of respondents ran into a snag when dining out: limited menus and operating hours, and long wait times.

Respondents overwhelmingly gave restaurants the benefit of the doubt. Still, long wait times are a prohibiting factor: 79% of those who experienced disruptions would return, but if long wait times were the problem, that number dropped to 67%.

As is often the case, Gen Z is a bit of an outlier among generations. With regard to dining in, they are somewhat ambivalent. RMS found that among Gen Z, 47% reported they see no difference between the experience of off-premise vs. on-premise dining. Contrast that with 66% of non-Gen Zers stating that off-premise visits were not a replacement for dine-in.

Ultimately, whether because of COVID-related processes or generational preference, RMS predicts that takeout will be the new winner moving forward. The survey findings suggest the same: 67% of respondents think takeout will be crucial for them in the future (and that number jumps to 74% among boomers).

OK, so what’s next for restaurants?

As the delta variant shapes up as a major factor in our next new normal, what can restaurants do? RMS recommends the following steps:

  • Do remain vigilant with sanitation processes and safety precautions. A majority of all respondents still expect to see masks, social distancing, hygiene and cleaning practices when dining out. This vigilance will also help welcome back customers who have not yet dined out.
  • Continue to know your customers — all of them. When dining out, older generations expect to see physical menus, even if they’re disposable, but 1 in 2 Gen Zers expect a digital menu.
  • Be proactive. Make sure your locations are ready to embrace takeout, perhaps even more than in months past. Data shows that takeout is likely to be the preferred off-premise option going forward.
  • Don’t assume diners know what your safety standards are. Hygiene safety policies should be clearly displayed in the restaurant — 76% of respondents indicated this was important to them.

As always, RMS is here to help your restaurant, franchisors and franchisees navigate whatever comes next. We offer data-driven pricing and menu engineering strategies that work to create a plan for profit, even in turbulent times. Please get in touch or schedule a demo if you’d like our help.

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