Restaurant consumer trends in dining 2021

2021 Forecast: Cloudy with a strong chance of in-home dining

Product developers and differential calculus buffs have a term: forcing function. The term refers to a function in an equation or system that forces conscious attention upon something. In calculus, it is mostly used in time-dependent equations. The COVID-19 pandemic was both: It forced all of us to take a hard look at what we were doing. Fast.

We reacted to the initial pandemic in a matter of days — even hours, in some cases. Fine dining establishments became your favorite takeout (and even the local grocer). Menu manufacturers made shields. Dining room staff quickly learned drive-thru. And we forced years of thoughtful evolution to take place in just a few short months.

Consumers responded just as quickly and dramatically. We’ve been tracking their attitudes and behavior shifts since the start of the pandemic (April 2020) with qualitative and quantitative surveys across the U.S. and from our international offices.

Our most recent insights are based on our November survey, with responses from 830 U.S. diners in rural, suburban and urban markets.

For a deeper dive, download the free research report.

In short, survey responses indicate that we’ve all settled into new habits, most of which can be summed up in one phrase: at-home dining. When they do slip on a mask and head out, consumers expect the following from their favorite restaurants:

Contactless

Any investments in contactless efforts set the foundation for the future. When we asked about the changes consumers most wanted to see stay in the new year, oft-repeated responses included “curbside service” and “takeout must stay.” 

Dr. Joel Davis, Chief Strategy Officer for RMS, noted in a recent webinar with Piper Sandler’s Nicole Miller Regan that delivery and takeaway kept restaurants operating in 2020, but that’s not all. He believes the pivot to contactless channels will allow restaurants to recover at a higher level.

“As dine-in returns, we believe that it won’t replace delivery/pickup,” he said. “A new audience arose during COVID, who recognize the value of delivery/takeaway from the local restaurant or favorite chain. They are likely to continue this behavior after dine-in returns to pre-pandemic levels.”

The numbers support this assertion: 30% of respondents in the November survey reported using drive-thru and takeout more or much more than pre-pandemic. For more on the latest drive-thru trends, download our special insights report.

Safety standards

Consumers want to feel safe when they dine out. When asked what pandemic-related changes they would like to see continued in the future, respondents repeatedly noted enhanced cleaning procedures and safety protocols. For operators, it’s important to clearly communicate steps you’re taking to protect diners and employees:

  • Keep it front and center with in-store signage
  • State safety policies on the company website and other digital platforms (for example, show your safety steps in action on brand-owned social media accounts)
  • Include information with each takeaway and delivery order. 

Less optimistic

Consumers are less confident about the recovery of the dine-in segment. We asked consumers about the road to recovery in each of our four surveys and saw a marked difference from April to November. Today, 62% of respondents believe it will take 12 months or longer for the dine-in segment to recover. In April, that was nearly the reverse — 59% of respondents in April believed the restaurant industry would recover within six months, with 24% saying they expected recovery within the next three months.

Consumers have not given up on dining out, though. From May to November, there has been no change in the desire to celebrate milestones with friends/families — it remains at a strong 49%. Restaurant brands will need to continue to accommodate a nontraditional approach (such as takeaway menus and meal kits) to celebrating special occasions at home instead of in the dining room.

But eager for normalcy

Yet some consumers also want to see a return to normal. When asked what they wanted to see less of, responses included precautions, such as “plexiglass” and “limited seating.” Reminding customers that you’re in this together was also important: Loyalty programs that don’t take too long to redeem, email specials and in-app promos are all good ways to keep your fans in the drive-thru lane and ordering at-home delivery.

Habits are habits

Since COVID-19, more than 72% reported no real changes in their dietary habits.

While 28% is not a huge percentage of diners, brands should not disregard these healthy changes. Instead, adjust menus accordingly by adding, tweaking or earmarking existing items that fit this trend. Conversely, when it comes to food and human nature, consumers find comfort in a familiar dish. Don’t overcorrect — do keep a focus on top-performing items, including the decadent ones.

For full details, you can review the entire “COVID-19 Impact on Restaurant Consumers” report. To take a deeper dive into an industrywide perspective on the year ahead for restaurant owners and operators, be sure to check out the webinar, 2021 Consumer Trends and Investor Questions Restaurant Brands Don’t Want to Miss.

Let’s start your recovery strategy

Now, more than ever, RMS is committed to doing all we can to support the restaurant industry. Our team of experts is ready to help put you on a path toward profitability.