Winning families back for dinner

Insights from in-depth interviews with moms and dads in Germany, South Korea, UK and US

As we begin on the road to recovery, RMS is finding ways to shed some light on the dramatically changed consumer attitudes and behavior. In April, we conducted a global consumer survey to better understand customers’ attitudes toward food. If you missed it, head to our global insights on COVID-19.

In May, we completed in-depth interviews with families in major cities around the world, including Seoul, London, Berlin and Dallas. We asked heads of two-parent families with two children ages 6-12 to answer the question plaguing the industry right now: What will it take for families to start dining out again?

Restaurant Business is asking the same question on behalf of its readers. Its recent article, What Will Bring Customers Back?, featured RMS’ qualitative research alongside research conducted with members of Rewards Network, American Airlines and United Airlines loyalty programs.

The upshot? A majority of diners are ready to dine out. The key, according to our interview subjects, is to meet customers where they are now. Though attitudes are changing rapidly, similar themes emerged among all of our interviewees. To recapture these customers, we’ve compiled the following advice: 

Ease fears, especially Mom’s.

Not surprisingly, risk perception and anxiety are major factors in choosing when dining out will resume — and where. Also not surprising: Moms are likely to make the decisions about how the family is fed, pre-COVID and now.

  • In April, our global survey revealed that visible hygiene practices and minimal contact were the top two factors that most influence restaurant choices during the pandemic.
  • In May, our interview subjects remained concerned about safety and hygiene and expressed a need to control exposure for their family. This translated into continuing to use restaurants for drive-thru or takeout so they could take precautionary measures such as reheating food deliveries or pickup and wiping down containers and surfaces.
  • On the bright side: the majority of Americans believe the restaurant industry will recover in 3-6 months. The families we interviewed intend to continue and even increase their frequency of pickup and delivery until they feel comfortable dining in. They also expressed that they might expand their range of favorite options over time.

Ease burdens, especially Mom’s.

Interviewees noted “escapism” or relief as a chief reason for dining out pre-COVID. Back then, moms needed a break from both food preparation and managing the family and its busy schedule. Now, without school, babysitters or house cleaners, that burden has grown exponentially, and it’s mostly on Mom’s shoulders. If they feel safe, families will welcome a break from food prep and doing dishes.

But remember the kids, too.

Pre-COVID, respondents dined out to give their kids a treat or a chance to express their own choices when it came to what to eat. This will be a good reason for diners to come back, and restaurants can gear promotions and marketing to the kids.

  • One cautionary note: When developing a new contactless menu, make it kid-friendly. A few respondents noted the importance of the kids menu to help their child feel special. For example, a child just learning to read can read likes the autonomy of choosing and ordering for themselves. 

Variety is the spice of life — and the reason families are dining.

  • In the UK, families expressed that they are more likely to accept the risks inherent in dining out when ordering dishes that they can’t easily make at home. Think curry or dim sum, not pub food. In the U.S., restaurants are seeing similar trends. Easier-to-make items like macaroni and cheese are diminishing in their initial popularity, replaced by more complex or unique dishes.
  • A wide menu also satisfies the desire to give kids a choice. Pre-COVID, families tended to frequent restaurants with a menu that offered a good choice for everyone. This remains a priority.

Show you care.

Pre-COVID, American families chose restaurants that were close to home, showed an interest in their family (such as remembering their names and food preferences) and had strong ties to the community. That matters even more now.

  • Marketing should be highly localized, with targeted messages that highlight an establishment’s commitment to, and understanding of, its small trade area.
  • Even large chains should “act small” while being big. For example, in a recent Restaurant Finance Monitor webinar, Jersey Mike’s CEO noted that franchisees with the strongest ties to their community were doing the best.
  • Having a finger on the pulse of individual location performance throughout the crisis will also help brands cater the next steps in restaurant-reopening to the local market.

Consider the “real” reasons for dining out.

With much of a brand’s personality shut down along with its dining rooms, how do brands differentiate? With creativity.

  • Pre-COVID, interview subjects reported that atmosphere and special touches that cater to children (along with variety, noted above) ranked higher than food quality when choosing a restaurant. Interview subjects also reported that restaurants were often the place they held big family meals with extended family members. Those dining occasions were among the ones people miss the most.
  • Brands must get creative to find ways to extend their brand promise beyond their four walls. Client PDQ did this by promoting its family meal deals with BOGO offerings. Customers could enjoy their signature chicken tenders, give Mom a break, let the kids decide, and maybe even share a few tenders with extended family. Dunkin’ extended its in-store experience to its drive-thru with DIY donut kits so customers can choose their favorite toppings at home.  
  • Questions remain, but RMS will continue to find solutions. We already have a third survey in the field designed to assess consumers’ biggest household concerns, their dining out concerns, what has changed forever and what might return. Stay tuned to our Global Insights page for results, or get in touch.

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