The Impact of COVID-19 on Restaurant Consumers

2020 has been called the “year of irrevocable inflection” for the restaurant industry. We agree and have expanded our data collection to support our clients and the industry as they manage rapid change. Most pointedly, we’ve checked the pulse of consumers with quarterly surveys designed to gauge their changing habits and perspectives on restaurant usage.

Our most recent insights address the current state of mind, with questions about the vaccine and how widespread declines of the virus will impact their dining habits. The survey was fielded in late February 2021 with responses from more than 1,100 U.S. diners in rural, suburban and urban markets.

You can download the entire research report for free here. In the meantime, here’s an overview of the findings.

Home is where the office remains

A year in, people continue to work from home. Only 6% of respondents have seen changes in their work environment in the last 3 months and are now primarily working from the office, potentially having a big effect on restaurants that relied on commuter or office worker traffic.

As reported in our February report from the UK, if workers don’t return to city centers, restaurant brands will likely need to reevaluate locations. Short-term decisions over which stores are viable (or not) are already taking place, and we are seeing brands take a long-term look at the most sustainable real estate for future growth. One possible bright spot is the vaccine, which may lead to a gradual but steady return to the office and dining traditions.

Dining habits developed in the short term might be here to stay

Just like working from home, more respondents are holding on to purchasing behaviors developed in the pandemic. When asked if their behaviors have remained the same since November 2020, significantly more respondents said yes. Specifically, 45% of respondents say their breakfast behavior hasn’t changed, compared to 41% in November, 51% report lunch behaviors have stayed the same, up from 44% in November and 47% report that dinner behavior has stayed the same – an 8-point jump from 39% in November.

That said, frequent delivery is on the decline, with a 6% drop, though takeout and drive-thru continue to climb, each growing by 2% during the past three months.

Consumers bullish about dining out

When asked about eating out at restaurants post-pandemic, you could almost hear the sound of take-out menus hitting the recycle bin. When asked about this in February, an encouraging 32% of respondents said they plan on eating out more compared to only 13% in August 2020.

Some diners counting on restaurants to keep them safe

More than half of consumers are relying on restaurants—not the vaccine—to keep them safe when dining out. Among the 52% of respondents who said they would not be getting the vaccine, the biggest consideration about dining out was whether restaurants can provide a safe indoor dining experience. For those who already have a vaccine scheduled or are waiting to get access to it, 72% of them say the number of COVID cases at the local level will be their deciding factor on dining out or not.

Whether it’s dining at home fatigue or trust in restaurant safety measures taking hold, 51% of respondents believe restaurants can provide a safe dining experience indoors, an 8% increase from August. It’s interesting to note that among those consumers who have vaccines scheduled, lack of safety by other guests was a greater concern than lack of safety by restaurant staff.

Price perception is off, tolerance for increases ok

Near the beginning of COVID, grocery prices surged due to supply chain issues. And although they’ve returned to pre-pandemic levels, consumers continue to perceive grocery prices as higher than restaurant prices.

When it comes to the cost of dining out, most respondents see increased minimum wage, cost of food and safety precautions as justifiable reasons for restaurants to increase prices. At 70%, Boomers were the most understanding, agreeing that increased food costs justify price increases; Gen Z was the least tolerant at 41%.

For complete details, you can review all our “Restaurant Consumer Report: One Year Later” insights or visit our Consumer Insights page to access the full collection.

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