Predicting post-COVID restaurant behaviors: where to start

Recent conditions have made the picture of life after COVID-19 difficult. Instead of a “new normal,” it’s more appropriate to call the coming era a “next normal,” given the number of layers and stages this pandemic has presented. One “next normal” will give way to another. Gone are the days of static operations.

But consumers have a clear vision of how they expect to interact with restaurants once COVID ends (or what amounts to an end). Coca-Cola recently surveyed diners to find out what post-pandemic behavior might look like.

Six major themes have emerged that will boost the operator’s profitability and beverage attachment on the other side, said Diana Retter, director of business intelligence and portfolio for Coca-Cola’s North American business unit. .

They were: pent-up demand, offsite growth, the expectation of ease and convenience, the need for reassurance, confidence in fountain drinks, and assortment optimization.

First, respondents disagreed on which indicator would signal the end of COVID. Still, most believed it wouldn’t be over until the numbers tell. The most popular response (55%) was when “no or insignificant number of new cases are reported”. Only 42% expected this moment to be in 2021.

The appealing point, however, is that consumers seem poised to increase the frequency of dining in both areas, even before pre-virus habits. On average, customers said they expected a 1.7% per month increase in fast-service travel and 3.4% per month in full service. Meanwhile, they don’t expect to abandon off-site activities like the increase in take-out and delivery.

When asked what activities they would resume immediately, 54% chose “dine indoors at restaurants”. Air travel (46%), attending live events (43%) and watching movies in theaters (39%) followed.

Break it down:

Full service

Pre-COVID: 5.9 visits per month

  • 2.9 restaurant visits
  • 1.2 delivery
  • 1 takeaway
  • 0.8 pickup / curb

Mid-COVID: 4.3 visits per month

  • 1.4 restaurant visits
  • 1.1 delivery
  • 0.9 take away
  • 0.9 pickup / curb

Post-COVID: 9.3 visits per month

  • 3.6 restaurant visits
  • 2.2 delivery
  • 1.8 take away
  • 1.7 pickup / curbside

Fast service

  • 2.2 catering visits
  • 1.6 delivery
  • 1.8 take away
  • 0.9 pickup / curb
  • 3.8 driving

Mid-COVID: 8.7 visits per month

  • 1.1 catering visits
  • 1.6 delivery
  • 1.3 to take away
  • 1.2 pickup / curbside
  • 3.5 at the wheel

Post-COVID: 12 visits per month

  • 2.7 restaurant visits
  • 1.9 delivery
  • 2 takeaway meals
  • 1.5 pickup / curbside
  • 3.9 driving

Take Out: Pickup and curbside are going to play a bigger role for quick service restaurants than before the virus. Essentially, each offsite option will become more relevant to seated concepts, almost double the pre-COVID metrics.

What will motivate these visits?

Much like those distant days before COVID, consumers looking to dine out are considering the price. As the first fact in determining which restaurant to visit, the price narrows the consideration of the type of establishment in general, whether full service or fast, said Retter.

After price, the top five determining factors in choosing restaurants after the pandemic were the same for all types of segments: craving / quality, safety, ease / convenience, service, and variety of food / drink. Another determining factor for full services (on par with ease / convenience) was experience. Although aware of safety, consumers do not place too much emphasis on safety as a differentiator in point-of-sale choice, the report showed.

Naturally, COVID has changed expectations. Today’s customers now expect to be able to pre-order and find new menu items online before they walk through the door. It’s not going to go away.

In a study of point-of-sale motivations, the factors that showed the greatest percentage of motivational change from Q2 2020 to Q1 2021 in fast service were:

  • Convenient way to pre-order: + 12.9%
  • Always new on the menu: + 8.6%
  • Healthy options for children: + 7.1%
  • Child friendly: + 6.7%

Full service was also not spared by the convenience bug.

  • Convenient way to pre-order: + 23.3%
  • Always new on the menu: + 5.3%
  • Get Something Fast: 10.8%
  • Specific food I like: + 5.3 percent

Indeed, Darden CEO Gene Lee noted this Thursday in parent company Olive Garden’s earnings summary. “One of our underlying beliefs is that convenience will continue to matter,” said Lee, speaking of the units’ future growth. “We’re going to have to build restaurants closer to where people live. And we also believe – especially at Olive Garden – that we can build in more remote areas that have these large, what I would call 60 mile shopping areas where people come and go to buy things and having dinner. And so we’re very excited about where we can take Olive Garden, especially if we can keep more than 20% offsite, it opens up more business areas. Offsite represented 27% of total Olive Garden sales in the first quarter.

COVID has also caused consumers to re-evaluate other dining options and behaviors, Retter said. Since the first quarter of 2020, 10.9% more consumers said they were more comfortable with mobile payments; 5.6% more respondents agree that they like fast food; 4.9% more now plan well in advance where to eat; and 4.4% more specifically look for kid-friendly restaurants. Overall, price has become less of a differentiator. Customers who base their choices on coupons and prices fell 2.2% and 3.3% respectively.

Things to know

Not only have consumers said safety is among the top five determinants of restaurant choices after COVID, but they want to see cleanliness in action. That sanitation score on the window? This may not be enough for some. In full and prompt service, respectively, 65% and 64% of customers said it was important for the restaurant to thoroughly clean all surfaces. Sixty (full service) and 55% (fast service) indicated that they wanted to see the tables spaced out. Post-COVID cleanliness concerns and expectations could also impact capacity, with 35-38% of respondents saying they plan to take notice of people in the restaurant and 33% will consider whether a restaurant has good ventilation.

In this world, customers said they would be more likely to order fountain drinks than bottled drinks. Almost the same percentage of people who said they usually ordered fountain drinks before COVID will do so again. And the comfort with the fountain was true for diners of all demographics. Of those surveyed, 70 percent or more said they feel comfortable ordering a fountain today.

Self-service will continue to be strongly preferred in quick service restaurants, among those who consumed fountain drinks before the coronavirus, according to survey data. In full service, there was a slight preference for crew-served drinks, likely due to higher service expectations in the chain, Retter said. The almost equal preference for self-service in full-service restaurants was driven largely by the desire for customization and precision, she added, not hygiene concerns. Only 16% of consumers feared that an employee would serve them their drinks. Additionally, customers were more likely to say they could personalize fountain flavors when they were self-serve, and they placed a continued emphasis on ordering accuracy.

Digging deeper into this topic of drinks, which of course matched the Coca-Cola bill, one in 12 diners said they ordered bottles / cans more often. These consumers were more likely to be millennials (59%), to work remotely (52%) and to have children (48%). In a separate study on consumer preferences for off-premises drinks, nearly one in four said they preferred multi-serving packaging when ordering take-out.

Delivery seems the most suitable solution for bottles / boxes both before and after COVID, with possibilities to go premium. Ninety-seven percent of consumers said they were willing to order bottles from a third party, and among heavy users of full-service restaurant delivery, 33 percent were even willing to pay. a supplement for a bottle or a can. In fast service, the percentage was 30.


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