On the list of things that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the most, the food and beverage industry definitely ranks near the top. But even as restaurants reel, would-be diners craving a taste of life before COVID-19 are looking to their favorite eateries to deliver on the flavors and feelings of pre-pandemic life.
For restaurant owner/operators, fulfilling customers’ desires for the old normal can be a win-win—but only by safely and thoughtfully readjusting their offerings and outlook to the new normal.
Of course, before operators can execute on the experiences their customers are longing for, they need to understand those longings. For many, normalcy means a return to people’s everyday lives, their normal cadence. Stay-at-home orders have dramatically derailed people’s work routines and social lives, and therefore their eating habits. They want to get back to their old routines. "After the first couple weeks of eating the same kind of food, we wanted to return to ordering from restaurants,” said Andre, a diner in DC. “It brings a sense of normalcy.”
It makes sense, right? A carefree, convenient lunch from the food truck near the office has become a desperate visit to the fridge for some cold cuts and bread. A lively happy hour with the coworkers has become a virtual cocktail class. A date night out with a babysitter has become yet another night in with the kids. Revamped takeout and dine-in experiences that evoke connection to those old habits make big impacts on distressed customers. Said Lauren, a mother from Cincinnati, “we went to the bakery and got the tea lunch as carryout which came in a cute little box. My daughter even mentioned how ‘this is just like when we went there before.’”
Dining decisions that were spontaneous before now require careful consideration, and questions abound: “Did we get everything we need in our one grocery run?” “What is left in the pantry?” and “Does our favorite restaurant have curbside pickup?” For customers like Andre, normalcy means liberation from these plan-ahead considerations. “I have been craving foods more than before because psychologically, the perceived lack of freedom has made me want to order different things,” he said.
They’re comfortable maintaining their sense of safety by ordering takeout and delivery from their favorites. This relieves the pressure of “having to think” about what to eat and what to cook, without forcing them to consider COVID-specific pitfalls they might encounter while out to eat.
These customers can order the food they’re craving on a whim, and it will arrive safely at their door. For consumers who prioritize safety by staying at home, takeout soothes frayed nerves and satisfies their nostalgia for simpler times.
On the other hand, those who value restaurants for the atmosphere have been left wanting. For many, the benefit of dining out revolves around a cozy ambiance, intimate conversations, or a lively social experience. These days, clinical sanitization, crowd-induced anxiety, and of course, six feet of distance, have temporarily suspended many of the restaurant experience's most delightful intangibles. Many who have ventured out to restaurants since quarantines lifted in certain zip codes were disappointed or unnerved by the experience. "This is a place that normally would hold 300 people but now they took out so many tables, you could only sit seat maybe 50 people total in the entire place,” said Stephen P. “So there was so much social distancing space. It was really surreal, the emptiness.”
An offbeat or subpar experience at an old favorite may cut deeper than avoiding the experience altogether. And because there’s such variance—in both operators’ safety standards, and fellow customers’ behaviors—diners like Stephanie experience Goldilocks-esque frustration: “I think I'm looking for something in the middle,” she said. “I've either found restaurants who are going to get their licenses taken away, or super-strict and overall have a weird vibe.”
But it is possible to achieve a sense of atmosphere: consumers reported positive reactions to outdoor live music and venues in beautiful settings. “For the most part, this restaurant felt pretty much the same as before. It felt comfortable to be there. You know you're still able to have our dogs out on the patio and yeah it felt pretty comfortable,” said Lucas P.
What originally drew people to your restaurant? Was it a unique dish or was it the feeling consumers got when they walked in? Find a way to let that element shine through, despite social distanced tables and more takeout orders, and let it be your guiding light as you navigate changes in the industry.
Parson’s, a popular chicken spot in Chicago, has been able to maintain their fun patio atmosphere while taking safety precautions for dine-in customers. But even more importantly, they packaged up the party for takeout and delivery customers by selling their famous cocktail slushies to-go.
Guests who are dining in your restaurant are there for the experience, and want to feel normal again. Allow for social distancing, but be creative about maintaining atmosphere and a sense of hospitality. Nobody wants to dine in a hospital cafeteria.
This restaurant in Bangkok used quirky cartoon dragons to promote social distance while dining in without overwhelming its guests.
Those who are ordering takeout are missing your food. Now is the time to make sure your to-go containers are doing their job well. Make sure the love you put into your food is still there when it arrives at its destination.
This content is powered by Relish Works.
Relish Works is a team of innovators, strategists, designers, and investors focused on building solutions to the food industry’s most pressing challenges.
This summer, our research team got a sneak peek into the habits of 28 diners to understand how COVID-19 is impacting their dining out behavior. Our research findings inspired this article to provide restaurants with insight into diners’ expectations and innovative ways to enhance their restaurant experience during and after COVID-19.