Guides / Reopening: not an open-and-shut case

Re-opening: not an open-and-shut case

As confidence fades on dining out, restaurants should look beyond their dining room.

Powered by Relish Works

The uncertainty and financial distress of the coronavirus pandemic had restaurants across the U.S. and Canada anxiously awaiting the day they were once again able to serve consumers in their dining rooms. They spent weeks preparing their staff and space for outdoor and indoor dining. But did they need to?

It may seem like the key to survival is more seats, more diners, but in a pandemic it is not that straightforward. Many restaurants across the country have chosen to not open their dining rooms at all, opting for an abundance of caution to keep staff and consumers safe. So, for the restaurants who have opened or are considering reopening, the question they need to ask is:

Are consumers ready to come back to my restaurant?

When the restaurants started reopening in April and May, consumers flocked to restaurants to have a drink with friends or to enjoy a meal at their favorite restaurant. But some diners didn’t get the experience they expected.

Stacia, a 34-year old from Los Angeles, CA, went to an outdoor restaurant and found herself extremely uncomfortable. “In Malibu, it was literally a complete joke. All the waiters had their noses out, and their masks were hanging on. The person at the front desk didn’t even have a mask. It was completely like a free for all,” she said, adding that the experience completely changed her views on dining at restaurants for the time being. “It made me really uncomfortable. I’ve been more apt to pick up food instead of going to restaurants now.”

Similar to Stacia, Meghan, a 25-year old from Grand Rapids, MI couldn’t wait to get back out to support her local restaurants. During the pandemic, she ordered delivery but was constantly disappointed by the food quality and price. But, once she was able to return to her favorite spots she found it to be more stressful than expected. “Overall, I feel they could have done a lot better for their safety precautions,” she said, describing an environment in which staffers removed their masks, consumers weren’t wearing masks, and not all surfaces were being sanitized. A few experiences like this one have caused Meghan to reconsider dining out in general. “I am still pretty hesitant about eating inside of a restaurant,” she said. “I have done it a few times since the lock down has been lifted a bit, but I’m not super-comfortable now that I’ve actually experienced it.”

Meghan isn’t alone in avoiding dining in restaurants. According to a Bank of America survey of 1,000 respondents from June 18th, 32% said they still do not think they will be comfortable dining in a restaurant until 2021, up from 20% in April. Justin, a 30-year old from Detroit, MI said he doesn’t trust eating in restaurants or bars. “They have been closed and will do the bare minimum just to get their doors back open to make up for the sales they lost. I just don’t feel comfortable dining out. I don’t see myself going to a bar in 2020.”

Even for the restaurants who are enforcing all safety protocols and guidelines, there’s still the real concern that a staff member or consumer will test positive for the virus. Countless operators across the United States have had to temporarily close their doors only a few months—or a few days—after reopening because of a positive case in their restaurant. For example, Columbus, OH allowed indoor dining to begin on May 21st; by July 9th, almost a dozen restaurants across the city had temporarily closed due to a staff member or customer testing positive. While it may be temporary, the impact it has on diners’ perception is long-term.

Ethan, 29-year old from Winter Garden, FL said a staff member testing positive for the virus would impact his view of the restaurant that employed them. “That would be detrimental to my view on the restaurant,” he said. “I wouldn’t dine there until the pandemic ended.” Jordan, 33-year old from St. Louis, MO, agreed. He said, “That is a big red flag! Huge red flag! That means others were put at risk of becoming infected and spreading the virus.”

While not everyone feels as strongly as Ethan or Jordan, many would-be customers are hesitant about going back to a restaurant until it’s clear that business is going above and beyond to ensure its space is safe and its staff is healthy.

There is growing evidence suggesting the early momentum to dine out is fading. According to data from an ongoing CivicScience tracking poll, 41% of consumers said they wouldn’t be ready to eat in a restaurant for another six months, an increase from 30% at the start of May. 29% said they wouldn’t eat in a restaurant for at least two to five months, down from 47% at the beginning of May.

So how can restaurants survive if they choose to keep their dining room closed?

If consumers aren’t ready to dine out, serve them where it is best for them! Jordan said he wishes the United States would be more proactive in their response. “Let’s not let this go too far,” he cautioned. “Let’s take action now and shut down bars and restaurants [for dine-in] while leaving them open to a certain degree. Let’s take our learnings as a country and act sooner rather than later.”

Opening dining rooms doesn't have to be the only option.

Identify ways to save money:

Consider reducing your menu items so that your ingredients are used efficiently across all of your dishes.

Explore ways to repurpose staff for new roles:

Identify opportunities to utilize staff in a different role than before. Addo, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Seattle used its own staff to make drop-offs rather than relying on a third party delivery service. This can help keep staff employed while also not losing money from labor cost.

Check out Rethink your Labor: new roles for the COVID era for more ideas.

Explore new menu items and revenue streams:

Use this downtime in the dining room to brainstorm ways to bring in revenue. Consider building family meal kits, creating a pop-up location, selling popular pantry items, or packaging up your staple items for consumers to purchase. The Alibi in Washington, D.C. is offering multiple prepared meal kits for pick up or free delivery to D.C. addresses. The restaurant is even providing a roll of toilet paper with the meal kit.

Determine ways to connect with consumers outside of the restaurant:

Face-to-face interactions with consumers are difficult to replace, but the shelter-in-place brought to light many great virtual options to help keep people connected. Restaurants can leverage this trend and create ways to connect with consumers such as a cooking class or happy hours through a platform like Virtual Dining Chicago. The Refectory Restaurant and Wine Shop in Columbus, OH has hosted a Virtual Dinner Music Series throughout the pandemic on their Facebook page.

Check out our guide How to Create a Virtual Dining Experience to learn more.

Communicate loudly and clearly why dining-in isn’t allowed:

Restaurants like Chicago favorites Lula Cafe, Baker Miller, and Giant are keeping their dining rooms closed in order to keep not only their consumers but also staff safe. Diners are continuously comparing restaurants to each other to figure out what they believe is the right standard for dining out right now. Being a restaurant that stays closed because of safety concerns could help gain more loyal and new customers.

Optimize off-premise dining options:

Most consumers are really appreciating—and even enjoying!—curbside pick-up, efficient drive-thrus, and expanded delivery options. Stacia, in Los Angeles, even said she has seen restaurants stepping up their game with takeout. Consumers have been impressed with Wendy’s, California Chicken Cafe, Shake Shack, and Chick-fil-a. “I can't get takeout all the time, but it was a really, really great customer service and I loved it,” said Stacia, describing her experience at Shake Shack.  Many in the industry also believe curbside pick-up, when done right, will be the most profitable off-premise source of revenue for operators.

For a guide to optimizing your off-premise experience, check out this guide!

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.