WELCOME TO THE NEW ABNORMAL

What diners want in a post-shutdown world

“Needing to feel normal again” is the top reason people want to return to bars and restaurants, according to a 1,000-customer survey conducted by Datassential in March. Yet a return to normalcy isn’t likely.

“Anyone who thinks things are going to go back to the way they were in February or early March, it’s just not going to happen,” says Steve Greer, chief marketing officer for Urban Plates, which has locations in Washington, D.C., and throughout California. “Things are fundamentally different.”

The global pandemic has altered diner habits and desires in a lasting way. Balancing the demands of the post-COVID-19 diner – chief among them, increased safety measures – will be a careful dance. But what’s known for certain: Post-shutdown diners will reevaluate, with unprecedented scrutiny, who deserves their dining dollars.

The window for regaining customer confidence will be short yet critical to rebuilding loyalty. Those who can foresee what diners missed most during the shutdown and how they’ve redefined hospitality will possess an indispensable business advantage during the days and months to come. Read on:

PROVIDE NUTRITIOUS OFFERINGS

Early in the pandemic, viral photos revealed grocery store snack shelves stripped bare while produce bins remained stocked. At some point, diners will focus on rebalancing their diets. “People have been eating a lot of processed foods,” Greer says. “Right now, people are also out of their routines. They can’t go to the gym. People are going to want to rebound to more nutritious eating.”

A few weeks into the pandemic, Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group managing partner David Robins started to see off-premise orders at one of the group’s locations in Las Vegas shift from more indulgent items to healthier choices. “We are already seeing the desire to order more healthy to-go items because people are more sedentary than they were prior to the pandemic,” Robins says. “When we reopen, we are going to be focusing on healthy food because people will have been inside for a very long time.”

GIVE PEOPLE SPACE

After weeks of cooking at home and ordering carryout or delivery, diners will crave social experiences, predicts Grant Gedemer, corporate director of food and beverage for Oxford Hotels and Resorts. “(Customers) will want to be around other people, see other people and hear other people,” Gedemer says. “I’m sure they will want to hear good music but more importantly, want to hear people laugh, talk and even yell.” To ease fears, operators should consider reducing the number of tables, eliminating communal seating and expanding space between tables, he says, while also determining how best to limit capacity in bars.

PAIR FOOD PLUS ENTERTAINMENT

Stepping up service to match diners’ enthusiasm will be essential, says Dan Conroe, marketing director for Chicago restaurant and concert venue City Winery, which also has locations in Atlanta, Nashville and Philadelphia among others. “We really anticipate people being so eager to come out of hibernation and get out again when the time is right,” Conroe says. “We will be embracing that excitement by making sure we are looking good, showing empathy toward guests and really showing them they are welcome.” Conroe predicts smaller venues will likely open before larger venues, especially if they publicize their offerings online and outline any new safety guidelines so guests will know what’s coming. “We expect that venues that offer live music while also serving food and drinks will be especially popular as one-stop-shops where guests can get a full ‘night out’ experience without having to visit multiple bars, restaurants or venues,” he says.

CLEAN AND SAFEGUARD

“Consumers we’ve surveyed say they will be looking very closely at how the restaurant is handling safety and sanitation, especially seeing workers regularly wiping down surfaces,” says Jackie Rodriguez, senior Project Manager for Datassential. Consider making your sanitation efforts more visible to customers through email communications and signage. Operators should also consider displaying their cleaning schedules in similar way to how cleaning reports are shown in restrooms, says Rodriguez.

Unless safeguarded beyond reproach, buffets and open food stations may need to go on hiatus, a move that had already begun at colleges and universities before students were sent home in mid- March. The same may be true for tableside preparations.

“We do tableside service for a drink cart and a dessert cart (in Las Vegas),” says Robins. “I probably
will be halting those experiences until we figure out how are we going to do this at a level where the guest can be comfortable and the staff member can be comfortable also.”

SAFE PACKAGING MAY TRUMP SUSTAINABILITY

Safety will also remain important for off-premise orders. Although there’s been a push to reduce packaging waste in the recent past, that will likely take a backseat to diners’ demand for security. At Urban Plates, staffers seal packaging for each individual menu item and put them in a larger to-go bag that’s also sealed. “You have the confidence of knowing that nothing has changed from the time our kitchen made it to the time you get it to wherever you are eating it,” Greer says. “That creates more packaging, more seals, more waste and more trash. But I think people are going to be OK with this because of the immediate safety risk.” Customers won’t want family-style catering set-ups but will want more individually wrapped items.

CUSTOMIZE YOUR CURBSIDE

Not all diners will be ready to return to their regular dine-in habits immediately. “We are calling it ‘stranger danger’ right now,” says Greer. “We, as a society, are thinking differently about our fellow members of the public and strangers we come into contact with...especially the older demographic.”

So consider adapting customization models that proliferated before the shutdown and adapt them
to pick-up operations. Establish unassailable best practices – inform diners where to park and offer clear instructions on what to do when they arrive – but allow them to determine how they want to receive their food. “We changed the training so team members can ask, ‘What are you driving?’ and most importantly, ‘Where do you want the food?’ Do you want it in the trunk or do you want it in the backseat?” says Greer. “People are looking for minimal contact.”

ENTICE WITH NOVELTY

Sharing at-home cooking tips and recipes on social media was well-received by The Langham’s followers during Chicago’s shelter-in-place order, says Christina Boyd, director of food and beverage at the hotel. But “diners still believe in the magic of restaurants and bars,” she says. “(They) are going to want something that cannot be replicated at home.”

That means changing your menu more regularly – perhaps a barbecue-focused menu one week, followed by Mediterranean or Asian the next – as one Wolfgang Puck location in Las Vegas did during the shutdown. Also focus on handmade cocktails and seasonal dishes prepped with ingredients diners can’t easily source.

“People are going to be tired of cooking at home if they aren’t already, so they are going to splurge on experiences that mean a lot to them,” Gedemer says. “We anticipate our chef-driven cocktails to outsell wines by the glass and other spirits, too.”

BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR

“Support of community will be vital when we emerge from this pause in business,” says Boyd. “We are seeing tons of support for restaurants by customers ordering takeaway or delivery to keep restaurants alive. When we do reopen, we will continue to support the community through menu offerings, donations through proceeds, and programming events.”

RECOVERY MODE

In a post-pandemic world, noncommercial foodservice and specialty sectors may face different obstacles than traditional restaurants to win over customers.

CORPORATE FOODSERVICE will likely resume operations when people can return to offices. “However, it’s likely that people have become used to working remotely, so there may be a traffic drop or slower recovery,” says Jackie Rodriguez of foodservice research firm Datassential. “Operators might
be interested in offering delivery or pick-up stations if many employees are located closely together; for example, there could be a dozen people in the same neighborhood.”

ENTERTAINMENT CONCESSIONS may be among the hardest hit. “It’s unlikely that large gathering places like stadiums or theaters will be opening as soon as restaurants,” Rodriguez says. When they do reopen, not all fans will be eager to return.

AIRPORT RESTAURANTS need to be ready to work closely with airline authorities to adapt to new guidelines or even reinvent their service model – perhaps even shifting permanently from dine-in to takeout models. “Probably half (our restaurants in airports) will close, based on the fact that air travel is an unknown at this point,” says David Robins, a managing partner with Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, which has restaurants in more than 20 airports internationally. “Will they reopen as new concepts or new ways of doing business? Absolutely. But it’s a big unknown.”