THE COMMIT REPORT | Wrap Up: How the Pandemic Altered the Restaurant Industry Forever and What We Learned About Opportunities Ahead
January 11, 2023
It’s no secret restaurants have had a particularly tough few years. Just ask any restaurant operator and they’ll explain the stress of navigating past pandemic lockdowns, and then the hopeful recovery since when patrons started dining in again, subsequently leading to the dusting off of a new era of touchless technology and the evolving expectations of patrons. Suddenly restaurants were expected to offer seamless takeout service and elevated in-restaurant dining all while maintaining a rewarding brand experience.
Some patrons have had the mindset of if they’re going to go dine at a restaurant and “risk it” post-COVID, it better be a great experience. Others have taken advantage of the easy delivery option and continued to adopt this as part of their dining habits. While some patrons have carried on dining out as they were while having to adjust to new technology and changes brought on by the pandemic. Overall, changes have been felt by all.
As an agency that aims to better understand certain markets, we set out to gain insights into this evolving industry. At the end of the pandemic’s peak—just as restaurants were feeling normal again—we conducted a nationwide segmentation study and set out to unveil the attitudes, habits and choices of restaurantgoers. Was anything different after the pandemic? Would it ever be the same again? What should restaurants be doing differently?
A deeper dive into the results of this study showed us what’s going on in the restaurant industry and even years later, gave us valuable insights into how restaurants would thrive in the years to come.
THREE KEY SEGMENTS: SOCIAL EXPLORERS, SUPPORTIVE TREATERS + DISENGAGED SAVERS
While we understand as an agency that not all restaurant patrons are the same, it was made clear in this study that patrons typically fit into one of three groups. As these three segments of patrons emerged—Social Explorers, Supportive Treaters and Disengaged Savers—we were able to articulate the data better.
Overall, Social Explorers use eating out as part of their social life, Supportive Treaters think of eating at a restaurant as a special treat and Disengaged Savers care more about the cost of a meal than the taste and prefer to get a deal.
ADAPTING TO A POST-COVID ENVIRONMENT
Even when there was a general feeling among restaurants that things were getting back to normal, in reality, restaurant operators were scrambling behind the scenes to attract new diners. What we found was that many patrons were trying new restaurants, but the data lies in the “why” and the “how” those patrons were choosing a new restaurant to try. Depending on which segment a patron belongs to determines what they look for in a restaurant. Among all the segments, some interesting stats came to light:
- 60 percent say they typically dine in
- 59 percent say they typically get takeout
- 56 percent use a drive-through to get their meals
- Patrons 60+ were less likely to get takeout, drive-through or delivery than those under 50
- 79 percent of those who tried a new place during the pandemic say they’ll be back
While these segments are trying new restaurants, they are all looking for different characteristics. Understanding these differences is critical if restaurants want to attract new customers that become repeat customers.
No matter what segment, if a restaurant doesn’t leverage the pandemic’s impact to build customer loyalty, then they aren’t demonstrating the flexibility needed to survive. Every restaurant—and every type of restaurant—has the opportunity to engage its ideal customers and keep them coming back.
ONLINE REPUTATION: THE IMPORTANCE OF REVIEWS
More than ever, restaurants must understand the importance of online reviews. Customer reviews and the overall customer experience are the new currency of the restaurant industry. A staggering number of patrons will research their restaurant of choice before visiting. These stats reveal that Google is still at the top:
- 86 percent use Google to search for restaurant reviews
- 42 percent use Yelp
- 40 percent say reviews are somewhat very important
All three segments of restaurant patrons research the establishments they want to visit in similar ways, but are looking for different characteristics.
Social Explorers are more likely to look at places with excellent reviews by both established food critics and food influencers on social media. Supportive Treaters are more likely than other segments to look for restaurants with a wide range of dishes and prices because they want something for everyone in their party (especially places where their favorite dishes are always on the menu). They also want places that are in close proximity to their home or workplaces.
Disengaged Savers are less likely than the other two groups to prioritize any of these factors. Instead, they focus on restaurants with loyalty programs and those that offer coupons or discounts.
Regardless of age or consumer segment, a restaurant’s website and social media presence are important to potential diners when they make the decision to visit one place over another. In addition, Google Business profiles should be updated regularly with business hours, current photos, contact information and holiday schedules. Responding to reviews (both negative and positive) is also always in a restaurant’s best interest.
BUILDING BRAND SUPPORT + CUSTOMER LOYALTY
Getting new customers can be a challenge for restaurant owners. Keeping these customers is just as challenging. After surveying 1,000 consumers across the United States, 36 percent of respondents say they are “definitely” loyal to a particular restaurant. Restaurants should think about what customers really value—that one thing customers want when they think about your brand.
Offering a loyalty program to patrons is one way restaurants retain loyal customers. Special perks and discounts can drive repeat business and keep a restaurant connected with its customers. Getting a discount on a future order drives 86 percent of all consumers, and more specifically 95 percent of Supportive Treaters.
When it comes to loyalty, some of the data includes:
- 77% of all consumers cite that getting a free meal on a special occasion (like a birthday) convinces them to join a loyalty program
- Offering a secret menu to loyalty members could convince them to join a loyalty program (especially Social Explorers)
- 54% of patrons want to hear from their favorite restaurants via email—significantly more than any other communication channel
Tailoring a loyalty program around customers’ priorities will keep them coming back for more and encourage them to share with their network.
It’s also important that operators listen to what and how customers want to be heard. By knowing an audience and sticking to it, you’ll be more successful in engaging versus if you do something just because you think it’s how your diners want to hear from you.
DIFFERENT SEGMENTS, DIFFERENT FOOD PREFERENCES
Regardless of how restaurant patrons feel about dining out or eating restaurant food at home, we discovered that most are willing to pay a little more for healthy food that is freshly prepared. Half of both Social Explorers and Supportive Treaters and 31 percent of Disengaged Savers strongly agree with this statement.
When it comes to how these diners like placing an order, most want to place their dine-in order with a server once they’re seated. Here’s who agreed with this statement by group:
- 67% of Disengaged Savers
- 75% of Social Explorers
- 88% of Supportive Treaters
Identify which customers make the most sense for you and offer food and ordering options that will appeal to them. This will help build loyalty so they keep coming back to your establishment.
Do you want to service Social Explorers? You’re going to need a menu that continues to offer new options, unique flavors and food experiences that are worth sharing.
Looking to engage Supportive Treaters? Keep familiar favorites and a range of options and prices on the menu.
If Disengaged Savers are your target customers, add no-frills meals at modest prices to your menu.
These days, third-party apps like DoorDash and Postmates are more popular than ever. Respondents under 40 are substantially more likely than those over 50 to use a service like this to place takeout or delivery orders. For younger diners, these apps are equally preferred as placing an order through a restaurant’s website or by phone.
Fresh, healthy food appeals to everyone in the three segments. However, be careful about eliminating servers. The vast majority of diners under the age of 30 still prefer to order with a server when dining in. This brings us to our next data point: touchless technology.
TOUCHLESS TECHNOLOGY: ENHANCING CUSTOMER EXPERIENCES
The popularity of touchless technology has grown immensely over the past few years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was emphasized as being a much safer option, and this has only fueled its adoption. Behind the scenes, restaurant owners also turned to technology in an effort to survive mass labor shortages.
Years later, research shows that both consumers and restaurant operators planned to continue using some of the touchless technology in restaurants that became popular. Some of the takeaways include:
- 74 percent of consumers indicated they would continue using contactless payment systems even after the pandemic
- 65 percent of restaurants kept their technology budgets the same for 2021
- 25 percent of restaurant owners were rolling out new technology solutions, including mobile device ordering, alternatives to physical menus, and cashless tipping options
However, when adopting this new technology, it’s important that restaurants refrain from passing some of the work on to their customers. Any technology in the restaurant should enhance the diners’ experience, not hinder it. If the technology is easier for the restaurant but harder for the customer, it’s not a good fit.
Just like how people were quick to adopt extra sanitization measures early on in the pandemic, today’s diners believe touchless technology in restaurants means extra convenience and efficiency. They also believe it communicates that a brand invests in technology and modernization. Touchless shouldn’t replace human interaction—it should enhance it.
Touchless technology can also help restaurant operators learn more about their diners. Data collected from in-restaurant technology can be used not only to inform decisions about product development, inventory, and operations but it can also be used to increase engagement with patrons, reward their activity and personalize their experience.
Capturing data can go beyond the in-restaurant environment. Here are some other tactical ways to gain insight into your customers:
- SMS marketing
- Email marketing
- Loyalty programs built around special events (think birthdays and anniversaries)
- Subscription services that offer compelling rewards
MAINTAINING THE BRAND EXPERIENCE AT EVERY TOUCHPOINT – DIGITAL AND PHYSICAL
The ambiance of a restaurant is arguably the top reason why customers keep coming back. Today, customers want that same experience whether they dine in or get their food to go.
Think about the voice and vibe of a restaurant. You might see cheeky decor in the form of a neon sign above the bar. Your servers might be trained to speak or dress a certain way. A favorite menu item might be prepared tableside. All of these things—and much more—communicate the ethos of a restaurant. The challenge is communicating that vibe in a takeout order.
Patrons expect the same level of quality and brand experience when choosing takeout, curbside pickup or delivery. Operators providing these options must be prepared to deliver a comparable level of service as patrons expect when dining in so that the brand experience is fully realized—and consistent—beyond the restaurant’s four walls.
Additionally, that brand ethos should carry over to the digital experience. A website, social media presence and photography should enhance and communicate the atmosphere of the restaurant.
LOOKING AHEAD WITH THE HELP OF COMMIT AGENCY
What makes a restaurant successful? A neighborhood hotspot for date nights and family dinners; the deli down the street considered a hidden gem among locals; and the Tai takeout place your family frequents at least once a week. When patrons find a restaurant they love, it naturally becomes part of their daily lives. But what’s the secret sauce that keeps customers coming back?
Many helpful insights can be found in the complete primary research—access the full report here. At Commit Agency, we know that today’s diners have more options than ever before. Using social listening and other research methodologies, we’re better understanding what our client’s customers are looking for and have used that intel to optimize the brand-customer experience.
Hungry for more? Head over to commitagency.com to learn more about Commit Agency, our work and our promise to the brands we have the pleasure of partnering with.