This is a guest post from Hana Bieliauskas
With stay-at-home restrictions gradually lifting, Asheville area restaurant owners are planning to soon welcome guests back for dine-in meals – but many may be wondering how comfortable diners will feel eating in restaurants, and how expectations and spending habits will change.
Inspire PR Group, a public relations agency with an office in Asheville, partnered with Illuminology, a full-service consumer research firm, to conduct a nationwide survey to seek the answers to these important questions. The survey, Eating 2020: How COVID-19 Will Change Consumer Engagement With Food, gauged more than 1,800 U.S. consumers’ food purchasing trends before, during and after COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions. The research indicates how behaviors will change in the first 60 days following the lifting of orders.
Findings from the survey may help WNC restaurants predict what to expect in the coming days and weeks during the reopening process and guide them in determining how to best ensure that guests feel safe when dining out.
Good news for local restaurants – those who dined in at restaurants before the pandemic are likely to return as restaurant-specific orders lift. While projections suggest that there could be a 20 percent difference in dine-in traffic over pre-COVID-19 levels, restaurants that focus more on quality dine-in experiences, such as upscale restaurants, local/neighborhood restaurants, and fast casual restaurants, are more likely to return to pre-pandemic levels.
The trend of supporting local restaurants, like those part of Asheville’s vibrant independent restaurant scene, is expected to continue. More than one-third of Americans prefer a meal from a local/neighborhood restaurant after the restrictions are lifted, compared to those preferring chain restaurants or those with no preference.
While carryout, drive-thru and food delivery nearly doubled from once every two weeks to once per week, frequency of these services is projected to decrease significantly as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.
Health and safety will remain top concerns for restaurant-goers, survey results indicate. The vast majority of those surveyed want restaurants to have employees wear face masks and encourage social distancing.
However, when presented with all safety options, diners are most concerned about the perceived health threat posed by other customers, more so than employees. Guests trust that restaurant operators will take the right health and safety precautions in the restaurant, but they do not necessarily trust the other guests to do their part.
Most consumers say they would like a six-foot distance between restaurant tables and to limit the number of guests in the restaurant. More than half would also like restaurant employees to wear gloves and masks.
To make guests feel comfortable, restaurants should consider a multi-layered approach and clearly defined protocols around how to keep guests safe. Nothing will be more important moving forward than managing consumers’ expectations, which will help restore trust and confidence.
Restaurant spending is a concern, with more than 60 percent feeling they could not pay or would worry about paying $75 for a family dinner out, suggesting the pandemic’s economic toll is a continued impact on the sector. However, most could pay $10 for a lunch meal without worry. Messages focused on affordability and value will continue to resonate and will be a driver in deciding whether to eat out.
There are positive predictions included in this recent data, and the findings provide a roadmap for Asheville restaurants as they start to reopen their doors. Managing expectations and assuring the health and safety of customers will remain a top priority. The most successful businesses will be those who implement smart and enhanced measures for customers and employees – and then enforce them.
Click here to view and download the full research findings, which also include information on how grocery shopping habits may change in the next couple of months.
Hana Bieliauskas is a vice president and digital lead at Inspire PR Group, a national public relations and digital agency with an office in Asheville. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter or on LinkedIn.