Why do people love going out to eat? It’s not just about the food, convenience, or even the service, although they all matter. Eating out is really about the overall experience. Restaurants offer a shared space that’s not completely private, but also not quite public, a place to restore and spend time away from distractions and responsibilities.
Dining out is an important part of people’s lives, and consumers were spending an increasing proportion of their income on meals away from home before Covid-19 precautions forced restaurants to close earlier this year, and restrictions continue to limit dining capacities and depress revenues for full-service restaurants. As coronavirus cases are again rising across the U.S., restaurants are not only facing new closures and restrictions but are also contending with the public’s ongoing anxiety surrounding eating out. Now more than ever it’s important to look at why people dine out, what makes for a good experience, and how expectations are changing during Covid-19.
Why dine out instead of ordering in?
According to a December 2019 survey, two out of three Americans preferred dining out to ordering takeout or delivery, and a separate survey in February 2020 found that 67% of adults dined out at a full-service restaurant at least once per week. The preference to eat out speaks to the desire to slow down and enjoy a meal in a different environment, to have a dining experience rather than simply not to have to cook.
Covid-19 concerns and restrictions have shifted consumers away from eating out, but an August survey showed 77% of respondents were eager to get back to it, provided restaurants made changes to mitigate the risk of Covid-19.
Using social proof to guide dining choices
When trying a new business or product, consumers look for social proof, validation from others that it’s worth trying. Social proof is why people naturally gravitate towards a busy restaurant, even if the one next door may have equal or better food, service, and ambiance. If lots of other people are eating at one particular restaurant, others want to eat there, too.
During Covid-19, however, many consumers are actively avoiding busy restaurants, relying exclusively on recommendations and online reviews instead of visual social proof. The traditional appeal of a tightly-packed, cozy restaurant has been replaced by the desire to socially distance, and to patronize businesses that are prioritizing health and safety.
The Klēn app connects consumers with restaurants that match their new comfort level. Restaurants can showcase the regulations and health and safety protocols they are implementing to mitigate risk from Covid-19 and get direct feedback from customers while they are on-site, helping avoid negative reviews.
Choosing a restaurant, then and now
Which restaurants people choose to go to and why they go back (or not) hinges on the entire experience, from the food on the plate to the lighting to the hospitality. In recent years, consumers have also considered artisanal values, local product sourcing and sustainability, trends which continue to shape consumer choices alongside the increasing prioritization of health and wellness.
Prior to the pandemic, the top reasons for choosing one restaurant over another were:
- Quality and consistency of food
- Overall experience
- Efficient service
- Menu price and offerings
Consumers have re-prioritized since Covid-19:
- Health and safety
- Overall experience
- Quality and consistency of food
With health and safety now a top priority, restaurants have had to go above and beyond to demonstrate how they’re catering to preferences while still offering an exceptional dining experience.
Safety measures influence comfort level
Consumer optimism in the U.S. has reached its highest level since March, and 68% of diners said they felt as comfortable or more comfortable dining out now as they did at the start of the pandemic. This is in large part due to the measures that restaurants are taking to mitigate the risk of contracting Covid-19.
In a September survey from Food Insight, 52% of respondents said they had not dined out at a restaurant in the past month, but many said they would feel more comfortable dining at a restaurant with strong safety measures in place.
The top safety measures that would make them more likely to return to restaurants were:
- Limiting capacity and the spreading out of tables (34%)
- More frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces (34%)
- Mask requirements for employees (44%)
With its proprietary AI, Klēn for business helps restaurants easily stay on top of evolving state and local regulations, CDC recommendations, and best practices for the industry, so they can focus on implementing measures and adapting to the evolving needs of their customers.
Balancing risk with the rewards of dining out
Customers now face a risk vs. reward calculation when they decide to dine out. The CDC classifies indoor dining with tables spaced less than six feet apart as a high-risk activity, but risk levels drop with the implementation of social distancing measures, improved ventilation, or outdoor seating.
Each individual’s calculation is based on their own perceived risk of eating at a restaurant, and their personal risk tolerance. Encouraging customers to dine in will hinge on being able to mitigate that risk and risk perception, as well as on providing a personalized dining experience with the flexibility to meet customers on their comfort level. By leveraging digital technologies for contactless service, providing options for both on- and off-premises dining, and implementing the best health and safety practices possible, restaurants can help reassure customers and bring them back to the dining room.
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