As temps in Indiana turn colder, al fresco diners are moving indoors. Restaurant owners are cautiously optimistic that diners will continue to safely enjoy establishments as we all learn to respect and work around COVID-19. While national numbers show fluctuations in attitudes, restaurants nationwide still need workers to ensure customer satisfaction for return visits. 

It’s no secret that the food service industry is among the hardest hit in terms of revenue and lay-offs since the coronavirus forced nationwide closures six months ago. While some states, such as Georgia, allowed their restaurants to reopen (with restrictions) as early as mid-May, others, such as New York, allowed limited capacity dine-in at the end of September.

In Indiana, we held at stage 4.5 until recent weeks and have been fortunate to have fantastic fall weather that’s allowed restaurants to continue to serve guests outside. Our company partners with hospitality clients to staff their hospitality businesses in Indiana and nationwide. Restaurant business continues to operate with many staff openings throughout the area. What’s our forecast going into fall and winter?

Mindset and perspective are critical. Diners mean dollars that translate to hiring. That keeps our economy moving. Early this year, there were several concerns about how to manage the pandemic in a restaurant given this is a new virus strain. Questions arose:

Can the virus travel on food surfaces and/or packaging, and can it be transferred that way? As we’ve come to find, it’s extremely unlikely with the CDC saying the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 from eating or handling food (including frozen food and produce) and food packages is considered very low.

How does the virus spread? Science tells us it is mostly spread “when someone coughs, sneezes, or talks” according to the CDC. Thus, restaurants are carefully spacing diners. And for sit down restaurants, staff continue to wear masks for their safety and yours.

With all of this considered, the most important question remains: How do diners feel about returning to their favorite restaurants and bars? The answer to that question has shifted throughout the year.

Below are some of the most prominent stats on consumer confidence we’ve seen over the last year to help determine how guests are feeling about the future of dining out. Notice the fluctuating figures from study to study.

A survey conducted June 26 to 29 of just over 3,000 people published in Business Insider showed:

  • 40% of respondents said they would go out to dinner within a month of the curve flattening. 20% of survey respondents said they would go out to dinner two to three months after the curve flattened
  • 17% said it would take them four to six months to do so
  • 10% said it would take them seven to 11 months to dine out
  • 11% said it would take them at least a year. 2% said they would never feel comfortable dining out again

By mid-August, customer transactions at major restaurant chains improved into the single-digits after 21 weeks of double-digit declines, according to data from The NPD Group. In this statistic, “major restaurant chains” included “quick service, fast casual, mid-scale, and casual dining chains representing 53% of the commercial restaurant traffic in the United States” 

According to Morning Consult, between April 7-Sept. 13, 34% of U.S. adults said they are comfortable dining out right now. During the survey, consumers were asked when they would feel comfortable going out to eat, another 30% said next month.

Data released in October from Restaurant Research Intent to Eat Out Index, which surveys 1,500 consumers asking their plans to go out in the next 30 days shows a 4.5%, which is a decline from the prior month. This decline is not being attributed to COVID-19, instead researchers chalk it up to the price sensitive 55+ and 18 to 24-year-old diners, who enjoyed reopening promotional prices.

While these statistics tell us restaurants reopening with health and safety protocol (and those great promo specials) in place isn’t enough to bring back every customer, they tell us a large percentage of consumers are going out and spending, which means businesses need workers. 

Key Takeaways 

  • Quick service and fast casual establishments are slowly returning to pre-pandemic customer numbers due to the nature of their delivery and to-go offerings.  
  • While full-service dining has seen an improvement since the start of the year, attitudes have not changed much in the past months–– likely due to the flux of new cases in the state and country.
  • Being open is not enough to drive customers to your business as comfort levels are dictating whether consumers dine in or take out.
  • Having staff on hand to manage fluctuating numbers is key to maintaining satisfaction and keeping customers coming back.

While business owners need to follow protocols to create a safe and comfortable environment, one strategy remains on the forefront when drawing customers back: patience and service.  

George Lessmeister is CEO and founder of LGC Hospitality, a hospitality staffing firm that works with hotel and restaurant leadership. The company is headquartered in Indianapolis operating in over 30 cities across the country.

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