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Diners are slowly returning to restaurants despite health and safety concerns

Restaurants need to be patient and listen more advises one food industry expert

Photo (c) Drazen Zigic - Getty Images
As restaurants continue to reopen for dine-in service, some consumers seem to be comfortable with an on-premise, sit-down meal. But a new study suggests that more than two-thirds would rather be at home, doing their own cooking, serving themselves, and -- most importantly -- staying safe from COVID-19.

A new study by consulting firm AlixPartners suggests that diners are raising their expectations as consumer confidence in restaurant safety grows. Adam Werner, AlixPartners managing partner, said during a Restaurants Rise webinar that the study’s results are indicative of a new relationship between restaurants and customers that is emerging during the pandemic.

He points out that while restaurant spending is far from rebounding back to normal, it remains the number one choice when consumers are asked how they’d like to spend their dining dollars.

“Consumers are looking to dine out. It’s not all doom and gloom. They want to go,” Werner said. “They need to leave the house, but they want to feel safe.”

The safety of eating at home

On the question of feeling safe, the AlixPartners study mirrors what similar studies have shown -- that health and safety is still the top priority for consumers. 

However, foodies appear to be lowering their guard when it comes to contact with other people. In April, 49 percent of the AlixPartners respondents said they ate at home so they could limit contact with other people. In July, that preference softened to 44 percent. 

While the percentage of consumers who said they prefer cooking at home held steady at 61 percent from April to July, their reasons for staying home also changed a bit. As an example, 45 percent of consumers said takeout/delivery was too expensive for their tastes in July, a metric that rose from 39 percent in April.

Digging a little deeper, AlixPartners researchers found that nearly 57 percent of consumers are now ordering delivery or takeout at least once a week. 

However, that metric comes with a warning from Werner. Even though the delivery business is starting to bounce back, he said that consumers would still prefer to pick up the food themselves. It’s not only because they can save a few bucks on delivery, but also because they’re concerned about health and safety.

Restaurants need to be patient

Werner laid down the law to restaurant operators by saying that they need to remain fluid in how they respond to customers while trying not to second guess them. “The consumer experience is suffering, and those that get it right will win,” he said.

“While contemplating how consumers will behave in the post-pandemic world is an interesting exercise, dealing in hypotheticals can be distracting and, worse, paralyzing at a time when decisive action is crucial. In recovery, they may have to make some decisions they don’t like. But operators need to embrace the unique opportunity to reset consumers’ relationship with the business,” AlixPartners told restaurateurs in a separate advisory.

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