If there’s one refrain nearly everyone has sung during the pandemic, it’s “I want things to go back to normal.” Besides missing friends and family, people are aching to go out again. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, people spent more of their money than ever dining out in 2019. Nearly 5% of the average household budget paid the bill at restaurants and bars. That doesn’t seem like a lot until you realize it’s more than clothing and education combined. 2020 has seen a significant reduction in that number. Americans are still spending close to 10% of their money on food, but they’re cooking at home more than ever, leaving restaurant owners wondering if they’ll be back for 2021.
While the beginning of the pandemic saw most of us becoming amateur sourdough bakers, the novelty of DIY dining has worn thin. In a recent survey, 55% of people reported they were tired of cooking at home. While many have compensated by ordering to-go from their favorite restaurants, there’s an acknowledged lack of ambiance when you eat your noodles with a plastic fork from a wet styrofoam container. Consumers report they miss the atmosphere of familiar places, the fun of dining out with friends, the excitement of restaurant dates, and having their food served piping hot.
No Normal Without the New
While it’s clear that the average person misses dining out, the path forward is murky. According to Oracle,
“the coming year will be about settling into a new rhythm and catering to diners in new and innovative ways.”
One of the more significant changes many restaurants have made during the pandemic is limiting the options on their menus and streamlining their back of house processes. Even after people are back inside, menus may remain trimmed down. According to Forbes, consumers may not be as interested in a wide variety as healthier options. People are more conscious about what they eat, “and how these foods and beverages have a significant effect on their stamina, strength, and immunity.”
Even though consumers want to go out, they also like the idea of ordering through computers and phones. Online ordering is ubiquitous in the industry, but growing in popularity is in-person ordering through smartphones. Oracle predicts, “it’s clear that personal devices will play a critical role in the restaurant experience going forward. From QR-code enabled menus, to mobile order-ahead options, minimizing contact is important to consumers and has effectively gone from short-term fix to key priority.”
Computerized interactions help restaurants maintain health and safety guidelines. You can bet that customers will be more concerned with safety than ever before, even post-vaccine. According to Mckinsey, “consumers may still not feel safe dining in indoor public spaces.” The world might return to normal before people do, at least in their minds. And if customers are nervous about eating indoors, restaurants might be wise to continue offering options like extended outdoor dining, where more of the restaurant is open to the outdoors.
So Many Options
Even though more consumers have been eating at home, they’re still branching out. Many have used new takeout and delivery options to sample new dishes or cuisines from restaurants they might never have tried. An excellent tool for monitoring consumers’ tastes is this one from Global Food Forums. It tracks what foods have been the most popular at grocery stores and delivery sites. Since many restaurants are already examining their menus during the pandemic, understanding food trends is powerful.
While customers might be ready to try everything from breadfruit to plant-based protein, they still want to know what’s in their food. Consumers are reading the ingredients and health information listed on products in the grocery store or when offered on restaurant and delivery websites. They might be looking at vitamins said to boost immunity, or they might be looking to watch their calorie intake, but they are looking, and many predict that this trend will continue. Restaurants need to be ready with this information for all their dishes, old and new and will need to keep an eye on which dishes fall by the wayside.
Will people return to restaurants in 2021? They sure want to. One thing is certain: people love getting food from their favorite restaurants, whether they choose in-person dining, takeout, or delivery.