Post-pandemic Dining

With tentative optimism, restaurants around the country are opening their doors for on-premise diners—but is anyone coming?

The restaurant industry certainly hopes so. However, the foreseeable future shows a dining experience that looks drastically different from pre-pandemic times.

The pandemic forced restaurants to adapt if they wanted to survive. As we head towards a post-COVID world where diners are able, in limited fashion, to dine in their favorite restaurants, these adaptations will not simply be cast off. Many of them simply make sense, while others surround issues that likely needed to be addressed a long time ago. The forced restaurant changes that were necessary for survival are now leading to lasting changes in the relationship between consumers and restaurants.

There were restaurants that saw successes due to preexisting advantageous positioning: delivery-centric Papa John’s hit record sales figures in May of 2020, topping a record it set just the previous month. Other brands, such as Panera, were able to adapt with technology to better serve customers who needed quick, efficient ways to get food without setting foot on-premise. The company began extending Wi-Fi outside of stores, which alerted the restaurant that customers waiting for pick-up had arrived, decreasing service times and friction for customers.

The discussion around restaurants meeting consumer needs during the pandemic cannot be compete without third-party delivery apps. While not without their criticisms, apps such as Grubhub, DoorDash and UberEats played a substantial role in helping restaurants stay in business through the nationwide shutdowns. Christine Nordstrom, owner of Five-O Donut Co. in Sarasota, FL, decided to partner with delivery apps—something she thought she would never resort to due to the sizeable fees they charge. Though the apps take a bite out of profits, the apps make the restaurant more visible and accessible to customers.

The use of third-party delivery apps saw huge growth during the pandemic, but restaurants now have more options to ease the transition to out-of-premise dining without profit-cutting third-parties. Digital services such as Tock 20 are streamlining back-of-house management of pickups, curbside, and delivery. Tock’s to-go service allows restaurants that do not typically offer takeout and delivery to sign up and sell meal kits, to-go packs and virtual events.

This changing dining dynamic has caused a perception change with many consumers. Pandemic-forced changes led to the unforeseen growth in acceptance of off-premise dining. However, the underlying question concerns how consumers will change their behavior as fear abates and the desire to venture out to eat becomes more prevalent.

Undoubtedly, restaurants will see diners return, but a noticeable change has already occurred. The diversification of the restaurant meal experience is leading restaurants to find new ways to be more efficient, reach new customers, and help mitigate fears of social contact among consumers.

Consumers are ready as well—they have gotten used to being able to get takeout from fine-dining establishments or having zero wait-times as they pull into a restaurant for to-go pickups.  These new restaurant changes appeal to the fast-paced, patience-free lifestyle that was growing before the pandemic, was necessitated during the pandemic, and has now become the status quo heading into a post-pandemic future.