MRM EXCLUSIVE: How Restaurants Can Use Pandemic-Era Consumer Behavior to Inform Their Strategies

Despite widespread COVID-19 vaccine availability, the restaurant industry is still in a vulnerable position in the U.S. This isn’t lost on the National Restaurant Association, which sent a letter to Congress this summer to highlight the results of a recent consumer confidence survey and to urge leadership to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Consumer behavior is still in a state of flux: The association reports about 60 percent of adults are changing their restaurant use because of the Delta variant, and another 19 percent have stopped frequenting restaurants altogether.

If restaurants can survive the coming months, myriad opportunities will present themselves. Beyond a welcome reprieve from 18 months of eating at home, sit-down dining experiences can provide a sense of normalcy; people are eager to return when it’s safe to do so. Additionally, there’s a chance for businesses to capitalize on the growing takeout and delivery trends. If restaurants respond to post-pandemic consumer behaviors in a way that furthers engagement, success could be bountiful.

Keeping Pace with Consumer Behaviors

What behaviors might affect success? Health concerns, for one. A study found that 77 percent of consumers are more concerned about this particular topic than before the pandemic. With another report indicating that hygiene and health products will remain important to consumers, it only stands to reason that this sentiment will hold up for the near future.

Alfresco dining will play heavily into consumer decisions on where to dine, according to Enthuse research. Though many people miss the dining experience of pre-pandemic times, restaurants should begin to think about how these behaviors affect their existing models. The goal is to put customers in power and let them control the experience based on their comfort levels.

With that in mind, here are a few strategies for restaurants to consider in this (almost) post-pandemic world:

1. Shift from elaborate menus to abbreviated offerings.

With staff and goods shortages, restaurants are paring down their dining and cocktail menus. Recipes are trending toward simple and easily accessible ingredients. Many chefs have gone so far as to launch smaller projects, sometimes out of existing restaurants, that embrace delivery and takeout. For example, chefs Alex Williams and Jordan Snyder now operate Bread Head, a sandwich shop in Beverly Hills — a far cry from their usual French cuisine at Trois Mec.

Operational efficiencies have also taken priority, allowing restaurants to continue meeting customer expectations. Even the finest of eateries are trading formal place settings for flatware wraps. Utensils rolled up in a napkin minimize employee handling, saving time and ensuring the health of patrons.

2. Stop trying to appeal to a wide range of customers.

While we’ve seen brands take a values-forward approach for several years, restaurants and bars are now following suit. Famous restaurant Eleven Madison Park recently created a fully plant-based menu. Upon reopening, Los Angeles-based outdoor music venue The Ford did something similar by partnering with Todo Verde, a food vendor that serves plant-based Mexican food.

Looking for other examples? After witnessing its customers failing to meet its standards for engagement, a Cape Cod restaurant closed for a “day of kindness.” Restaurant owners can find creative ways to appeal to customers by taking a stand on issues they’re passionate about.

3. Prioritize the digital dining experience.

The digital dining experience is here to stay. QR codes have become more common, allowing restaurant owners to create no-touch menu options. Bitly, a link management service, has reported a 750 percent increase in QR downloads since the start of the pandemic.

Beyond that, digital ordering and digital payment options offer patrons additional convenience in restaurants and bars. In some eateries, customers can open tabs, order, and pay their bills with limited staff interaction. At the Automat Kitchen in New Jersey, customers can use a waitstaff-free model by ordering and receiving food through lockers.

4. Reconsider indulgences.

Though a significant portion of consumers shifted toward wellness, indulgences are trending in some restaurants and bars. A large part of this was due to consumer behavior: People rediscovered the joy of comfort foods during lockdowns.

People wanted to eat foods that they grew up enjoying. Restaurants should think about what additions would make patrons feel the most comfortable. Many individuals rarely left their homes through quarantine, and familiarity has become synonymous with safety. Eateries need to acknowledge this trend as the world moves into the next normal.

The goal for restaurants that adopt these strategies is to form unforgettable connections with customers. Give people what they want, and they’ll return the favor by returning again and again.