Prior to the pandemic, consumers acquiring snacks, meals and beverages via restaurant drive-through, takeout and delivery all seemed like normal alternatives to sit-down dining. And yet, few observers, if any, could foresee that demand for such food procurement options would be such a powerful prediction of not only survival for restaurants in a chaotic market but that it might represent a huge advantage over operators struggling to add them. As described in a recent Wall Street Journal article, by closing dining rooms, many QSR and fast-casual chains have been able to cut costs and focus on limited-contact services with many achieving profitability on par with pre-pandemic levels or higher. Companies including Panda Express, Church’s Chicken, Restaurant Brands International (owner of Popeyes, Tim Hortons and Burger King) and Chipotle have invested heavily in safety and technology measures to better align to consumer behavioral shifts in fast food procurement during the pandemic.

We report on the shift to consumer use of limited-contact restaurant ordering options in our new report, COVID-19’s Impact on Eating, which finds that demand for such services (which includes ordering ahead by phone, app or website, by electronic kiosk or via drive-through) increased significantly during the start of COVID-19 (Spring 2020) compared to the same time period in 2019. Among restaurant-sourced eating occasions, 37% of such occasions were ordered ahead by phone, app or website (up 11 percentage points from 2019) and 36% of such occasions were carried out through restaurant drive-through (up 15 percentage points from 2019). Demand for restaurant delivery has also shot up during COVID-19: 31% of restaurant-sourced eating occasions were satisfied by delivery in Spring 2020 vs. just 17% in 2019.

While a perfect storm of health and safety concerns has driven shifts toward limited-contact restaurant ordering (not the least of which include concerns for the health and safety of customers as well as employees), such changes have seemingly been taken in stride by large-scale restaurant operators, which, in response to increasing competition, had already been developing efficiencies in such services prior to the pandemic. These operational and technological changes have been greatly accelerated by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and while many companies and consumers are looking forward to the day when dine-in options return fully, we expect this cultural shift toward limited-contact ordering to continue long term beyond the pandemic. As part of our ongoing analysis of how consumers satisfy their food and beverage inclinations, our new study, Food Sourcing in America 2020 (now fielding), looks broadly at how consumers procure foods and beverages, with a special focus on tech-driven innovations in meal planning and food shopping, and how new at-home food prep and cooking routines are changing consumer habits.

More information on the Food Sourcing in America 2020 study is available here.

For more information on changes in eating behavior, download the report: COVID-19’s Impact on Eating