We're all aware of the drastic changes COVID-19 has brought to not only consumer lifestyles but also entire industry segments ranging from travel to sports to restaurants. Certainly, the effects of the pandemic on the restaurant segment have been severe: the National Restaurant Association estimates that one in six (or 110,000 restaurants) had closed as of December 2020.

While restaurant closures hit very close to home for countless consumers accustomed to dining out, our own research (as highlighted in our Eating Occasions 2020 white paper) finds that while sourcing foods and beverages from restaurants (including dine-in, takeout and delivery) declined in 2020, the decline was relatively small and predominantly due to the large drop in visits witnessed at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Our occasions research reveals that as the year progressed, Americans became more comfortable sourcing from restaurants, and takeout and delivery options proved to be a convenient option as well as a way to support local restaurants. Among generations, Gen Z adults and Millennials did not experience a decline in restaurant-sourced occasions, highlighting younger generations’ dependence on restaurant food regardless of the pandemic. Overall, eating occasions relating to restaurants actually only declined three percentage points year over year: 21% of eating occasions in 2020 either took place in or were sourced from a restaurant compared to 24% in 2019.

Shifts in consumer behavior with regard to restaurants point to interesting times ahead for dining out: an insightful article on eater.com describes how, despite vaccines being on the horizon for millions of Americans, the restaurant industry can’t count on things returning to “normal” anytime soon, if at all. Beautifully designed interiors may no longer apply as restaurants focus on safety via to-go service and fewer dine-in guests.

Consequently, design and service adjustments that have been made to accommodate COVID-19 measures, such as adjustable seating, adding takeout windows and retail space, could very well last long after the COVID-19 pandemic.

More specifically, restaurateurs are considering a range of more permanent (and costly) changes, including more square footage to ensure enough space between diners, sectioned-off seating for safe, intimate dining, restrooms with touchless amenities, permanent outdoor seating and spaces designed for lower levels of noise, as amplified vocalization is now correlated with increased disease transmission.

The pandemic’s impact on the restaurant industry has been swift and harsh, drastically reducing dining out across the country and forcing restaurants to adopt new business models or adapt practices on the fly. These are appreciated, but consumers also report that these measures have created an atmosphere that is different, cold and largely unappealing, a distinct departure from the vastly preferable, more carefree pre-COVID-19 dining out experience.

Ultimately, many consumers view dining out during the pandemic as not worth the risk of potential virus exposure. Moving forward, restaurants will need to find ways to address safety concerns and create an inviting atmosphere.

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