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How quickly will customers come back to restaurants?

Editors’ Roundtable takes on the question of how long it will take for a return to normal, and what the industry will look like.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Editor’s note: Periodically, Restaurant Business Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Maze decides to annoy his fellow editors with inane questions that he makes them answer. This week’s topic: How fast will consumers return to dine-in restaurants?

Things seem dark now, with the virus surging and restaurants being forced to close dining rooms. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The U.K. has already started vaccinating people against the coronavirus and we’re all set to start mass vaccinations in 2021.

The question then is how long will it take consumers to return to restaurants afterward? Many people believe it could take some time—people may need a bit before they feel comfortable eating inside a traditional restaurant without a mask and all that, even with a vaccine. Takeout strategies have improved considerably in the past several months. There is no need to go to a restaurant.

Also, that’s where the industry was headed before all this. It’s why so many fast-food chains are upgrading their drive-thrus and the previously drive-thru-allergic fast-casual business is busy adding them to business plans.

But … maybe not. Maybe people will be so tired of quarantine that they will rush to eat inside a restaurant once this is all over. Perhaps this shift to takeout is more temporary than it seems.

So, Peter Romeo, what do you think? Is the industry really headed for a takeout future or will the traditional restaurant make a big comeback in 2021?

Peter Romeo: Hey, you’re eating up valuable list-making time here. I’m jotting down all the places I want to hit once I can sit at a bar, nurse an ice-cold beer and maybe watch a game on TV while I plow through some nachos. With any luck, I’ll be able to pre-order a brew today so I won’t get caught in the stampede of cabin-fever sufferers who feel the same way I do. 

If consumers weren’t already in a sprinter’s crouch, ready to charge back to a favorite restaurant, we wouldn’t have so many jurisdictions reclosing dining rooms.  People were already swarming places, even while the risk of infection was high. Take away that yellow light and we’re going to see a surge of a far different sort—restaurant customers fighting for a table. There’s just too much pent-up demand—not necessarily for the food, since you can get that through delivery and takeout, but for the luxury of having someone else serve it while you focus on the company you’re with. Takeout or delivery can’t replicate that experience unless you’ve rehired your butler.

We already know it’s going to happen. When dining rooms were re-opened in early summer, operators reported that customers would wait eons for one of the few seats that were available. Takeout was available, but they wanted experience. And that experience doesn’t travel well in an Uber.

A few chain pundits have pointed out that the 1918 pandemic was followed by the Roaring ’20s, a period of unprecedented economic activity for the nation. So, I’m getting ready for the next Roaring ’20s 2.0.

Pat, I’ve noticed you enjoy a glass of wine now and again. And again. And again. Are you going to let all those bottles build up in your apartment, or should I save you a seat at Restaurant Daniel?

Pat Cobe: I, for one, am tired of drinking alone. Plus, it’s embarrassing to cart all those bottles out to the recycling bin in front of my neighbors!

I don’t plan on racing back to indoor dining as soon as the rules are relaxed, but I am looking forward to it sometime in 2021. (Don’t know if Restaurant Daniel is in my budget though, Peter!)

Takeout and delivery simply do not provide the best part of eating in restaurants—dining with friends and catching up on life while enjoying delicious food and yes … a few bottles of wine. There’s been a lot of talk about how restaurants provide an experience that can’t be replicated at home. And while that’s true, the thing I really miss is the sitting around the table and sharing food, drink and conversation with real people who aren’t on a computer or iPad screen.

Sharing is key to the enjoyment or restaurants. It’s so much fun to go out with friends in the industry or dining companions who are just into trying different cuisines, ordering up a bunch of dishes and passing them around the table so everyone can sample. Will a vaccine make that a normal part of life again? Hard to tell when we’ll all feel comfortable enough, but I’m hoping it’s soon.

While takeout and delivery can provide a chance to experience different cuisines and restaurants in the comfort of your home, there’s still the chore of cleaning up! Even if you eat right out of the to-go containers (guilty!), somehow there are still those wine glasses to wash and trash piling up.

I am tired of cleaning up. How about you Heather?

Heather Lalley: So, so, so very tired of cleaning the kitchen and doing dishes here, Pat. I do not know how two kids and I can generate so much mess and I’m pretty sure the only explanation is that the cat has started cooking herself midnight pasta carbonara.

Alas, if I could snap my fingers and magically end this pandemic today, my first stop would unquestionably be to one of Chicago’s many wonderful restaurants (at least one of the ones that haven’t already shuttered because of this crisis).

Sadly, that day is not today, and it’s going to take a long time before I feel comfortable gathering with friends inside a restaurant again. How long? I don’t quite now. But I think my comfort level requires widespread vaccinations.

However, judging by social media at least, there are lots of diners with a higher risk tolerance than I who are happy to dine inside whenever and wherever it’s available.

But there are also lots of folks in my camp, who will be depending on delivery and takeout for the foreseeable future.

What’s this mean?

Operators need to be prepared to fire on all fronts, with safe dining rooms and robust off-premise programs. And, if those restaurant owners could offer some more “special” to-go experiences with heightened hospitality (flowers! music playlists! wine pairings!) that would let me create a restaurant-like experience in my messy dining room? I’d likely throw some more money their way until I feel comfortable returning to their actual dining rooms.

How about you, Joe, are you ready to get back into a restaurant dining room?

Joe Guszkowski: I’m with you, Heather: It’s vaccination or bust in terms of eating and drinking inside, even though “sitting at a bar” is one of my Top 5 Most Pined-For Activities.

That said, I imagine a lot of Americans will be less cautious than me. What I find interesting is that we’re all describing a specific type of dine-in experience—namely, a full-service one. I haven’t heard anyone say they can’t wait to rush out and grab a table at McDonald’s.

That suggests to me that fast-food places, which have been the biggest winners during the pandemic, should be a little worried about next year. Many are already de-emphasizing the dining room, but I suspect a lot of consumers are going to replace drive-thru visits with sit-down ones, at least early on.

What do you think, Jonathan? Could the pent-up demand for dining in hurt QSRs?

Jonathan: Yes.

Look, if more people are dining in and getting waited upon, this will hurt sales at all of these restaurants that focus primarily on takeout. Pizza chains and fast-food concepts can probably expect slower sales once people can eat out again.

Of course, there will be fewer restaurants, unfortunately. Those that survive will get the benefit of all this pent-up demand. At the same time, the industry will be forever changed because of the pandemic. How they operate will be different—and more ready for a mass event that drives more takeout business.

But the dine-in business is certainly going to come back.

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