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There’s no doubt the restaurant industry looks completely different than it did even a few short months ago, and many changes implemented now will be long-lasting. Consumer concerns about contracting COVID-19 at a restaurant, coupled with record-high unemployment and a recession limiting discretionary spending means restaurants will need to go above and beyond to make diners feel safe and encourage them to spend.

Here are 10 ways restaurants can take action during COVID-19 and beyond:

1. Communicate safety and sanitation measures clearly and consistently

What consumers want and why: According to Mintel research on restaurant marketing strategies, more than two in five diners want to hear about food safety/sanitation from restaurants. Restaurants should clearly communicate the steps taken to ensure food quality and a safe dining experience. Diners’ concerns need to be eased, with half of consumers that disagree people are at low risk of contracting the virus while eating at a restaurant, compared to a quarter who agree.

2. Avoid self-serve items

What consumers want and why: According to upcoming Mintel research on the recovery from COVID-19 impact on foodservice, more than two in five diners are uncomfortable with self-serve condiments and the same percentage is uncomfortable with self-serve beverages (eg fountain soda, Bloody Mary bar). In July, restaurants including Wendy’s and Five Guys adopted contactless pouring from their Coca-Cola Freestyle machines. The machine dispenses drinks once a diner scans a QR code on it with their smartphone. Diners are becoming more comfortable with contactless ordering and pickup, and this technology can make them feel safe and in control. Other self-serve drinks and menu dishes (eg buffets) should be staffed to avoid diners making direct contact with foods and drinks.

3. Keep your distance

What consumers want and why: Social distancing has become the norm and doing so at a restaurant is no different. According to upcoming Mintel research on the recovery from COVID-19 impact on foodservice, more than half of diners are uncomfortable with communal seating (ie one large table shared with other parties), while two-thirds agree socially distanced tables (ie tables 6 feet apart) would make them feel safer.

4. Enforce mask usage among staff and patrons

What consumers want and why: Nearly two-thirds of diners say servers wearing masks would make them feel safer dining at a restaurant, and more than two in five are comfortable wearing a mask while dining (ie except while eating/drinking). Operators should ensure all restaurant employees wear properly cleaned masks while working. Some operators, including Starbucks, have come forward with policies requiring guests to wear masks, regardless of local regulations. Expect to see other restaurants follow suit on a local and national level.

5. Offer an online waitlist and pre-ordering capabilities

What consumers want and why: Think of ways to limit crowding and person-to-person contact. According to upcoming Mintel research on the recovery from COVID-19 impact on foodservice, seven in 10 diners agree restaurants should offer an online waitlist to reduce contact (eg with a host, table buzzer). Olive Garden encourages diners to add their name to a virtual waitlist to minimize host interaction. Pre-ordering capabilities can reduce staff and diner contact and allow diners to pay for their meal upfront, which also eliminates the need to touch cash, check holders and pens. Allserve is a tech provider that offers this; some full-service restaurants were already testing this capability before the pandemic to speed up the dine-in experience for time-pressed consumers, such as parents.

6. Continue offering contactless options

What consumers want and why: Consumers are becoming more familiar with contactless payment and procurement across segments, and nearly four in five diners agree restaurants should continue to offer contactless pickup/delivery after the pandemic ends, according to Mintel research on restaurant ordering and delivery. While three in five pickup/delivery consumers don’t believe pickup or delivery can truly be contactless, it’s still perceived as a safer, more convenient option than dining on-premise. Contactless menus and payment via an app or QR code should also be considered.

7. Compete aggressively with retail options

What consumers want and why: The pandemic has encouraged many consumers to spend more time preparing meals at home; more than two-thirds of consumers are cooking at home more often due to COVID-19. However, that doesn’t mean restaurants can’t capture some of these occasions. According to upcoming Mintel research on the recovery from COVID-19 impact on foodservice businesses, three in five consumers agree restaurants should continue to sell meal kits and nearly half of consumers agree restaurants should sell groceries, post-pandemic. Even as dining rooms reopen, restaurants should consider keeping these options as additional revenue sources, especially since dine-in restrictions such as capacity limits will continue to limit revenue.

8. Embrace off-premise for the long term

What consumers want and why: As of July 2020, less than two in five consumers have dined at a restaurant, compared to seven in 10 who have used pickup and three in five who have ordered delivery. Moreover, one-third of consumers say they will only order restaurant food to go until there is a COVID-19 vaccine available, according to upcoming Mintel research on the recovery from COVID-19 impact on foodservice. Off-premise takeout and delivery business remains safer for operators and consumers alike, so restaurants should continue to lean heavily on this revenue stream during recovery and beyond.

9. Clean systematically and visibly

What consumers want and why: While more than two-thirds of diners trust restaurants are taking the necessary measures to keep them safe, they still want reassurance, which can come in the way of clear visual cues. This includes frequent dining room cleaning, handwashing and sanitation stations for both diners and employees, and other reassurances such as cards placed on tables notifying diners that the tables have been washed and sanitized (eg after every use). Some restaurants, including Denny’s and CAVA, assign an employee the role of sanitation specialist whose sole job is to ensure a consistently clean dining room.

10. Limit menus but not innovation

What consumers want and why: More than one-third of diners agree restaurant menus have become too complex, according to Mintel research on US restaurant marketing strategies. McDonald’s, The Cheesecake Factory, Portillo’s and Red Robin are just a handful of restaurant chains reducing menu complexity during the pandemic for safety reasons, costs, and ease of operations. Removing foods that are not takeout-friendly, or those that are low margin will serve restaurants well during and after the pandemic. However, consumers enjoy and appreciate menu innovation and new menu items, so operators should not shy away from seasonal or monthly limited-time offers (LTOs.)

Amanda Topper is the Associate Director of Foodservice Research, responsible for overseeing all of Mintel’s foodservice offerings, as well as providing insight and competitive analysis across scheduled deliverables, and client and industry presentations.

Jill Failla is a Senior Foodservice Analyst at Mintel. She creates US Foodservice Reports and contributes to Mintel’s Menu Insights database.