When people think of restaurants, they might think of a means to an end. In recent history, people are looking for an experience: A place to unwind after a long day, have a drink, laugh with friends, and of course, enjoy top-notch food. And once we’ve flattened the curve of the coronavirus, it’ll be as relevant as ever to linger for far too long at a table with nothing but a glass of water remaining, and just patronize some of our favorite restaurants.
In no particular order, we’ll go over some of the largest trends in the restaurant industry to date: From low-hanging fruit of what people are looking for from their dining experience, to some more nuanced expectations into 2020 and beyond.
Cost, cost, cost
Whether someone chooses a 5 star dining experience or a patio bar and grill, it’s their hard-earned money they’re spending when they step out to a restaurant. They want to be impressed, whether that means from the ambiance, the ease of getting in and out or the service they receive. And depending on the number of dollar signs after the name on Yelp, they’re expecting a certain level of experience. According to Finances Online, consumers’ support of restaurants with organic and gluten-free options has increased year-over-year. It’s not only about catering to your audience, but according to Nielsen, those who purchase organic and gluten-free options, spend 18% more on average. It’ll be argued that the increase of the check could be the cause of the higher cost of the gluten-free and organic fare. Regardless, people will put their trust in an establishment providing environmentally-responsible food. Trust which translates to loyalty to the services the business provides.
Health and transparency
In line with organic food, those who run sustainably-focused restaurants have seen an increase in sales of 20% since 2014. Over the years, patrons’ have shown an ever-growing appreciation of establishments showing a vested interest in providing products that contribute to a greener future. From a food and health survey conducted in 2018, six in ten American consumers say they’d only eat or purchase food that’s harvested in a sustainable manner. This goes for cocktails as well: From sustainably-sourced ingredients down to reusable cups, American consumers are as aware of their impact on the environment as ever. Millennials are cutting back on alcohol altogether. With decreasing sales, some alcohol companies have put their focus on products such as kombucha and probiotic-loaded beverages. Anheuser-Busch committed 20% of its beer volume to low-to-no alcohol by 2025. By the year 2022, it’s projected the low-to-no alcohol sector will grow by 39%. From the dismissal of plastic straws and styrofoam containers, to the addition of non-alcoholic craft beverages, this will likely turn into higher consumerism and brand trust well into the future.
With so many excellent places to choose from, sometimes we’re just looking for the easiest and quickest option. Studies conducted by Technomic have shown that Americans are leaning on the fast-casual restaurants like Panera Bread, Chipotle and Panda Express. Leading the charge are Millennials, ranging in age from 24-39. The analysts from the aforementioned Business Insider article found that 53% of this cohort eat at restaurants at least once per week, up 10% than the rest of the population.
For owners of restaurants of all sizes, it was a no-brainer to transition to delivery, pickup or both during COVID-19. This article was written during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen a shift from a traditional sit-in experience to pickup and contactless options. It’s no surprise that many individuals aren’t willing to sacrifice health-conscious options for convenience, and it remains to be seen if many upper scale eateries will maintain their pickup and delivery options made available during COVID-19. If so, competition will be increasing for the spots like Panera, Chipotle and Panda for those consumers willing and able to fork out a little more cash for higher-quality meals they can take home to feed the crew.
Owners of some fast-casual restaurants have been experimenting with specialty limited-time offers to garner something that’s postable and more readily reaches the Gen Z’ers (born after 1996). The oldest of the Gen Z’ers turn 23 this year and the groups’ buying-power will increase year-over-year, making them a highly sought-after demographic to target. Modern Restaurant Management says that 50 percent of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen X’ers (born between 1961 and 1980), want to be the first in their friend group to try a new limited-time offer and post about it on social media. This data suggests that those figures will only increase with Gen Z’ers becoming the next wave of individuals to energize the economy.
In 2018, Chick-fil-A experimented with a specialty coffee. Generally speaking, people wouldn’t associate coffee with the chicken sandwich chain, but their out-of-the-box strategy sparked interest and got play on the ABC affiliate of a market they tested it in. Fred LeFranc, managing partner of Results Thru Strategy, says creating limited-time speciality offers can drive both visitation to the restaurant and frequency of visits, creating brand loyalty and separation from its competition. Analysts call these lifestyle campaigns and anticipate seeing much more of this sort of experimentation moving forward.
Since 2017, restaurant chains have been noticeably trimming menu items. From fast food restaurants to casual dining settings, the more items on a menu means longer wait times. Whether it’s more trips by the server, checking-in to see if the guest has gotten through the novel-sized menu, or if it’s more time to make a speciality item, causing longer drive-through waits times. Longer wait times translate to less-frequent turnover. This seems devoid of the human experience that’s intended, but the consumer holds the cards in how they measure their experience. With fast food and casual dining restaurants, their experience is measured in the value of their time and money spent. This hearkens back to the need for convenience and fulfilling a means to an end. Either way, restaurants of all sizes are learning to keep their menus simple.
Whether the choice is take out or delivery, the experience doesn’t end once your food is out the door. It’s about the packaging, the delivery, the mouth-watering sensation before that first bite of chicken parmesan hits their tongue. With more options than ever on how to get great food to the customer, restaurant owners will be experimenting more than ever to make that experience remarkable. How that incredible experience is achieved, is up to the consumer.