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Restaurant and diner trends: where we are and what’s next

Restaurant interior
Photo by Shawn Ang

Since early March, the world has been on the rollercoaster that is COVID-19 and all of its dramatic highs and lows. The volatile spread of the pandemic—in addition to an unprecedented unemployment rate as well as racial and social injustices and unrest—have all contributed to a challenging and very overwhelming time for most small businesses, especially restaurants.

The Yelp Local Economic Impact Report shows that nearly 140,000 businesses were marked as closed on Yelp between March 1 and June 15. And while reopening phases have started in many places—and some started only to be paused or rolled back—the restaurant industry is still trying to gain its original footing while also attempting to open under the “new normal.”

From diner trends to restaurant operations and insights—we dove a little deeper into our own data to paint a bigger picture around what comes next for reopening and dining expectations.

The first wave of behavioral change in dining out

It’s no surprise that there was a significant shift in diner behavior once the Coronavirus pandemic began to spread in the United States. Even before restaurants shut down, many diners were beginning to shy away from their regular culinary havens. Before shelter-in-place orders were enforced, nearly 8% of those surveyed said they weren’t visiting restaurants (including on-site, takeout, and/or delivery). That percentage shot up to over 37% post-COVID and this behavior would last a while until the initial phases of reopening were near.

Diner demand slowly returns as restaurants reopen

Fast forward to now, when the majority of states have started allowing restaurants to reopen in some capacity, with restrictions like outdoor seating only or limited party sizes. While the interest and desire to go back to our favorite restaurants runs high, so does the concern about physically returning to the dining scene.

How do diners feel about returning to restaurants?

In our 2020 Yelp Diner Survey, 46% said they would feel comfortable eating out within a month of the loosening of government regulations—with 19% saying they’d eat out immediately—while about 53% of diners say they would prefer to wait a month or longer. Of the metros surveyed, diners in Chicago and Los Angeles were the most likely to return earlier while New York was the slowest to return.

Those who said they would return immediately generally felt dining in would be safe.

“I’ll eat in most of the restaurants I frequent because I’m sure they will do everything possible to protect their customers and staff.”
– Male, New York City, over 65

“Because I don’t feel it’s any less of a risk to dine out than it is to go to a grocery store or another public space.”
– Female, Chicago, 35-44

Many of those who said they’ll wait months before dining out again cited health concerns for the elderly and those that are high risk—whether that describes themselves or their loved ones.

“I am in a risk category. My wife is as well. We want to see how the curve steepens and what the ramifications of opening are before we venture out.” 
– Male, New York City, 55-64

“I don’t feel comfortable being so close to people. I have a high-risk daughter, and I am happy to just support businesses by picking up to go.”
– Female, unspecified region, 35-44

Diners’ perspectives on onsite dining shape restaurants’ response 

In the Yelp Diner Survey, we asked how concerned diners are—from a health perspective—on an array of common interactions that take place while dining out. The following are the percentages of surveyed diners who responded “extremely concerned or very concerned” about these parts of the dining experience:

  • Sharing a large, family-style table with multiple parties: 70.6%
  • Holding a reusable (e.g., laminated) menu: 43.4%
  • Sitting in a booth with another party behind you: 42.8%
  • Holding a pager to wait for your table: 38.7%
  • Sitting at a private table with another party nearby: 36.6%
  • Interacting with a touchscreen for your payment (e.g., adding tip, signing a screen): 34.6%
  • Using pen and paper for your payment: 33.5%

Alongside those concerns, diners also have their own expectations about what restaurants should be doing to keep them safe. When asked what would make them more confident to dine out sooner, the top three responses were social distancing, frequent use of disinfectant, and the availability of hand sanitizer.

And restaurants are listening—the top three expectations have become the “new normal” when dining out per new state and local requirements in many areas. Plus businesses of all types are getting creative in the ways they are preparing for and handling guests—from lush partitions between tables to sidewalk dining.

Chef Matthew Jennings, a five-time James Beard Award nominee, describes how restaurants are stepping up to bring back a sense of normalcy around dining but that it has to be done right. “Yes, I want to get back to normal, or I want to get back to a comfort level with guests and staff, but I also want to be super vigilant about making sure that things are safe. And I think that’s on us as operators, that’s our responsibility.”

Demand for takeout and delivery should remain strong, even as onsite dining makes a comeback

While we wait to see what the future of dining in holds, it’s clear that takeout and delivery options are here to stay—thanks to a combination of pure necessity, increased convenience, enticing promotions, and loosened regulations.

According to the Yelp Diner Survey, over 50% of diners that never ordered pick-up/takeout before COVID-19 said they now order pick-up/takeout at least 1-2 times a week. 

The June edition of Yelp’s Local Economic Impact Report shows a 10x increase in Yelp searches for takeout since March 10 as well as a 20% increase in searches for curbside pickup. And while onsite dining may be picking back up in some areas, takeout and delivery continue to be popular on Yelp, still up 148% based on consumer interest relative to pre-pandemic levels.

Takeout and delivery are also benefiting as the food delivery race heats up and companies make changes to get ahead of the competition. Grubhub will be acquired by Dutch food delivery company, Just Eat Takeaway; Uber confirmed that it’s acquiring Postmates; while Uber Eats is slashing fees for restaurants in certain markets to maintain a competitive edge. Additionally, delivery fee caps are being imposed in cities like San Francisco where a temporary measure was passed to help restaurants stay afloat and staffed. These changes show wide scale support to help restaurants survive during these challenging times, and those accommodations suggest that the help and support is here to stay.

Yelp tools to help restaurants reopen safely

Digital menus

An easy way to reduce contact among diners and staff is to use digital menus—no more wiping down laminates or disposable paper copies. Within your Yelp for Business account, you can add a URL that links to a menu on your website. Then your guests can browse your menu from your Yelp Page right on their phones, even before they’re seated.

Restaurants that use Yelp Reservations or Yelp Waitlist can also get scannable QR codes to print out and place on tables for quick and easy digital menu access.

Yelp Waitlist

QR code poster

No need to talk to a host or touch a kiosk. Restaurants can print a poster with a QR code and put it up at their entrance to allow guests to scan the QR code with the camera on their phone.  Scanning the QR code will direct them to join the restaurant’s Waitlist through Yelp (guests do not need to have the Yelp app to get in line). 

Capacity monitor

A key part of a host’s new job responsibilities will be to ensure the restaurant does not exceed the reduced dine-in seating capacity. Instead of having to manually count people dining inside the restaurant, hosts can set limits on the Host app and be alerted when the limit is approaching or exceeded. This way they can focus on seating guests, ensuring the safety practices are being followed for staff and dine-in customers. 

Manual wait controls

Set accurate guest expectations by manually adjusting wait times during out-of-the-ordinary shifts. Accurate wait time expectations are crucial to running a smooth operation. Although we offer smart estimates that tend to be more accurate than hosts can provide, there can be unexpected changes to a shift, like bad weather, smaller staff, and reduced capacity. With manual wait controls, wait times can now be adjusted on the fly.

Guest information tracking

One of the common requirements for reopening is for restaurants to keep track of their guests’ information. This information will be used by health officials to help monitor contact tracing during COVID-19. Customers using either Yelp Waitlist or Yelp Reservations can safely store this information using the Visit Notes section of either platform. 

Yelp Reservations

Yelp for Restaurants is a powerful suite of solutions that gives restaurants the most cost-effective operational and marketing tools to help you boost guest loyalty and increase profits. 

Yelp Connect

Clear, concise, and regular communication is the key to connecting with your customers and generating business—now more than ever. Yelp Connect is an easy way to get your customers’ attention and share timely updates about your operations and what you’re offering right now as things change daily.

Connect updates will show up on your Yelp Business Page and will reach people who have previously expressed interest in your business via Yelp. Yelp users will find updates on their app home screen, as well as in a personalized weekly email.

Yelp for Business blog resources