Americans Are Returning To Restaurant Dining … Slowly

restaurant server and patron wearing face masks

COVID-19’s early days simply took dining out off the table, so to speak, for most Americans as restaurants shut down for on-premises dining alongside most other non-essential businesses. But as closures have eased in many U.S. regions, restaurants are coming back. The NPD Group reported this week that while U.S. restaurant revenues were still down some 9 percent year over year in August, that’s a big improvement from the pandemic’s early days in April.

“As the summer progressed and mandated restrictions were lifted, an increasing number of consumers became more comfortable dining out based on the safety protocols restaurants put in place. After months of staying at home and cooking their own meals or ordering in, they were ready for the restaurant experience again,” said David Portalatin, NPD’s food industry adviser.

The segment showed some signs of shifting back toward pre-pandemic norms, albeit slowly. For example, NPD said digital ordering eased to 17 percent of the market in August, down from more than 20 percent in April.

The data also showed that some demographics of diners are returning faster than others. For instance, adults-only dining parties with no children present represented 63 percent of all August restaurant visits, while parties with kids represented about 37 percent. By contrast, as of April, adult-only parties were a 59 percent share of visits, while parties with kids represented 41 percent of the total.

But NDP added that the restaurant segment as a whole is showing signs of growing strength. The group said on-premise dining visits have steadily improved every month since April as closures eased.

The report also showed restaurants have to offer fewer discounts to get consumers back in the door. NPD said the use of discounts fell to 27 percent of restaurant visits in August, down from 30 percent in April.

And while such early signs of improvement are certainly good, the segment as a whole still faces uncertainty as the weather gets cooler and some locations curtail outdoor dining. Many locales have allowed eateries to create or expand outdoor seating in parking lots or sidewalks for easy social distancing during the pandemic, but a solution that worked well in spring and summer might not work in fall and winter.

Haley Fortier, owner of Boston wine bar haley.henry, told PYMNTS recently that while Europeans are known for eating outdoors in cafes year-round in their hats and overcoats, Americans aren’t. “What restaurants are thinking about is: ‘If we spend all this money on heaters and warming lights and everything, are the people really going come to eat outside in December?” Fortier said.

The answer to that question is largely unknown, and might not even be the same from city to city or region to region. Where the coronavirus has had a small impact and winter temperature are fairly mild, eating outdoors year-round might be appealing.

But that might be a tougher sell in cold-weather cities where COVID-19 has cut a deep trench, like Boston on New York. That’s particularly true given that PYMNTS surveys have found that many U.S. consumers carry a baseline concern about returning to dine-in experiences. Roughly 46 percent of consumers said they’ll dine out less in a post-pandemic world.

But even among those who do plan to visit restaurants, there’s a growing preference for a safety-enhanced experience that includes gloves and mask worn prominently by an eatery’s wait staff.

And as mobile ordering continues to be the order of the day for an increasing number of customers, many consumers could just stick with ordering restaurant takeout and enjoying it from the safety and comfort of their own homes.