The pandemic is profoundly affecting consumers’ behaviors and their comfort levels with dining out as restaurants reopen across the country.
Understanding what returning customers want and expect to experience during the pandemic is critical for quick-service restaurants (QSRs) navigating a world in which many are uncomfortable dining out and want to be reassured that restaurants are safe.
A recent poll indicated that just 50.9 percent of consumers plan to dine out as much as they did before the pandemic after restaurants reopen, and 45.9 percent plan to do so less frequently. It also revealed that most guests hope restaurants will have personal protective equipment (PPE) on hand: 14.1 percent expect staff to wear gloves; 24 percent expect them to wear masks; and 61.9 percent want workers wearing both.
QSRs’ first steps when reopening their locations have been upgrading dine-in areas and stepping up employee safety measures to reassure customers, explained Ray Wiley, CEO at Dayton, Ohio-based Hot Head Burritos. The Mexican food chain operates 77 locations in eight states as well as 35 Rapid Fired Pizza restaurants.
“The most important thing is to let customers know we are very focused on food safety and not having [the] spread of germs,” he said.
Hot Head Burritos has invested about $500 per store on safety measures such as curbside signs that help direct customers picking up orders. The chain has also purchased masks and other supplies for workers and installed plexiglass sneeze guards that are twice as big as previous ones.
“The biggest challenge was enlarging the sneeze guards to protect our employees and customers,” he said. “We received a lot of positive comments from our customers, who were thankful we had taken those steps and said they felt more comfortable coming into our stores.”
QSRs operate under strict public health sanitation codes, and they are accommodating social distancing measures for their dine-in operations in various ways. Hot Head Burritos locations display signs on every other table notifying customers that said table is closed to promote social distancing, effectively halving restaurants’ seating capacities. Condiments have been removed from dine-in areas, and employees must sanitize surfaces every two hours and take and report their temperatures at the beginning of their shifts.
Expediting Guest Recovery
Honest customer feedback can be critical to improving customers’ experiences at QSRs as restaurants reopen and invite consumers into reconfigured dine-in areas. Hot Head Burritos relied heavily on social media marketing efforts as many states rolled out stay-at-home orders. The QSR’s customer service team processes feedback from its service line, website and social media pages before communicating information to its supervisory teams.
“These efforts are imperative to the success of our companies because listening to the customer gives our team perspective and direction,” Wiley said. “Whether good or bad feedback, we always walk away knowing that we learned something to make us better and to give the customer an excellent experience in the future.”
Restaurants must work to retain customers who have had unsatisfactory experiences. Face masks are considered essential for restaurant workers during the pandemic, and if a customer notices a Hot Head Burritos employee not wearing one, for example, management consults with that employee to learn about the incident, explain proper safety protocol and correct the problem, Wiley explained. The chain will often send customers who have had such experiences cards for free burritos or other items to encourage them to return.
“If [customers] have a bad experience, we try to have them come back in,” Wiley said. “We’ll give them something to give us a second chance to try to please them.”
Hot Head Burritos receives abundant customer feedback from comments on its social media pages, emails and customer calls. It then reviews the data to spot frictions before trying to address them.
QSRs’ feedback responses can help them cultivate long-term loyalty and instill trust, especially among consumers worried about catching COVID-19. One major concern Hot Head Burritos’ customers revealed in recent feedback was their discomfort with walking into restaurants to pick up orders after the pandemic spread and lockdowns were ordered.
“We eliminated that point of friction by creating curbside pickup,” Wiley said. “Since people didn’t want to come into the store as much, we emphasized the drive-thru or pickup window in the stores that have those available. Currently, 95 percent of the chain’s stores provide pickup service to customers.”
There has been an industrywide shift to food delivery and curbside pickup. Industry experts were observing these trends before the pandemic hit, but the pandemic has accelerated their adoption. Pickup has become a top choice, with more than 90 percent of customers choosing to carry out food even as restaurants reopen, Wiley said.
Consumers have concerns about dining out, but evidence suggests there is still significant customer demand for dine-in restaurant service. Many are eager to resume some of their pre-pandemic activities after months spent in relative isolation.
“I think people are relaxing and that every week they are becoming more and more comfortable,” Wiley said.
Consumers cautious of COVID-19 have been reluctant to head to QSRs, especially when it comes to sitting down at tables again. This appears to be changing, however, and the restaurants that implement safety measures that can reassure customers stand to retain their loyalty now and well after the pandemic passes.