The cost of the coronavirus crisis to the restaurant industry is still being calculated. But key to the sector getting back on its feet will be the attitudes and behaviours of diners. Without their custom, there will be no industry. So what they think and feel will be vital going forward.
The Fine Dining Lovers Coronavirus Survey for Diners offers an intriguing insight into how our readership of gourmets and gourmands have dealt with lockdown, and how they feel about eating out again.
The survey was anonymous, but of the 7,917 people who responded, 73% were female, 38% resided in big cities, and the vast majority (some 85%) were living in Italy, France, the UK, the US, Canada, Mexico and Australia. Crucially, 88% were experiencing full lockdown measures, which meant that restaurants in their home countries were placed under opening restrictions, and movement outside the home was limited. Here’s how they reacted to the new restaurant landscape.
What did they miss?
Since 33% of respondents normally ate out daily, or several times a week, not being able to go to their favourite restaurants was more than an inconvenience. But what did they miss most? Since 40% missed the social aspect of dining out, and only 28% missed trying something new, it suggests that restaurants are more than the sum of their parts, even to lovers of fine dining. Friends, it seems, are more important than the food.
Delivery or take-away?
Before the lockdown, most participants were not keen on delivery or take-away, yet perhaps unsurprisingly, a quarter of them now use these services more than before. Only in France, the country that invented the modern restaurant, did delivery not increase. Meanwhile, 54% of Canadians and 49% of Americans chose delivery because they didn’t want to cook at home, compared to only 30% of Italians. Just 17% of Italians said they would have more food delivered after the lockdown ends.
In France, 51% didn’t use take-away services during the lockdown, and 19% used it less often than before. Once again, it was North Americans that preferred not to cook, while 39% in the US used take-away services more often than before – no wonder Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago was able to pivot successfully to a new business model. Overall, 23% chose take-away because they missed their favourite restaurant, perhaps out of loyalty, and 39% just wanted to treat themselves. At times like these, who could blame them?
60% of respondents said they learned new skills during lockdown, the main one being baking (40%), which will come as no surprise to anyone following the current sourdough trend. Some 39% learned new cooking techniques, while a third brushed up on reducing food waste. 26% took recipes and cooking tips from chefs, which explains the popularity of online cooking shows such as Massimo Bottura’s Kitchen Quarantine.
What will convince diners to return to restaurants when the lockdown restrictions are lifted? In a word: safety. Overall, 69% said they would rely on safety measures taken by restaurants, while half of all respondents said that government safety directives would encourage them to return. Italians and French people trusted their governments the least, and overall only 10% trusted the media to tell them when it’s safe to return.
Some 22% of respondents from the US said they were cautious about returning to restaurants, while at the other end of the scale, only 10% of Australians were worried. Overall, 19% said that they would only return when there is a vaccine and the whole matter was done and dusted. But despite their concerns, most are eager to return to restaurants.
What have we learned?
We’re still sifting through the data, and there will be many further questions to ask. But what we have learned is what we might expect from lovers of fine dining. More than most, they know the restaurant experience is difficult to recreate at home. But they also know that restaurants are about more than just excellent food and professional service. Ambience, atmosphere and social interaction are key. For restaurants to get back to normal, safety is paramount. But so is understanding the behaviour and attitudes of fine diners as we plot a course to a better future for the restaurant industry.