As the COVID-19 virus has continued for what seems like an eternity, many are feeling a glimmer of hope as the light at the end of the pandemic seems within reach, however, sadly, the restaurant industry may be set to face permanent changes. As a waitress, I have noticed a trend of dwindling in-restaurant sales paired with a steady takeout business. Our customers have been surprisingly composed of an older clientele. I recently waited on a mother-daughter duo. The daughter voiced concerns about her mother’s continued habit to go out. The mother informed me that she had no intention of taking her daughter’s advice and staying in as she had little worries about the virus.
After hearing this conversation, I was interested to learn more about generational dining habits. I am 25 years old and have noticed that the millennials age group fears going out to eat, while the older generations (who are at higher risk) have continued to go out.
In a study released by the National Restaurant Association, 90% of Baby Boomers “say that they are not eating on-premises at restaurants as often as they would like.” Whereas, in looking at younger generations like Millennials, only 75% believe that they are not eating out as much as they would like. I researched and interviewed various people in each generation to learn about their dining trends and expectation changes since COVID-19.
Debbie is 57 years old. Before COVID-19, the mother of two dined out at least two or three times per week. While she did not leave home initially, her fears quickly subsided, and “by Mother’s Day, we didn’t care anymore,” she said. Debbie has tried to resume her normal activities as much as possible.
As the COVID-19 cases continue to climb, I asked Debbie if she may refrain from eating out. “I do not have any concerns. I feel that the restaurants we have been going to have been following the guidelines, seating people apart, enforcing masks, and cleaning.” The National Restaurant Association found that 60% of baby boomers ordered takeout for dinner during the week of October 30th. Debbie has not found herself ordering any takeout. She remarked, “I prefer my food hot and when I get it at the table. I don’t like taking it home. It’s just not the same.”
84% of Gen Xers believe they are not eating out at a restaurant as much as they would like. According to Gordon Food Service, Gen X typically earn the highest income in a household, thus giving them more power when it comes to dining decisions.
Kathryn is a 42-year-old mother of four. Before COVID-19, Kathryn either ate out or purchased takeout around four times a month. Since the pandemic, “We are not dining out as much as we used to,” she said. While her change in dining habits is not caused by fear of the virus, she believes that dining in a restaurant is “not the same experience.”
While Kathryn has refrained from dining out with her family, she believes that her dining habits won’t change, but that COVID-19 gave people nearly an entire year to learn how to cook. She thinks that people will change their dining habits permanently and may be reminded, “oh my gosh, I spend a ton on takeout.”
That said, 58% of Millennials describe themselves as foodies (USA Today). Mia is a 25-year-old college student. Before COVID, her dining habits rotated between cooking meals at home or doing takeout at school. Mia has not dined out since October as she worries about contracting the virus herself or spreading it to loved ones.
Abby and Caleb are a couple who have gone through many dining changes together since the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, Abby ate lunch out every day. She looked forward to her daily lunch break which was spent dining at a local restaurant with coworkers. However, when she found herself working from home, her habits quickly changed. She explained, “I started working out and eating healthy. Now that I am aware of what I eat and put into my body; I would probably eat out with my coworkers only twice a week when we go back to working in the office. I will be prepping my meals much more.” In addition to the healthy changes, Abby has noticed a large financial difference and has “saved a lot of money,” she added.
The young couple has continued to dine out on occasion but does so safely. Before the pandemic they never ordered takeout. However, to support their local businesses, they have started ordering from their favorite spots at least once or twice per week. While Caleb and Abby remain hopeful about the future, they plan on committing to their new healthier lifestyle. “We will treat ourselves, but we will be more cautious about what we are ordering,” they added.
Tori is a 19-year-old college student. Before the pandemic, she went out to eat with her friends very frequently. However, once everything shut down, she started cooking much more at home than she ever had. Tori has noticed that since restaurants have reopened, her parents remain hesitant to go out. However, she goes out to eat with her friends if the restaurants are adhering to CDC guidelines. “I feel safe going out because I get tested every three weeks for work. I prefer to eat at places that are not as crowded,” she said.
Tori thinks that once COVID-19 subsides and the restrictions lift, her pre-pandemic habits will resume. However, she hopes some of the CDC guidelines remain intact. “It makes me uncomfortable that people used to cook my food without a mask,” she said. She hopes that the added cleaning and sanitation efforts will also remain.
What can your restaurant do to satisfy the generations?
Make sure your restaurant is following CDC guidelines. You want to make sure guests feel safe and comfortable with their decision to dine at your restaurant.
Consider adding an easy online order, pay, and tip system. From the Baby Boomer to the Gen Zer that I interviewed, all are comfortable using an online ordering system. In Millennial Abby’s area, nearly none of the restaurants use online ordering. While she has used it in the past, she did not use it much during the pandemic but believes it “would make things easier.” Baby Boomer Debbie has used online payments for takeout and in-restaurant dining. “Either way it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Some restaurants now have digital menus. I think they are pretty cool.” Online ordering is appealing to all generations and will help your restaurants takeout and in-restaurant dining operations.