Coronavirus Toll on Restaurant Sentiment, as Swift and Severe as on Restaurant Sales

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As restaurant sales fell more than 60%, guest sentiment followed suit. In fact, much like sales, the year over year drops in sentiment reported for April are the largest since Black Box Intelligence™ started analyzing guest online trends.

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The restaurant industry downturn created by the COVID-19 pandemic was both swift and severe. Restaurant same-store sales and traffic declined by 55% year over year during March, by far the worst month for the industry in many decades according to Black Box Intelligence™. However, as bad as results were in April, it seems restaurant sales bottomed out at the end of March, with same-store sales dropping by 67% during the last two weeks. At the beginning of May, as some states begin to reopen their dining rooms, we are already seeing better results.

As sales fell for restaurants, so did guest sentiment among their guests. In fact, much like sales, the year over year drops in sentiment reported for April are the largest since Black Box Intelligence started analyzing guest online mentions. Positive guest sentiment based on restaurant food dropped 12 percentage points year over year during April. On average, 44% of all food mentions were positive during the first three months of the year, but only 34% of all food mentions in April were classified as positive. This is not surprising given that the vast majority of the industry was operating under off-premise only during the month, and guest sentiment is typically much lower for off-premise offerings.

But the biggest drop in guest sentiment was related to restaurant service. While about half of all restaurant mentions related to service were classified as positive during the first quarter of the year, April saw only 32% positive service mentions. Again, as the industry shifted away from dine-in, many of the service-related mentions were now based on the timeliness and smoothness of off-premise transactions as well as guest being very aware of cleanliness practices when interacting with restaurants.

There seems to be a lot of pent up demand for dining out at restaurants. According to a recent survey of 1,000 consumers by Lisa W. Miller & Associates, 87% of them said that dining out was the first thing that they wanted to do once the restrictions were lifted. It was also listed as the activity that gives respondents the most joy. As restrictions get eased at the state level, as well as many consumers simply getting tired of cooking and eating at home, online chatter based on restaurants has increased substantially over the last two weeks.

Just in the first thirteen days of May, the total number of online restaurant mentions is already 79% of the total number of mentions recorded for the entire month of May. Furthermore, the data suggests it is the possibility of dining out that may be fueling those online conversations. Analyzing the data for Texas and Georgia, two of the biggest states that started reopening their restaurants the earliest, the relative increase in the number of restaurant mentions escalated even further.

So what are guests talking about when mentioning restaurants online? During April the number one topic was food, followed by service. This makes sense considering that the vast majority of restaurant interactions during the month were off-premise and thus, the quality and appearance of the food when finally consumed was central to the experience while service was slightly less present in the transaction.

But during the first two weeks of May we are already seeing service becoming the number one topic discussed, with food taking the second spot. As restaurants start reopening guests are once again becoming vigilant on service, especially as it relates to meeting their expectations regarding keeping them safe when visiting a restaurant.

Regional Performance

The shock to the restaurant industry’s sales has also brought some interesting results when it comes to guest sentiment at the local level. Although the typical result each month was for Orlando, FL to top the list among major markets as the one with the most positive restaurant sentiment based on most of the attributes of the restaurant experience, Orlando was the most positive DMA based only on food and ambiance during April.

Meanwhile, what seems to be a new trend is guests in areas of the country where some of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred rallying around restaurants and topping the country in intent to return. Three of the four DMAs with most positive intent to return guest sentiment in April were Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. The latter was the market with the highest intent to return in March as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases was growing rapidly last month.

However, this does not seem to be the case for all guests across the country. In Seattle, the epicenter of where the outbreak began about two months ago, guests are the least positive in terms of their intent to return to those restaurants they are mentioning online. Perhaps the initial rally around restaurants may wear off after some time passes and the realities of dealing with the complexities of operating restaurants under this new environment set in.

The Restaurant Guest Satisfaction Snapshot™ is produced by Black Box Intelligence™. Guest Intelligence is tracking over 192 brands to benchmark customer satisfaction and is the only online tool that integrates with operational performance data to validate the impact on financial performance. The algorithm determining ranking brands is based on sentiment and determined by Black Box Guest Intelligence. Brands included in this monthly snapshot must have a total of at least 250 mentions for the month. Restaurants must have a minimum number of units to be eligible as well. DMA rankings consider only the largest 25 areas.

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Sarah Higgins
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