guestXM – by Black Box Intelligence

How Restaurant Guest Conversation Shifted Since Start of Pandemic

Consumers are eager to return to restaurants but many are hesitant to take the first step. They don’t want to hear about how restaurants have improved their cleanliness processes. They want to see it.

Key Themes in Social Chatter: A Coronavirus Timeline

Zach Stanford, Director, Insights at Black Box Intelligence

Online guest feedback for restaurants has been dominated by COVID-19 chatter. Yet, the conversation has evolved as consumers have sought to process the rapidly changing environment and how it has impacted their dining habits. Studying these emergent themes can help restaurants understand the consumer state of mind.

This visual highlights that while several themes have had staying power, there have been clear spikes where certain themes have surfaced to depict what mattered most to consumers during the period.

These sub-themes can be grouped into three broader states.

In March, fear of the unknown brought out the worst in some restaurant employees and consumers who felt threatened by each other. Once the severity of the crisis set in, and consumers realized that their beloved restaurants were just fighting to stay alive, the conversation took on a more positive tone of support. Now we are entering the third stage of reopening and it looks like the pendulum has swung somewhere in the middle: guests are longing to bring restaurants back into their lives but many are still afraid of the risks they can’t control.

It is a critical moment for restaurants to meet guest expectations as they are nervously testing the waters. Guests are fragile right now and it is “one strike, you’re out” if a restaurant betrays that trust.

February 1 – February 28: Racial Profiling

On March 4th, NPR shared that as the coronavirus spread from China to other countries, anti-Asian discrimination followed closely behind. This trend was unfortunately evident in restaurant reviews during this period with Asian American guests posting that wait staff avoided them or turned them away because of ethnic/racial origin. One consumer ended a review of their experience with a call to action that all restaurant personnel need racial bias training.

“… Racist and ignorant folks. We got turned down for a reservation by the look of our skin. Just because we’re Asian and not even Chinese with the whole thing about coronavirus in the news. Ignorant workers and management. All restaurant personnel seriously need racial bias training.”

  • Twitter, 2/2/2020

True colors shine forth in challenging times and restaurants that are not built on a culture of service inclusiveness will lose guests.

March 1 – March 16: Fears of Getting Sick

After the first confirmed COVID-19 death in the US occurred on February 28, “coronavirus” mentions started popping up in restaurant reviews from concerned guests around the country.

“… There’s a coronavirus going around and it’s already on the west coast of FL. Please tell your employees to cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing or stay home.”

  • Receipt survey, 3/2/2020

Restaurants had a small window of time to overhaul their safety processes and cleanliness communication before the tone of these comments turned from a polite “please” to an angry condemnation.

“… This place is terrible. Bad service to customers. Under the fear of this coronavirus. I saw their employees don’t cover their mouths when they cough”

  • Yelp, 3/24/2020

Some restaurants were able to step up to the challenge and rewarded for their intentionality. Upscale full-service restaurants were among the fastest to adapt, exemplified by this review left for an upscale casual chain:

“Sara explained how COVID-19 has changed the way meals are served, for the safety of the patrons, in a way that put us at ease and made us feel that P.F. Chang’s was doing everything it could to make our dining a safe and enjoyable experience.”

  • Yelp, 3/15/2020

March 16 – March 30: Impact on Restaurant Employees

By March 16th, the reality started to set in that many restaurants would be forced to close their dining rooms. As restaurants began to grapple with consequences, hard staffing decisions were made. According to Black Box Workforce Intelligence™, as of the first week in April, 67% of restaurant chains had furloughed staff and 22% announced layoffs. Disgruntled employees and activists voiced their opinions and sought answers on Twitter.

“do you have any plans to help your employees who have been laid off?”

  • Twitter, 3/19/2020

The sentiment surrounding this theme was largely negative, with complaints ranging from restaurants not providing PTO to withholding paychecks to laying off staff. There were positive moments, however, such as the viral tweet where the CEO of Texas Roadhouse announced he would be giving up his salary for a year to pay front-line employees.

March 24 – April 27: Supporting Restaurants

It didn’t take long for consumers to realize that many of their favorite restaurants were in dire straits and the supportive posts started coming in. Whereas ordering takeout might have been stereotyped as an act of laziness before the pandemic, it became an act of civic virtue in April of 2020.

On Tuesday, March 24th, a coalition of restaurants urged consumers to order a meal on takeout to show support for the restaurant community. Many consumers were eager to participate and they shared their experiences with the tag #TheGreatAmericanTakeout. This campaign infused restaurant chatter with positivity; negative posts accounted for less than 2% during this period.

With restaurant dining rooms closed across the nation, consumers started creating new takeout and delivery habits. As of the week ending April 20, mentions of “coronavirus” in restaurant reviews had fallen 87% from peak mentions, but the industry was still receiving hundreds daily.

The biggest theme in coronavirus restaurant reviews during April was “off-premise” as consumers posted how COVID-19 was changing their habits to rely more on these channels.

“I rarely used delivery services before COVID. In the past two weeks, I’ve had food and liquor delivered to my spot.”

  • Twitter, 4/12/2020

Throughout all of this, restaurants were adapting and delivering innovative solutions such as offering “Quarantine Kits” that included toilet paper and other staples, launching virtual brands on delivery apps, and turning restaurants into pop-up grocery markets. Consumers noticed and started posting their appreciation:

“Restaurants are adapting as the outbreak continues. Subway has started selling grocery staples to consumers!”

  • Twitter, 4/16/2020

“Thank you @dominos for the free pizza! All of us nurses on the COVID unit here appreciate it!”

  • Twitter, 4/22/2020

“I LOVE this Perkins! Besides the menu food, I have been buying all my toilet paper, paper towels, and some grocery items here…they are HELPING OUR COMMUNITY during the
COVID crisis.”

  • Google, 4/29/2020

April 28 – June 1: Reopening Expectations

The term “reopen” started to emerge in restaurant reviews in late April and continued through May as states developed unique strategies on how to do this. Guests have extremely high expectations of how overt restaurants should be in sanitizing restaurants to ensure safety.

“Tables are not being seated 6ft apart and the server was wiping down different tables with the same cloth. Not a good COVID-19 rule experience for a reopening of dining area.”

  • Google, 5/1/2020

Using the same cloth for wiping down tables is probably not something a restaurant would have been dinged for a year ago. Guests expect and want to see the rules rewritten.

One of the biggest themes present in recent restaurant reviews is the topic of masks. And there is a clear message: they aren’t for show. Guests expect them to be worn properly. This review provides a cautionary tale on how easy it is to lose a guest if actions do not match the brand messaging.

“I will never go back. The website said the employees would be wearing masks, gloves, etc. I used to go once or twice a week for lunch, but haven’t since the whole COVID-19 pandemic started. I went today because I read on the site they were taking extra measures. NOPE. The girl behind the counter, no mask, no gloves, took my cash, then without washing her hands made my beverage. As soon as I got to my car I wiped everything with a wipe, but still could not bring myself to drink it. Do they not train these kids.”

  • Google, 5/20/2020

Key Takeaway For Restaurants

Consumers are eager to return to restaurants but many are hesitant to take the first step. They don’t want to hear about how restaurants have improved their cleanliness processes. They want to see it. They want overt cleanliness. And the restaurants that can provide this will be the ones that win.

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