The COVID-19 pandemic has had a ripple effect on the food industry. Food businesses have had to adjust their business models, with many adapting to take-out and delivery models due to temporary shutdowns. Food businesses have also had to incorporate big changes such as physical distancing measures, personal protective equipment (PPE) and new cleaning and sanitizing protocols in order to adhere to COVID-19 safety requirements. But what food businesses may not be paying enough attention to is another big change: new types of customers that have emerged due to the pandemic.
The pandemic is having significant effects on the behaviour of customers, and food businesses need to ensure that they are catering to these new types of customers. This is the best way to ensure that customers are satisfied and keep coming back.
It's wise for food business owners and managers to spend time thinking about the different types of customers that are now frequenting the business during the pandemic. It is important to identify what the different types are, and make sure that all types are being catered to as they will have different expectations, needs and opinions.
Let’s take a look at the different types of customers:
Ready to dine-in again
These customers are the first ones through the door when food businesses are able to open for indoor dining. They enjoy the social aspect of dining out and may use restaurants to meet up with friends, family or even colleagues. These are supportive customers that are important for food businesses to cater to, especially during the pandemic when business is slower than usual.
Food businesses can cater to these customers by making them feel welcomed and valued. Providing special menu items or discounts on traditional favourites for only dine-in meals will help these customers see how much they are appreciated. Making these customers feel valued also comes from top-notch customer service. Front-of-house staff must ensure that indoor diners are welcomed warmly, seated promptly and served with care. These customers will continue to come back and dine indoors if they can see how much they are appreciated.
It is also important for food businesses to ensure that all COVID-19 safety protocols are implemented consistently and correctly. This demonstrates to dine-in customers that the food business is taking the pandemic seriously. These customers will appreciate knowing that they are in good hands and as safe as possible.
Excited but hesitant
These customers are the ones who enjoyed dining out before the pandemic and want to do it again, but are a bit hesitant. These may be people who frequented the food business before, but they may have personal reasons for why they are not quite comfortable to do so again (e.g. high-risk family members at home, high-risk themselves, work with high-risk people). It's important for food businesses to cater to these customers by providing a clean, physically distant and comfortable atmosphere.
Even though these customers may be hesitant to dine indoors, they are likely comfortable supporting their local food business by dining outdoors. Outdoor dining options, like patios, are ideal for these types of customers and if permitted by local health authorities, is an option that should be considered. The pandemic has forced many businesses to get creative and even explore year-round outdoor dining options in order to continue outdoor dining during the cold winter months.
If considering outdoor dining as an option, food businesses should ensure that all COVID-19 safety measures are in place on patios and other outdoor dining areas as required by local health authorities. These customers will appreciate knowing that they can dine at the food business and still be as safe as possible. Food businesses can also inform these customers that the same COVID-19 safety protocols are in place inside, which may make them feel comfortable and entice them to dine indoors next time.
Only comfortable with take-out and delivery
These customers want to support their local food businesses but are not ready to dine out just yet. They are also probably the ones that have been ordering from the food business even during temporary closures. It is important for food businesses to recognize and acknowledge that even though these customers are not dining at the premises, they are still supporting the food business with their take-out and delivery orders.
Food businesses can ensure that these customers know they are valued by providing an easy ordering experience. Ensure that customers can order take-out and delivery effortlessly and be sure that they are acknowledged in some way that makes them feel special. Providing discount coupons to those ordering take-out or delivery is a great way to show that their business is valued. It is also essential that staff members who take the order, hand over the take-out meal or deliver the order to the customer have excellent customer service. These customers will continue to order from a food business if they have a pleasant experience with the staff members they interact with.
These customers will also be comforted by seeing that the food business is following COVID-19 safety protocols such as physical distancing between staff and customers, using contactless payment, zero contact pick-up/deliveries and using personal protective equipment. By letting these customers see that the food business is following protocols, they may start feeling ready to dine out again. Food businesses can also let these customers know that the patio or outdoor space is open for dining through promotional materials placed in take-out/delivery bags. These customers may be willing to try dining outside if they know it is an option.
Sticking to home-cooked meals
These customers are the ones that food businesses have lost during the pandemic. For personal reasons they are not ready to order take-out, get food delivered or dine out at a food business right now. However, it is important that food businesses do not forget about these customers. Many of these customers are probably missing their favourite local eateries, but are unwilling to take the risk. Even though they are not dining from a food business now, it does not mean they won’t order from a food business in the future or partake in indoor dining again.
Food businesses can reach out to these customers by using their website, social media and traditional marketing such as fliers to keep them informed about the business. These customers will want to know that the food business is following COVID-19 safety protocols and what steps are being taken to ensure safety for staff and customers. Food businesses can reassure these potential customers by communicating the protocols that are in place for take-out and delivery, dining outdoors on a patio and dining indoors. If customers can learn and see what is being done in the food business to keep people safe, they will be more willing to try take-out, delivery or possibly even sit on a patio. The key is to demonstrate what is being done and put their minds at ease. It is also important to let these customers know that they are valued and important, even if they are not ready to eat out of the home just yet.