Mask On, Eyes Up: Summer 2020 Restaurant Industry Trends

By Sean Jafar

For the second episode of our Simply Smarter webinar series, Datassential president and Haiku master Jack Li andSenior Manager of Syndicated Research Sean Jafar shared insights on how consumer behavior has changed in recent months, what restaurant reopenings (and closings) look like, and why innovation is more critical than ever.


Consumer COVID concerns remain high.

Our collective anxiety was on the decline as states began their first phases of reopening, but that stat jumped back up to 58% in early June as the number of new cases spiked. These concerns impacted eating out behavior, but not as strongly: only 51% of consumers would “definitely avoid eating out,” as opposed to the 58% of consumers who were “definitely concerned.”


It’s likely that while people grew more concerned about the virus, some had already begun eating out again for the first time since March. Not everyone was completely willing to give up their beloved date nights or lunches out after so many months without them.




No shoes, no shirt, no mask, no service.

What does this consumer behavior research mean for the restaurant industry? Below are three insights from our research.


Goodbye fear, hello caution. Consumers are no longer terrified of leaving the house; now, they feel they have more control over protecting their health. Some insights we’ve seen:

  • 56% of consumers say they are being more careful today than they were a month ago.
  • 50% of consumers feel safer eating at independent restaurants versus chains (down from 54% in June and 67% in March).
  • Consumers feel the safest when getting their food from drive-thrus (77%). Outdoor seating was in the middle of the pack (48%), while consumers felt the least safe getting drinks inside at the bar (27%).
  • 83% of consumers think restaurants should have some set of safety rules.
  • Only 31% think that restaurants shouldn’t have regulations, and should leave it to the customers to monitor themselves.
  • 80% of consumers reported they will be more careful to check whether places are actually enforcing safety precautions.


Consumers want rules. Consumers feel the most comfortable when they know that restaurants are implementing a health and safety protocol.


Masks have become politicized—but consumers still want them. Masks are a seemingly political issue, but perhaps only in the media and in politics. Masks aren’t as controversial as you might think: 82% of consumers support a national mask mandate.


Restaurants should not be afraid to enforce mask mandates and other safety protocols for fear that it will deter customers; in fact, failure to do so will likely hurt business.




Restaurants open, and restaurants close.

Datassential has tracked weekly data on the opening and closing of between 600,000 and 700,000 restaurants across the United States and Canada. There were fewer restaurants closed as of July 13 than there were on May 6 in every state—a great sign for the restaurant industry.


During that same 68-day period, there have been 28,013 net restaurant reopenings in the US, a gain of 3.9%. Additionally:

  • 36,301 restaurants have either reopened or opened for the first time (yes, new restaurants are opening!).
  • 8,288 restaurants have closed that were not already closed in the past 68 days.


  May 6 July 13 Change
8.2% of all restaurants 3.3% 11.5%
3.1% 4.5% 7.6%
Closed (Net)
-5.1% +1.2% -3.9%


Consumers crave what they can’t make at home.

To better help us understand how consumer quarantine and post-quarantine taste habits are changing, we recently added some pandemic-specific metrics to our Flavor platform. Questions we added include:

  • Do you prefer to consume this at home or away from home?
  • Do you prefer to make it/get it at home or away from home?
  • How strong is your craving—strong, moderate, or low/none?


Some of the food items that consumers are craving during quarantine include cheeseburgers, steaks, pizza, Asian food, and Mexican food. However, the most interesting insight for operators comes from comparing this metric against the foods people would prefer to eat away from home.


For example, people crave steak, but they can generally make it at home. If consumers are craving sushi, they’ll need the necessary tools (and skills) to create a maki roll—which they’re less likely to have. Compare that to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, one of the least-craveable food items given how simple it is to make at home (be honest—how many did you eat during quarantine?).


Consumers are currently most looking forward to eating cuisines, global entrees, and global appetizers outside the home. After almost six months of little to no restaurant dining, these cravings highlight the very appeal of eating out: trying new, exciting food items we wouldn’t make for ourselves.


There’s a correlation between the foods people want to eat away from home and where they are in the Menu Adoption Cycle (MAC). The earlier the food item or ingredient is in the cycle, the more likely people want to eat it away from home. For example, spaghetti is in the ubiquity stage of the MAC; people are fine eating it at home. However, tagliatelle is still in the inception stage, so people are less familiar with it and therefore more likely to want to eat it away from home.


Operators can drive customers through their doors (or to their online ordering portals) with innovative menu items while remaining true to their core business. We call it “fusebiquity”: taking a ubiquitous food item and combining it with new flavors and influences. Think of Korean BBQ sandwiches, or a bowl featuring Middle Eastern ingredients. This is the innovation consumers crave from restaurants, and what they’ve been missing while eating at home.




Innovation is how foodservice wins.

Now is not the time to hit pause on innovation; now is the time to be bold with your menu items. Consumers have been craving food items they cannot make at home, or that they may not even know about yet, and will turn to you for culinary excitement. Your competition isn’t other foodservice operations, but rather people opting to cook at home.


Watch the full webinar recording to catch all the insights we shared, and be sure to register below to attend future webinars.


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