Datassential report analyzes the road ahead for business dining

By Mike Buzalka

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A detailed report incorporating survey results from 502 operators in the business dining market found challenges based on customer counts and safety concerns combined with opportunities in areas like delivery and onsite grocery stores.

A new report from the Datassential research firm on the impact of COVID-19 on business & industry dining operators finds a mixed bag—less stay-at-home limits than commercial restaurants but more fallout from at-home restrictions and an economic downturn.

“As both companies and employees get accustomed to work-from-home policies, it is likely that the number of workers who return to the office will be lower for the foreseeable future (regardless of restrictions),” the report’s intro states. “What’s more, a recession means that companies may have furloughed or laid off workers due to COVID-19, which will also mean real reductions in patrons for B&I.”

The study is based on a survey of 502 operators, including 43 B&I decision-makers, conducted April 30-May 5, along with secondary research. It found a handful (6%) of operators still running at full (including dine-in) service and a little over a quarter (28%) completely shut down for the time being. The rest offer some combination of takeout and delivery.

Unsurprisingly, revenues have taken a massive hit, with nearly half of the surveyed operators (48%) reporting sales down 100%, that is, to zero. Furthermore, while nearly 70% of the surveyed operators plan to reopen onsite dining either as soon as government restrictions are lifted (43%) or within a few weeks of that (26%), the reality is that they will be subject to the reopening policies of the individual businesses they serve, “so even if [government] restrictions are lifted, individual companies may have their own policies that keep workers home longer such as phased in time on-site.”

Here are other major takeaways from the study:

Delivery may be the new normal.

While B&I operators previously sought to bring people together and create community, the goal now may be to serve them in their separate spaces, something made easier by the fact that a B&I customer base is concentrated in a limited footprint, often a single building. “This means that offering delivery or pick-up from a remote location is not a major logistical headache in the way that it might be for restaurants delivering within a five-mile radius,” the report notes. “There is a lot of room for creativity in how B&I food gets from kitchen to customer when that customer is sitting at a desk three floors up.”

Community building takes a back seat.

“Before COVID-19, one of B&I operators’ top goals was to build a company culture and to create an open and connected space for workers,” the report says. “Now that we live in a world with limited human interaction, B&I operators are facing not just a reconsideration of their salad bar, but a shift in the fundamentals of why they do business.” That means employees may be looking at their in-house foodservice more as a way to avoid or limit interactions, such as they might experience if they venture off-site to patronize nearby commercial restaurants.

Menus will be cut back.

More than half (56%) of the surveyed operators said they plan to offer fewer items on their menus, while only 2% said they plan to offer more. “Operators are looking for ways to simplify since there may be limits on staff allowed BOH and they may have supply chain concerns,” the report notes, “but they are also expecting to not need to ramp up to 100% business on day one [because] many expect that workers will be phased in and with those more limited worker numbers will also come more limited foodservice outlets and more limited menu variety.”

Some restrictions may actually benefit in-house dining.

With some sort of entrance screening protocols likely in many places of business, employees, once inside, may think twice before venturing back out and then have to go through the process again. “If coming and going to grab a sandwich from a restaurant around the corner is complicated, then employees may be more likely to stay on-campus (even if they don’t like the food as much),” the report suggests. “This may present a bright spot in an otherwise dark landscape for the B&I operator, who can create craveable menus to compete with food brought from home.”

See ya, self-serve?

As has been suggested by many, self-service stations are one of the most likely casualties of the post-COVID normal. Therefore, what’s a bit surprising in the Datassential survey is not so much that most operators who previously had them planned to discontinue self-serve condiment stations (65%), salad bars (73%) and hot bars (77%), but that those numbers weren’t closer to 100%. In fact, less than half said they’d discontinue self-serve beverage stations (42%) and soda fountains (41%) and only half plan to discontinue self-serve coffee/tea dispensers.

Procurement needs are TBD.

When asked if they plan to return to using the products they did before COVID or whether they will continue with some of the new ones they’ve started buying after the crisis hit, operators are all over the board. However, among the 43 B&I decision-makers subset, there is much more clarity—toward uncertainty—with 77% (as opposed to 42% of all foodservice operators) saying it’s too soon to tell and only 5% (as opposed to 34% of all foodservice operators) saying they will return to their original products.

Seating space takes a seat.

With fewer customers expected to linger in the seating areas, which may be limited by social distancing mandates in any case, operators may look to use that real estate in other ways, such as by setting up their own grocery stores to sell staples to employees. “Operators may look to toilet paper and grocery staples to improve the employee experience and as a creative way to boost employee morale,” the report opines.


This article was originally published on Food Management.