NRN presents Consumer Picks, a data-driven report on customer preference and restaurant brand strength. Data for this report is provided by market research firm Datassential. Find out more about the data here.
At the height of the pandemic, with the country in lockdown, consumer preferences shifted from the usual priorities of taste and convenience to health and safety.
The perception of food safety has long been a factor in why consumers choose one brand over another. But the pandemic exacerbated the importance of restaurant cleanliness as an attribute that now may far outweigh other aspects of hospitality for guests.
Surveying consumers in June — after the shutdown but before all brands had reopened — Datassential asked which brands made diners feel safe, which had high standards for sanitation, and which had the perception of “zero risk.”
Two limited-service and four full-service brands took the lead on safety questions: Chick-fil-A, Così, Cotton Patch Cafe, Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano’s Little Italy and World of Beer.
Chick-fil-A was the leading limited-service brand for two attributes. When asked which brands made guests “feel safe,” 72% said Chick-fil-A. Another 77% agreed with the statement, “I trust that this restaurant chain is sanitizing frequently and to the highest standard.”
Among full-service brands, Cotton Patch Cafe also took the lead on two questions. In response to “I trust this restaurant to keep me safe,” 71% of consumers agreed.
The Grapevine, Texas-based chain also was deemed to have high sanitization standards, in a three-way tie with Cheesecake Factory and Maggiano’s Little Italy at 72%.
Così earned the most votes for making consumers feel the limited-service chain had “almost zero risk.” Among full-service brands, World of Beer won that distinction.
Here’s a look at some of the ways these brands earned consumer trust.
While many customers are still hesitant to eat out at a full-service restaurant, many drive-thru-focused quick-service chains have been thriving through the pandemic. Chick-fil-A was a favorite of consumers going into the pandemic, and the brand also earned love for safety attributes after the shutdown.
Chick-fil-A’s website lists in painstaking detail each of the policies stores have put into effect since March, including handwashing every 60 minutes, outdoor handwashing stations for drive-thru employees, new packaging for select items that allow more limited person-to-person contact, serving meals in to-go bags instead of on trays, and cleaning high-touch surfaces every 60 minutes.
Select restaurants that have reopened for indoor dining have also installed plexiglass shields on countertops, signage that details their safety guidelines, and have closed some seating areas to enforce social distancing.
For drive-thru orders, Chick-fil-A has designated select employees as runners to take contactless orders and payment (via tablets) as customers enter the line.
Cotton Patch Cafe
Grapevine, Texas-based, 56-unit (with 49 currently in operation) family-dining restaurant Cotton Patch Cafe — which boasts “a culture of kindness” — scored highly with customers in terms of overall trust and sanitation.
As one of the top-ranking full-service brands in the trust category (71%) and one of the highest-scoring brands in sanitation (72%), the regional chain has earned consumer trust by taking simple but effective steps.
From frequent employee testing and temperature checks to careful social distancing inside the restaurants — though Cotton Patch CEO Mazen Albatarseh prefers to refer to it as “physical distancing,” since they’re still trying to encourage a safely social atmosphere — Cotton Patch Cafe has been very thorough for a chain of its size.
“We have gone out of our way on all fronts and I can tell you our mantra has been safety and security at any cost,” said Albatarseh.
The most important aspect of their safety plan has been open communication, he said.
“We’ve been very upfront with our guests, letting them know exactly what we’re doing to show how much care goes into everything,” Albatarseh said. “We ensure that guests understand that we do take care of our team members […] on our website and we have signs in the cafes.”
The Cheesecake Factory
The Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based casual-dining chain tied for the number one ranking full-service brand in the sanitization category with Cotton Patch Cafe and Maggiano’s Little Italy — all with 72% of diners saying the chains were “sanitizing frequently and to the highest standard.”
Although The Cheesecake Factory’s dining rooms were closed in the spring, by July, nearly three-quarters of the chain’s restaurants were reopen for business. The company said in an earnings call in July that they were seeing wait times of more than 20 minutes on the weekends from customers who “were eager” to return to indoor dining.
Like several other restaurant brands, The Cheesecake Factory hired dedicated sanitization staff whose only job is to sanitize the restaurant’s surfaces regularly in high-contact areas. They also provide hand sanitizers in restrooms and in lobby areas and pay attention to small details like allowing guests to pack their own takeout bags and sanitizing pens after usage.
The large size of the restaurant units — between 7,500- and 10,000-square feet — has also been a distinct advantage when it comes to customer comfort levels and social distancing capabilities.
Maggiano’s Little Italy
Brinker International, Inc.-owned Maggiano’s Little Italy, with 53 locations, focused on to-go and delivery through the pandemic. Maggiano’s did not close any restaurants through the crisis and began to gradually reopen dining rooms as local mandates allowed.
“We practice enhanced safety measures whether guests are in the dining room, patio or ordering to-go or delivery,” a Brinker spokesperson said. “Because of our large footprints and private dining business, we have tremendous flexibility in where and how we seat parties to be safely apart.”
When it comes to sanitization, Maggiano’s has upped the ante from the standard COVID procedure of sanitizing surfaces every 60 minutes to sanitizing every 30 minutes, and they are also specifically using disinfectant that has been shown to be effective against COVID-19. Disinfecting stations are also available at various points of each restaurant for both guests and employees to use.
World of Beer
In a post-COVID world, sometimes it takes innovation, as well as attention to detail, to gain consumers’ trust. Tampa Bay, Fla.-based, 53-unit craft beer and restaurant chain World of Beer Bar & Kitchen was the number one full-service restaurant in the category of risk assessment, with 61% of consumers feeling that there is almost no risk when entering the restaurant. The company also scored highly in the overall trust category, with 69% of consumers trusting World of Beer to keep them safe while they dined there.
World of Beer’s level of consumer trust starts with their communication style. They posted a timeline of COVID-19 updates on their website, including a safety video that demonstrates how they’re keeping their employees and customers safe. Featured safety procedures include wellness checks and temperature screenings before each employee shift, personal protective equipment, socially distanced tables and open-air patios, as well as frequent bathroom sanitization checks and hand sanitizer stations throughout the restaurants.
Some of their COVID-era procedures include whimsical gimmicks like the 24-foot beer flight that follows social distancing guidelines by keeping beers six-feet apart.
Despite filing for bankruptcy just before the pandemic for the second time in four years, fast-casual sandwich chain Così is doing well with consumer trust and confidence. According to Datassential’s survey data, Così is number one in consumer risk assessment, with 61% of consumers surveyed feeling that there would be almost zero risk when entering this restaurant.
As the fast-casual chain makes the transition from a fast-casual sandwich shop to a catering company, customer risk could be low simply because of the fact that catering customers would not need to enter the restaurant to receive a catering order.