COVID-19 continues to dog guest experiences as the pandemic spans into a third year, and 2022 will continue to see changes. Recent data from Dallas-based analytics firm Black Box Intelligence found that guest sentiment continued to slip, a slide especially deep at limited-service restaurants. Staffing challenges have especially complicated the experience, the firm said.
But David Cantu, recently named CEO of Black Box, sees some positive signs on the horizon.
What has been the pandemic’s impact on the restaurant customer experience?
We've seen a lot of change. … The main factor that we've seen — and we will continue to see — is with restaurants having struggles with turnover, hiring and finding quality talent, we're continuing to see trends on food preparation and sentiment centered around that, with steak temperatures being undercooked or burnt and things of that nature. During the last two quarters, there's been a spike in turnover for hourly back-of-the-house employees in full-service restaurants. In Q3, back-of-the-house turnover was over 7% higher than it was in Q4 of 2019, and we expect this trend to continue on into 2022.
How about pricing?
We do believe that there's going to be a return of value as we see prices continuing to rise with inflation; also there’s the additional costs that people are paying for third-party delivery. We believe that there will be a heavy focus back on discounting. And obviously we expect customers, based on that discounting, may continue to see troubles with some of that food preparation or off-premises ordering that they have. With regards to the off-premises ordering, what we're seeing a lot in the data is many guests are seing incomplete orders to where there's a high degree of food that is ordered and not received, which continues to impact restaurant guests’ intent to return.
What else figures into “value”?
As many of us know, value is just not about the food that you receive but it's about the overall experience of the atmosphere as well as the service. Those struggles with the labor force will definitely continue to have an impact on the overall experience that each of these customers are having, and we expect value to still continue to be an issue going into 2022.
Are there any positive signs in the labor situation?
We will continue to see the workforce come back to the industry as the [wage] rates have become a lot more favorable for the hourly workforce and many brands are fighting to increase those wages. We are expecting that this will start to turn positive in Q1-Q2. There's a lot of technology and a lot of efforts that are going into trying to reduce some of the pain in much of the workforce. We believe the emergence of that technology is going to help alleviate some of that pain with ordering and pay at the table.
How will restaurant operators balance technology with hospitality?
My expectation is the brands that continue to focus on that interaction and guest experience with true hospitality, as opposed to just technology, are the ones that are going to continue to prosper in the future.
How about the workers who have left the restaurant industry?
We've lost some good people that have decided to move on to other industries, but I do think there's going to be an emergence of a completely new workforce in the industry and a fresh new start to coach and develop those team members.
What do see as the biggest change customers will see in their experience in 2022?
I think less is more right now. … Those that are highly focused and can execute at a high degree with a smaller menu, we believe that those are going to see positive returns as opposed to those that are really trying to scale out the menu with the inexperienced workforce.
Anything else you’re expecting for the year ahead?
I happen to be in the best places for trying to determine where trends occurring. I'm in New York City. There's been a lot of concern and turmoil around the vaccination cards. They're required to here in New York City. You can't go to a restaurant without showing your vaccination card. … These restaurants are full to where people feel a little bit safe. There's Plexiglass between everybody. These restaurants are buzzing, and they're fully staffed and there's been some incredible experiences. I would just say I'm excited about getting back to the way things were, getting back to the true hospitality.
Click through the gallery to see customer-experience predictions from restaurant industry experts and Nation’s Restaurant News.
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