- As of late April, 60% of consumers are comfortable dining out — the highest level since the company started tracking this sentiment last spring, according to research from Morning Consult. The percentage of consumers who said they would feel safe dining out never exceeded 42% in all of 2020, but that number has been rising steadily in 2021.
- Comfort levels with outdoor dining remains higher than indoor dining. Sixty-eight percent of U.S. adults said they would feel safe eating outside, compared to 57% who said so about indoor dining. The gap has been persistent this year.
- Seventy-three percent of consumers think they'll feel comfortable dining out within the next six months. Forty-six percent of Americans say they are excited to dine out again, including 51% of baby boomers and 47% of millennials.
The number of consumers willing to dine out has increased materially since January, when HealthCare Insider found just 26% of consumers said they'd feel comfortable dining indoors. Diners' long-term predictions about their comfort with eating out are also much rosier than they were in December, when 52% said they would feel safe returning to physical stores in less than six months, according to Constant Contact research.
That optimism is permeating throughout the industry. During the Cheesecake Factory's Q1 earnings call on April 28, President David Gordon said the chain "saw incredible pent-up demand for the experiential dining occasions" as the nation's vaccine rollout progressed.
David Deno, CEO of Bloomin' Brands, also discussed a high level of pent-up demand during his company's Q1 call on April 29, adding such demand could "provide meaningful and rapid growth opportunities for this business on the other side" of the pandemic.
As of May 3, more than 31% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated CDC guidance says fully vaccinated people can gather in small groups indoors, however that guidance is a bit murky on dining out. Dr. Anthony Fauci told Business Insider, for example, that he wouldn't "go into an indoor, crowded place where people are not wearing masks," even though he is vaccinated.
Just as vaccinations were ramping up in March, the CDC released a study showing illnesses and death rates from COVID-19 are spreading faster in jurisdictions that allow on-site restaurant dining. This research echoed a similar study conducted by the agency in September, perhaps creating a bit of consumer trepidation to dine out.
While some trepidation remains, warmer weather may provide an additional lift as operators leverage expanded outdoor dining. Nearly 60% of casual operators have added outdoor dining since the start of the pandemic. Consumers want outdoor dining to continue being available in a post-pandemic environment, according to research from Constant Contact.
Off-premise business is likely to stick around as well. The Morning Consult research finds that one-third of consumers said they dine in at a restaurant at least once a week, which is similar to the number of Americans who order delivery. Forty-two percent say they order takeout once a week. These off-premise numbers have remained steady through April even as the comfort level with dining out has increased and restrictions have eased. This stickiness has been reflected on some earnings calls, including Chipotle, which yielded record sales for its digital business despite the fact that dining rooms are reopening.
"I think it just demonstrates the power of both access modes, meaning the in-restaurant dining access mode and the digital access mode," CEO Brian Niccol said during the company's Q1 call. "Consumer sentiment is definitely one where they want to get back out to socialize and get back into the dining rooms and have that in-dining experience."