Industry News

Consumer demand for carry-out, drive-thru remains high, Acosta report finds

December 2, 2021
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This post is sponsored by Acosta.

Restaurant traffic has begun to bounce back compared to the swift drop-off in early 2020, but the pandemic is having lasting effects on how consumers purchase and consume food away from home, according to Acosta’s The Why? Behind the Dine report. Decreased motivation to cook at home is driving consumers to turn to foodservice outlets, and shoppers are purchasing takeout meals more often than they were before the pandemic. Concerns about safety paired with pent-up demand for unique dining experiences is creating a new landscape that restaurant operators must navigate on the road to recovery, which is made especially rough by staffing and supply chain issues. Read on for more insights from the report.

Demand for off-premises dining is strong

About half (51%) of consumers surveyed by Acosta said they go out to eat when they do not feel like making food at home, and the majority of those who dine out do so at least twice a month. Three out of four consumers said they have recently eaten carry-out, dined at a restaurant and/or eaten prepared foods from the grocery store.

Carry-out, delivery and drive-thru options -- which skyrocketed in popularity last year when many restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms -- have remained popular with consumers even as dine-in traffic rebounds. Twenty-three percent of consumers said they are getting more meals from the drive-thru than they were before the pandemic, and 27% of consumers said the same about carry-out.

Safety, quality are consumers’ top priorities

Continued concerns about health and safety are driving many diners to choose takeout options over dining at a restaurant. About half of consumers said they feel more at ease dining out now that vaccines are readily available, but when COVID-19 infections rise in their area, almost 50% of those surveyed said they will either stop going out to eat entirely or switch to carry-out or delivery. 

A survey conducted by The National Restaurant Association found similar results, with six in 10 adults saying they changed their restaurant use due to the rise in the Delta variant of the coronavirus, according to the Association’s Mid-Year State of the Restaurant Industry Update report released in August. 

Consumers are also giving more thought to safety precautions when choosing a restaurant, whether they are dining in or ordering takeout. More than half of diners said they want restaurants to continue with COVID-19 safety precautions, including mask requirements for kitchen staff and servers, while 75% of diners want tamper-proof packaging when ordering takeout or delivery.

In addition to safety, food quality and variety are key considerations for consumers when choosing where to dine. Food quality was the most important factor among those surveyed by Acosta, beating out price, location and service, regardless of whether they were selecting a quickserve, casual dining or upscale casual restaurant. 

Restaurants are on the road to recovery

While safety and food quality are must-haves for consumers when choosing a restaurant, hunger for new and unique dining experiences is also influencing where people eat. Shoppers are increasingly interested in experiential dining options, Acosta found, with 28% of those surveyed saying they have recently ordered from a food truck, 23% saying they have recently ordered from a pop-up restaurant and 19% saying they have recently ordered from a ghost kitchen.

These types of unique offerings have proliferated during the pandemic, and have helped keep many restaurants afloat during these challenging times.

“It is no secret that COVID-19 upended foodservice, but the industry is expected to rebound within the next three to four years,” said John Goodman, CEO of Acosta’s CORE Foodservice division. 

“Research by Technomic indicates restaurants and bars are likely to recover as early as 2024, due in large part to diners’ increased interest in finding high quality, safe and cost-efficient alternatives to home-cooked meals. The road to recovery will be difficult however, as restaurants now face significant operational challenges caused by widespread labor shortages and rising food costs.”

Restaurants and bars are still nearly 1 million jobs short of pre-pandemic employment levels, according to The National Restaurant Association, and supply chain delays are forcing many restaurants to raise prices. Forty-four percent of consumers surveyed by Acosta said they are noticing higher menu prices.

For many foodservice operators, substitutions and new menu items are a common coping strategy for dealing with supply chain issues, but the move may actually have a silver lining since the majority of consumers are interested in trying new things when eating out. Creating specials based on ingredients that are available could be a way for eateries to make the most of a difficult situation, since 81% of diners said they often choose items that are on special.

To learn more about the trends and consumer attitudes shaping the future of foodservice, download Acosta’s The Why? Behind The Dine report.