Remember spring? It was a really fun and hopeful time. Businesses were reopening, families were reuniting, and a coordinated, nation-wide vaccination effort was in full swing.
It felt like we were on the way out of the pandemic, not heading deeper into it. We were writing blogs with now glaringly naïve phrases like “as the pandemic recedes” and making plans for summer, fall, and beyond.
And, despite some supply chain and labor issues, the restaurant industry seemed poised for a comeback. Sales increased each month during this hopeful period and, though they continue to climb, we are approaching upsettingly familiar territory, likely to see dining room closures once again.
At least that’s the only way to interpret recent news from McDonalds, which is preparing franchisees for the likelihood that they will soon have to close their dining rooms once again. What does this mean for restaurants and fast food in particular, is it possible to write a blog like this and not get political, and how can food service market research help restaurants survive another shutdown?
McDonalds Prepares to Once Again Shut Down Dining Rooms
On a conference call last week, McDonalds executives encouraged franchisees to close their indoor seating sections if their county exceeds 250 COVID cases per 100,000 people on a rolling three-week average, a common threshold that indicates a potential spike is likely absent preventative measures.
This means that in counties with high COVID infection rates, McDonalds is encouraging operators to once again shut down dining areas and return to off-premise exclusively.
Following the call, McDonalds released a statement: "We’re monitoring the impact of the Delta variant closely and recently convened together with our franchisees to underscore existing safety protocols, reinforce our people first approach and provide updates on the rise in cases in the country.”
McDonalds, like every other fast food restaurant, temporarily closed its dining rooms during the initial national lockdown in 2020. Just last week, they announced they had opened up 70% of their dining rooms across the country and hoped to reach 100% by Labor Day. Those hopes are now dashed as the Delta variant has rampaged across the US South and Midwest where vaccination rates are still frighteningly low.
"We have a much deeper sense of what actions make a difference for the safety of our restaurant teams and crew," McDonald's USA President Joe Erlinger said of likely forthcoming closures.
Note how that sentence ends, with McDonald’s teams and crews. Well, McDonalds has had trouble on that front as well.
None of this works without employees in the kitchen and, as we’ve previously discussed, this has proven challenging, not just for McDonalds and other fast food establishments, but for the restaurant and service industry writ large.
Recently, franchises in North Carolina hosted open interviews for any interested applicants. In that state alone, the company estimates it is about 9,000 workers short. Yes, you read that correctly, nine thousand. In one little state. Where they are already offering up to $20/hour.
In fact, just lats May, the company raised pay by an average of 10% in all corporate-owned (non-franchised) restaurants, and many franchises followed suit.
Is this the Fourth COVID Wave? Has Anybody Else Lost Count?
Obviously, a lot has happened between then and now.
A pandemic is a numbers game, and the more exposure people experience, they likelier they are to contract the virus. This is true for unvaccinated people in particular, but even for the dutifully vaccinated there is still the risk of breakthrough infections (though, of course, the likelihood for hospitalization and death are greatly reduced).
For that reason, as infectious disease epidemiologist and John Hopkins associate professor David W. Dowdy points out, “Everyone’s risk of a breakthrough infection in the past month has gone up four to fivefold, because we’re just seeing that much more infection.”
That fact, combined with the risk of long-COVID and children’s continued ineligibility for vaccination has vaccinated patrons feeling somewhat dodgy about dining out.
Restaurants are certainly noticing the change. As one Michigan-based owner observed, “The Delta variant is unnerving to people.”
Indeed, as the Eater so succinctly spelled it out, “The delta variant has shifted the goalposts once again, and it’s clear that the risk calculus for sitting inside a dining room — even a dining room that requires proof of vaccination upon entry — is very different than it was even at the beginning of July.”
In the last seven days alone, COVID-related deaths were up 11% and cases were up 3%. Keep in mind that a) this is a national average and comes nowhere close to describing the calamity that is currently the US South, and b) these increases are from the most recent seven-day data, meaning they show relatively small increases to an already far-too-high number.
Market Research Methodologies, Panel Surveys, and our Tumbling Fall
This is just a bummer, there’s no way around it. We can talk about blame (I have some pretty good ideas of where to place it) but, no matter how we dice it up, it still looks the same. We failed to beat the virus when we had the chance, it’s back and angrier than ever before, and restaurants will soon be forced to again close their dining rooms.
But for companies like McDonalds, it perhaps isn’t quite as bad as you would think.
Recall that fast food, particularly drive through and delivery, soared during the first lockdown. Owing to its value (more burger for your buck), its drive thru infrastructure, and its family-friendly menu, fast food restaurants like McDonalds actually fared much better in the pandemic than sit-downs, independents, and even fast casuals (although places like Chipotle are getting really good at off-premise.
They already figured out how to adapt their kitchens for social distancing, how to scale down their menu when necessary, and even have data from the first shutdown to inform every decision they make moving forward.
Supplementing this data with market research methodologies like panel surveys will help them find the best ways to reach out to their ideal consumers during this second wave of closures. What promotions, safety assurances, and campaigns will resonate with these consumers? How can they balance the needs and desires of vaccinated and unvaccinated alike? These are the types of questions that market research can help answer.
For independent and dine-in restaurants, however, this will be a much more difficult task and will likely signal another wave of permanent closures. We were so close in the spring but now it just seems like one giant fall.