US foodservice industry upended by public response to COVID-19

Published on
March 13, 2020

U.S. restaurant chains and other foodservice outlets are struggling to cope with rapidly changing dining habits of Americans fearing exposure to COVID-19.

A new Datassential survey released on 12 March found 89 percent of Americans feel more comfortable eating food from home or grocery stores, while only 11 percent feel comfortable eating food from restaurants or away from home. Fifty-four percent said they would eat at restaurants less frequently due to COVID-19.

“Foodservice operators that can offer a responsible and safe solution should do so, recognizing that their true competition during these times isn’t other restaurants, but rather the consumer’s own home,” Datassential said in the report.

It won’t be just restaurants that are impacted by the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Americans are concerned about contracting coronavirus from a variety of food establishments, the survey found, including: cruise ships (71 percent), arenas/stadiums (59 percent), buffet restaurants (49 percent), bars/clubs/ lounges (48 percent), cafeterias (46 percent), food courts/food halls (45 percent), hotel restaurants/bars (39 percent), limited service restaurants (34 percent), convenience stores (32 percent), grocery stores (29 percent), casual dining (27 percent), and fine dining establishments (21 percent).

In response, restaurant chains are working hard to assure customers about their quality control and sanitation practices.

Seattle, Washington-based Ivar’s –  located in one of the areas with the highest COVID-19 cases – announced “enhanced policies” to help keep customers safe.

Ivar’s is “enhancing and increasing the frequency of our sanitation practices in areas such as, but not limited to, floors, tables, chairs, doors, handrails, [and] bathrooms,” President Bob Donegan said in an email to customers. It is restricting its offerings of condiments, serving ware, and silverware in common areas.

Ivar’s is also instructing employees and colleagues to stay at home if they or someone they live with is sick or experiencing flu-like symptoms, Donegan said.

“Sick employees will be sent home. If they're symptomatic, they'll be encouraged to consult their healthcare provider for testing,” he said.

Similarly, in an email to customers, Roger Berkowitz, the president and CEO of Boston, Massachusetts-based Legal Sea Foods, relayed the his company’s sanitation and quality assurance measures.

“Our quality control center is a [British Retail Consortium]-certified grade AA facility, where we inspect our seafood for quality and test it for purity,” Berkowitz said. “Our policy is to exceed recommended standards by disinfecting all hard surfaces and frequently touched objects, such as guest tables and seats as well as menus, with peroxide multi-surface cleaner after every use.”

Berkowitz said the restaurant chain’s quality assurance team is led by a former public health director and it has five internal auditors who have a combined 120 years of regulatory experience.

“They conduct unannounced inspections at all of our restaurants, to ensure adherence to the highest level of safe food handling, quality, and sanitation. These inspections are based on food code requirements as well as our even more stringent company standards,” Berkowitz said

Legal’s QA team is in daily communication with the Centers for Disease Control or other government agencies, “to ensure we have access to the latest information and best practices,” Berkowitz said.

With governors across the country declaring a state of emergency in their states, and setting limits on numbers of people allowed at public gatherings while asking citizens to engage in “social distancing,” restaurants that already were surviving on razor-thin margins are struggling to cope with significant drops in customers.

Resy, a national restaurant reservation platform, reported cancellations were up between 20 and 60 percent across the country, according to The New York Times. Restaurant sales dropped 10 percent for the week ending 1 March in Seattle, Washington, where a high number of coronavirus cases have been reported, hospitality analytics company Black Box Intelligence found, Nation’s Restaurant News reported.

Rather than fight an uphill battle to retain customers too scared to dine out, some restaurant owners and management companies have decided to move to take-out- and delivery-only models, or to shut down entirely.

Red Lobster and several other major restaurant chains have reminded diners via email and social media they offer "to-go" and delivery services.

Tom Douglas, who operates 13 restaurants in the Seattle area, which has been the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., announced he would close a dozen of them for the next two to three months. Douglas told the Seattle Times the public’s fears over the coronavirus had cut traffic to his restaurants by 90 percent.

And cancelations are mounting across the country for everything from cruises, business gatherings and conferences, and sporting events. The National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the NCAA, and Major League Soccer all suspended or postponed their seasons on 12 March due to coronavirus, impacting seafood sales at those stadiums as well as restaurant visits before and after games.

Americans are already staying home more and eating out less. A study released earlier in March by foodservice research firm Technomic found 52 percent of consumers said they are likely to avoid crowds, and 32 percent said they will eat out at restaurants less often.

Operators that stand to lose the most business are full-service eateries, but the entire foodservice industry will take a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Technomic predicted.

Photo courtesy Renata Angerami/Shutterstock

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