When it comes to post-pandemic trends, it’s hard to look away from all of the digital-leaning influences, from delivery and carryout to in-house digital ordering, as well as the way restaurants market. But it is important to remember that marketing efforts are largely based on customer behaviors, and in observing post-pandemic trends beyond the digital realm, it’s easy to see many more changes in dining habits.
One of the major adjustments in consumer behavior toward restaurants in the segmentation of a day. Traditionally, diners showed up for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and these mealtimes coincided with a past “traditional 9-5 workday”, including working breakfast, lunches, or dinners. According to a recent article from Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN), everything about that is changing.
To begin with, diners are less likely to opt for a late dinner. Throughout history, an 8PM dinner reservation was considered the premiere time slot, but now, guests are opting for early seats, around 6PM—and there is data to back this up. “According to Tara Lewis, Yelp’s trend expert, diners are choosing earlier reservation times; in 2023, 10% of all diners were seated between 2-5 p.m., which doubled from 5% during the same period in 2019,” states the NRN article, which goes on to add, “Yelp also looked at weekdays and noticed that the percentage of diners being seated from 4-6 p.m. versus 6 p.m. to midnight jumped from 17% in 2019 to 26% in 2023.” Experts are estimating that the shift is most likely the result of remote work, with a workday truly ending around 5:00 or earlier. There is additional evidence to suggest that it reflects a move out of urban areas since the pandemic—more than 2 million consumers moved from a city to a suburb—where dining times in casual dining establishments are more typical.
Whether or not the change in work location or schedule is to blame, experts believe the pattern is here to stay. “There is an element of behavior on a daily basis that has changed and that usually takes a seismic shift like the pandemic to happen. The way you market has changed, different products, menu innovations for these different day parts, restaurant formats is another one; it’s all intertwined. I don’t think we’ll ever get back to where we were before and there will need to be adjustments,” R.J. Hottovy, head of analytical research at traffic analytics firm Placer.ai.
Dinner hasn’t only been affected. There are significant changes in the breakfast and lunch set as well, with fewer early morning diners and fewer guests at the traditional lunch hour. Many are opting for a meal somewhere in between breakfast and lunch which is driving traffic to coffeeshops that also offer meals. ““I’ve never seen so many coffee users in a market ever. There is a trend of consumers going to a specialty coffee spot for lunch now, not just breakfast. There is a finite shift in how consumers are using coffee spots,” says Emily Durham, senior vice president, brokerage, food, and beverage advisory at commercial real estate company JLL.
With such significant changes to consumer behavior, restaurant owners should be cognizant of their hours and menu offerings. Diners may arrive in the late morning looking for breakfast or lunch offerings, for example, and the new, most popular dinner time used to be considered happy hour. Menus should reflect these behavioral trends without overextending your restaurant’s capacity in both front- and back-of-house.
Richard Weil, owner and principal of National Restaurant Consultants confirms many of these findings. “Dining patterns have modified since 2020, and, in many ways, this is for the better in terms of leveling out the peaks and valleys throughout the Monday-Thursday timeline. Weekend diners are also more apt to look at earlier dinner hours as well.”
For assistance with labor scheduling to meet these new demands as well as menu engineering, consider working with one of our expert consultants. Our careful process helps get the most out of your menu, while keeping your customers happy and returning.