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There are plenty of opportunities: Sixty percent of respondents said they dine out once a week or more.

Why Guests Aren't Coming Back to Your Restaurant

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From delivery to food safety, make sure your brand is paying attention to everything.
By Danny Klein October 2018 Food Safety

It’s the essential question facing all operators: What attracts customers to your restaurant, and what keeps them away for good? As we all know, there’s no golden-rule answer. And it’s becoming more complicated, not less, as convenience and generational shifts skyrocket once-dormant channels. Delivery, meal kits, grocery stores. These barely blipped casual brands in the days when building a new unit meant erecting a destination. But competition simply isn’t what it used to be. It’s a completely rearranged dynamic.

Steritech, a leading provider of services that helps restaurants mitigate food safety and operational risks, surveyed consumers in an effort to answer those questions in today’s restaurant world.

Here’s what they found:

Firstly, consumers are dining out—a lot. Sixty percent of respondents said they dine out once a week or more.

C-stores and grocery chains are part of that away-from home share. Seventy percent said they purchased prepared foods from one of the outlets in the past 30 days.

The ways to stand out are as timeless as that neighborhood steakhouse that won’t change its velvet booths: Excellent customer service, food quality, cleanliness, food safety, and experience are all major factors for sit-downs. But what keeps diners coming back? That’s where Steritech’s data reflects the changing times.

Delivery

Nearly 60 percent of those surveyed have ordered food for delivery in the last six months. Not surprising. That number is probably even higher if you dropped the poll into Manhattan or San Francisco instead of the 500 randomly selected respondents from across the country that were polled by Steritech.

Of those people, though, a significant 30 percent said they experienced a problem with their order.

Who was to blame? Eighty percent blamed the restaurant.

The issues:

  • 29 percent said the order was not accurate/wrong food was delivered
  • 19 percent said the food was not hot/delivered cold
  • 19 percent said the order took too long to arrive
  • 14 percent said food quality was not what was expected

“We're concerned about how it's executed. We're concerned if it can create incremental growth at scale. We're not happy with the economics. We still have the issue of the data.”

Those were the words of Darden CEO Gene Lee last month when talking about Olive Garden. The 80 percent blame mark is a problem operators are faced with in regards to all forms of delivery. In the case of third party, restaurants are giving up serious control—who is the driver? Where is the data? Who is even in the car (was there a dog in the back seat)? How many other orders did the driver make? Were they rude to the guest? Wearing pajamas? What happened to the brand value once the meal left the restaurant? Even if the guest was just trying to order a burger, and came upon your restaurant on the app, once it shows up cold and out of whack, they’ll probably try to figure out the source.

And here’s the kicker: Of those that experienced a delivery problem, a whopping 25 percent said they would not reorder from that restaurant or delivery service again. Which of those two parties feels the burden more?

When asked if they would avoid eating at other locations in a chain if a single restaurant was involved in a food-safety outbreak, 31 percent said yes and 50 percent said maybe.

Steritech offered some solutions to avoid getting caught on the wrong side of this issue:

  • Regularly re-evaluate packaging (especially as you add new menu items)
  • Consider a tamper-proof security seal
  • Make sure customers have clear directions on how to report a problem
  • Consider using a third-party assessment program to evaluate your delivery process and quality.

Online reputation

Few things rankle operators more than the so-called “Yelp effect.” But we can’t debate how vital online reviews are to businesses, especially at the local level.

Steritech found that nearly three quarters of respondents sometimes or often use restaurant review sites to help select where they will dine.

Social media impact:

  • 58 percent said they would be very or somewhat likely to share a restaurant experience on social media.
  • 65 percent of those said they are more likely to share a positive experience than a negative one.

Online review effect:

  • 49 percent of respondents said they are very or somewhat likely to share a restaurant experience on a restaurant review site.
  • 66 percent of those are more likely to post a positive review than a negative one.

It’s probably worth noting that if you ask someone outright if they’d post a negative or positive review they’ll probably say positive, even though there seems to be a negative critic in everyone these days.

These are the negative comments on review sites that keep customers away:

  • 23 percent: Quality of food (taste/appearance)
  • 21 percent: Restaurant cleanliness
  • 18 percent: Service quality and hospitality

Steritech suggested fixing and avoiding the negativity, to understand what matters most to your customers—and focusing on those areas. “Ensure that you are monitoring and responding to both negative and positive reviews online; it might be impossible to respond to every post, but customers often consider a business’s responses to a negative review in their decisions to dine,” the company said.

This is great advice. Responding to a negative review shows a human element to the restaurant that could inspire guests to give it a second chance. And having that sort of “in” with the owner is often a path to repeat loyalty.

On the cleanliness topic

Yes, diners care about the health department score. Twenty-five percent said they always take note, while 38 percent said they sometimes take note. The survey showed that older diners were less likely to look, but were also more susceptible to food safety issues.

Other notes:

  • 41 percent said a health department score would factor into their decision to dine at a restaurant
  • 38 percent said their previous experience at a restaurant would influence their decision to dine there, even if the health department score was low.

Where do restaurants go wrong?

  • 41 percent: Sticky or dirty tables
  • 23 percent: Dirty restroom
  • 12 percent: Poor employee hygiene or attire

Review sites, like Yelp, are starting to incorporate health department scores into their publicly available data. That’s a sure-fire way to lose a customer before you even have the chance to impress them.

“For chain restaurants, knowing how each of your locations is performing may help you flag issues to address,” Steritech said. “Correcting them could help boost sales. Find a partner that can help you periodically evaluate your restaurant operations as well as the non-food areas of your business that impact customer satisfaction, like restroom and exterior cleanliness.”

Don’t be hit with an outbreak

You only need to glance at Chipotle to understand the gravity a food illness outbreak can have on your brand. The 2015 E. coli crisis erased nearly half of the fast casual’s market cap. While Chipotle has rebounded in many ways, especially since former Taco Bell head Brian Niccol joined as CEO in March, the stigma remains a recurring issue. Every food safety issue reported turns into a major story on Wall Street. It’s why the company tapped Zenput to bring the process mobile, and decided to re-train its entire staff after a Powell, Ohio, location shut down in July.

Steritech’s findings from a single location foodborne illness impact:

  • 30 percent said they would never eat at that location again
  • 24 percent said they’d stay away for one to six months.
  • 18 percent said they’d stay away for six months to a year.

This can affect an entire chain, too. When asked if they would avoid eating at other locations in the chain if a single location was involved in an outbreak:

  • 31 percent said yes
  • 50 percent said maybe

(So that’s 81 percent of people who suddenly don’t fully trust an entire chain of restaurants).

  • How long would these customers stay away:
  • 19 percent stop eating at the chain.
  • 58 percent stay away one month to a year.

If it’s multiple locations of a chain (Chipotle had a 14-STATE problem), the percentage of respondents that would avoid eating at other locations in the chain more than doubles to over 68 percent.

  • 31 percent said they’d never eat at the chain again
  • 18 percent said they would avoid the chain for longer than a year

“Customers expect the food they purchase from restaurant to be safe; violate that trust, and you could lose their business forever,” Steritech said.

Steritech offered some solutions, emphasizing that it comes down to the restaurant’s culture. A robust food safety program should include:

  • Supplier verifications
  • Standard operating procedures
  • Training that incorporate food safety
  • Third-party food safety assessment program for all locations

In sum, it’s tough out there. With all of the choices at a customer’s literal fingertips, brands are finding little wiggle room when it comes to operational success. Slip up and it can be steep climb back. The best counter is ensuring that your brand concentrates on the staples—service, quality, and execution—and owning the things it does best. Every day.