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By Emily SmithFeb 29
How has consumer behavior around restaurants changed? What trends are influencing the restaurant experience, and what does this mean for restaurant brands?
Let’s take a look at six major trends in the restaurant industry based on social data captured in 2023.
The past few years have been anything but easy for restaurant brands. Forced to close for long periods during the COVID-19 pandemic, some consumers were reluctant to return once the lockdowns were lifted. Now, with inflation and the rising cost of living forcing consumers to tighten their budgets, eating out is becoming more of a luxury.
Online consumer conversations around restaurants are on the decline, dropping 33% from June 1 2022 to May 31 2023 compared to the previous 12 months.
Looking at mentions categorized by sentiment, positive mentions decreased even more. Over the same period, positive mentions decreased by almost 50%.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the gap between negative and positive mentions widened, and while it narrowed in 2022, it's still a big difference compared to 2019.
Higher prices are a leading theme in negative conversations about restaurants. Consumers say they don't go out to eat anymore because it has become too expensive, or they are willing to pay higher prices but are disappointed by the quality of the food and service. As consumers spend more money, they expect an excellent experience to justify the expense.
Prices and disappointing experiences are two of the top reasons consumers talk negatively about restaurants. For restaurant brands to win loyal customers, they need to make sure they meet expectations. In positive online conversations, consumers indicate that they are willing to pay higher prices for quality food and great service. Of course, restaurants will also be feeling the pinch. The challenge is to find cost-effective ways of creating better experiences for customers without driving prices up even further.
Online conversations about eating alone in restaurants have steadily increased over the past few years. While understandable during the years of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, online conversations haven't slowed down since then. In fact, the opposite is true – it's a trend that could gain even more traction in the coming years.
Consumers seem to be getting more comfortable with dining alone. In positive online conversations about solo dining, consumers say they enjoy the experience of not being forced to socialize as well as the freedom to go where they want.
But overall, consumers are not happy. From June 2022 to May 2023, there was a 24% increase in negative conversations around solo dining compared to the previous 12 months. Consumers say they felt uncomfortable or weird, some because they didn't know where to sit as a single person, especially if the restaurant didn't have a bar area.
Restaurants can make consumers more comfortable by offering single tables to enhance the solo dining experience.
With consumers increasingly concerned about their finances when dining out, the experience should be excellent.
Takeout ordering experienced a surge during the pandemic when restaurants were forced to close, and many turned to offering takeout options to stay in business. Since then, takeout has remained popular. Online conversations about takeout have slowed since the pandemic, but the volume of conversations in 2023 is still at a higher level than in 2019.
Consumers order takeout because they don't have time or don't want to cook. They like the convenience and some describe ordering takeout as a way to treat themselves after a long week.
But looking at the generational data, Gen Z conversations about takeout are much less positive than other conversations. They have the highest percentage of negative mentions and the lowest percentage of joyful mentions. High prices are a dominant topic in these negative conversations, and these consumers say they’re ordering less takeout due to financial struggles.
Millennials love brunch. This is no secret and is one of the defining characteristics of this generation. More than half of mentions of brunch online that are categorized by author generation are from millennials.
Brunch is also the meal that people talk about most happily online. 64% of emotionally categorized brunch mentions express joy. Popular brunch foods include chicken, waffles, pancakes, eggs, French toast, and various cheeses. In terms of drinks, mimosa is the most popular brunch cocktail.
Restaurant brands that offer brunch specials, such as bottomless brunch, attract new customers and keep loyal customers happy. Consumers who have an excellent restaurant experience are not afraid to go online and praise the great food and service.
Younger generations are drinking less alcohol for a number of reasons, including health concerns, to save money, and a shift in perception that people don't need to rely on alcohol to have fun at a party.
Especially in Western countries, a good chunk of Generation Z is transitioning to sobriety, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In reaction to this, more and more celebrities are expanding their beverage brands to include non-alcoholic alternatives such as energy drinks and mocktails.
The number of people talking about mocktails online increased by 14% from June 1 2022 to May 31 2023 compared to the previous 12 months. There’s an increasing demand for non-alcohol alternatives at events and restaurants that go beyond simple soda.
Consumers complain online that there are limited options for non-alcoholic cocktails or they are not satisfied with the taste of the mocktails offered. Other consumers point out that mocktails are too expensive, considering they don't contain alcohol. Here's an opportunity for savvy restaurant brands to add a selection of mocktails to their menus at reasonable prices.
Aesthetics play an important role in the dining experience. If the food doesn't look appealing, consumers won't come back. Restaurants need to get this right.
In online conversations about food, one trend stood out: bowls. Bowls aren't new – they've been popular for years – but the volume of mentions around bowls isn't slowing down. Foodies love bowls.
Bowls are not a specific type of food but the presentation of food in a bowl. They can be served at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They can be sweet or savory. The options are endless, which might be why bowls are a food trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
Smoothie bowls, poke bowls, and rice bowls are among the most popular bowls in online conversations.
Restaurant brands can capitalize on this trend by adding dishes served in bowls to their menu. If served in an aesthetically pleasing way, these could pay off in terms of free Instagram advertising from bowl fans snapping their meals to share with their followers.
Read more about changing consumer behavior in the food and beverage industry in our latest report, including: