To Dine or Not to Dine? Guidelines to Understanding Consumer Wellbeing During COVID-19

Empty cafe table

The restaurant industry has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a recent article on Bloomberg, more than 110,000 restaurants have closed permanently or long-term across the United States. Despite the massive rollout of the several vaccines globally, we can witness new waves of COVID-19 around the world including Brazil, Europe, or closer to the shores of Australia, Papa New Guinea. While Australia is considered among top 10 nations regarding the response to the coronavirus, it is not immune to sudden lockdown measures, as recently in Perth or Brisbane.

So what does this mean for consumer confidence and the willingness to dine out at a restaurant once restrictions are being lifted? We know that COVID-19 has led to some seismic shifts in consumer behaviour, including panic buying at supermarkets, increased online shopping, and the adoption of new public health measures, including hand hygiene practices, the use of masks, and social distancing in the public.

We wanted to know how social distancing and the role of perceived territoriality may influence consumers’ dining experiences and their perceptions of wellbeing. In a joined project with the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University in New York and RWTH Aachen University in Germany, my co-authors Professor Sertan Kabadayi, Professor Stefanie Paluch, and I investigate specific factors that determine collective wellbeing in the restaurant industry in the COVID-19 era. Our research titled “To dine or not to dine? Collective wellbeing in hospitality in the COVID-19 era” published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, demonstrates that wellbeing in hospitality is not only sought collectively, but also is determined by consumers’ wellbeing perceptions of both themselves and others around them. Specifically, we identified seven domains of wellbeing in a COVID-19 era that can be distinguished across three levels: macro, meso, and micro.

Diagram showing Macro-level (institutions), Meso-level (restaurants) and Mico-level (guests)

Domains of collective wellbeing

Governments try to achieve two conflicting but equally important objectives when it comes to handling the COVID-19 pandemic: slowing the spread of the virus versus keeping the economy going as much as possible. As a result, we have witnessed various public health-related and legal measures (e.g., lockdowns and restrictions on nonessential businesses). We label these macro-level policies and regulations during a pandemic as governance wellbeing since they influence the wellbeing of all citizens―both during the lockdown and the reopening of the economy.

Yes, I think the measures were right because of the number of infections, which then also went down. And that, because of the decreasing numbers, they can now ease more of the restrictions.

When the national government began to allow restaurants to re-open, many people had trust in this decision, and were happy to regain a bit of normality. However, consumers became annoyed with the lack of consistency across different states and regions.

This federalism in Germany is fundamentally problematic. We do not have consistent rules. That even if, for example, you have a family in another federal state and then want to travel there, you suddenly have to consider completely different rules. That you can suddenly be fined €500 when you cross the border. So, no consistent measures were taken due to federalism.

As a result of the public health-related and legal measures the restaurant sector had to adjust between two options: continue the business or hibernate all operations, which ultimately have an impact on the employee wellbeing. Many restaurants changed their operations from dine-in to take-away or delivery to be able to continue their businesses. Furthermore, they are required to implement various sanitation, hygiene, and social distancing measures. We label these meso-level actions as resource wellbeing since restaurant operators are not just responsible for complying with social distancing practices but also for providing assistance (e.g., instructions) to their guests in order to minimize their initial insecurity and uncertainty. The restaurant’s work procedures also have a significant influence on the dining experience of the guests. Some participants report having had negative experiences with employees who did not follow the rules, such as not wearing the mask properly.

The waitress, who sometimes just put her mask down, had the mask hanging over her lips and did not cover her nose at all. That sometimes made me nervous.

An important part is trying to maintain a level of comforting atmospherics and sociability. Our participants expected a complete change of the interior, especially in the effort to position tables differently to accommodate social distancing. Yet, they acknowledged that these design and layout changes may affect negatively the cosiness and pleasant atmosphere that they were used to pre-COVID-19. We label these actions as social wellbeing, which is a paradox for restaurants in terms of social distancing requirements.

I was really surprised that it was so pleasant. The atmosphere hasn’t changed, despite fewer tables. On the contrary, there were more plants between the tables and new decorations. That really made a difference and was totally cozy as always.

Similar to macro- and meso-level factors, different micro-level (individual-level) factors determine the specific wellbeing outcomes of social distancing for restaurant diners. Our research identified four domains: physical, psychological, collaborative, and spatial.

Restaurant meal in paper back being delivered to a driver in a car

Physical wellbeing

With regards to their physical wellbeing, the participants were aware of the dangers caused by COVID-19, following infection numbers on a daily basis. Yet, it was interesting to learn that at no time during the restaurant visit did participants truly worry about potential COVID-19 transmission. Trusting the actions taken by the restaurant, guests felt safe, as if they were in another world, as soon as they entered the restaurant and took off their masks. Dining out at a restaurant appeared to be a way to escape from everyday life, and was a signal that things were slowly starting to improve. People wanted to forget their daily routine and finally treat themselves to something nice after a long time of social isolation. Apart from the joy of normality, many participants still have a feeling of uncertainty, which impacts their psychological wellbeing.

While research has traditionally focused on understanding the causes of individual wellbeing, our research supports the notion that wellbeing is the sum of the multiple wellbeing levels that resides in the community collectively. In other words, individual and collective levels are inherently interconnected. Our research points to two specific domains, collaborative and spatial wellbeing, that are intertwined between the individual diner and other guests.

Collaborative wellbeing

Collaborative wellbeing includes the ways in which patrons adhere to norms and rules of social distancing and to other public health regulations. Participants are now more concerned about the behaviour of other customers during their restaurant visit. In some cases, people also closely observe others, to check whether everyone is adhering to the hygiene and protection measures. The following quote demonstrates how patrons judge the behaviour of others who were not wearing a mask.

I thought it was irresponsible. As I said, I even followed the recommendation. Not only what was really required by law, but also recommendations […] but in the restaurant nobody said anything. So no other guests or waiters. I could not understand that. Such persons should be banned from the restaurant.

Group of people with face masks pulled down clinking wine glasses

Spatial wellbeing

Finally, and probably not a big surprise, we identify spatial wellbeing as a new concept that refers to social distancing, crowding, and perceived territoriality. In the context of COVID-19, media reports about social distance shaming and/or social distancing renegades show how violations of physical distancing led to confrontations between customers, and thus affecting the wellbeing of their own as well of the surrounding community. Paradoxically, the advice to keep distance in public can lead to perceived crowding. Our research shows that restaurants should adopt a customer journey approach to map all physical customer touchpoints, from arriving at the restaurant to placing and receiving an order, eating inside the establishment, and leaving the restaurant.

I had to find my way around to go to the toilet, in order not to disturb anyone there and not to put myself in an uncomfortable situation.

However, spatial wellbeing is a rather complex issue. On the one hand, guests do not want to sit too close to each other, to avoid possible COVID-19 transmission, but they also do not want to be isolated from other visitors. Our suggestion is that restaurants acknowledge the “us” (in-group) versus “them” (out-group) as a concept in terms of socializing and perceived isolation. The restaurant staff can contribute through small talk, food recommendations, and individual attention and thus help patrons to have a carefree and enjoyable dining experience.

The employee played a very important role here, because, as I said, he took away a lot of the uncertainty. And also, as always, he was very friendly and accurate.

While Australians may have almost forgotten how their initial dining experiences after the first lockdown have been, we are not “out of the woods” yet, as the threat of the virus is near shore on PNG and still growing in many parts of the world. As we may see snap lockdowns at any time, restaurants need to understand how to entice customers back to on-premise dining. We offer a holistic approach as consumers consider various cues simultaneously in forming multiple domains of their wellbeing perceptions.

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Dr. Sven Tuzovic is Senior Lecturer (US Associate Professor) in Marketing at QUT Business School in Brisbane, Australia. In 2020 he was Visiting Research Scholar at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University Lincoln Center in New York. Before joining QUT, he was tenured Associate Professor at Pacific Lutheran University and Visiting Professor at Griffith University, Murray State University, and the University of New Orleans. He holds a Doctoral Degree in Marketing from the University of Basel in Switzerland, a Master’s Degree from the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, Germany, and a BBA from Georgia Southern University. His research has been published in leading academic journals including the Journal of Service Management, Journal of Services Marketing, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, and in international conference proceedings. He has won three Best Paper Awards and a Faculty Research Award at Pacific Lutheran University. Dr Tuzovic has been Associate Editor of the Journal of Services Marketing since 2014.

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