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To Go Out or Not to Go Out ... Marketing Professor Researches the Impact COVID-19 has on Restaurants in the Tampa Bay Area

By Keith Morelli

Restaurant interior

TAMPA (September 4, 2020) -- Restaurants took a hard hit during the COVID-19 crisis. They shut down months ago, and with no revenue coming in, many were unable to keep staff. Some, however, adapted, switching from sit-down to take out and altering menus. Most relied on social media to retain relationships with customers. While some will never open again, others will emerge from the pandemic stronger because of their ability to innovate.

Which innovations will disappear when the pandemic subsides and which ones will remain?

USF Muma College of Business Assistant Marketing Professor Mark Bender is leading a research project to get a clearer picture of what the culinary landscape will look like in the wake of COVID-19.

“Restaurants need to embrace practices that allow COVID-conscious consumers to slowly re-acclimate to things that were once taken for granted like the ability to dine out at their favorite restaurant, with a favored server,” Bender said. “In doing so, these restaurants may begin to emphasize digital tools that reduce contact between patron and staff. One example might be a QR code on the table that allows consumers to pull up a menu on their phone. This cuts down on one point of contact (the menu).

“Ordering and paying then may take place over the phone even though the consumer is in the restaurant, cutting down on more contact,” he said, “and reducing the amount of time that a server spends at the table.”

The factors that go into the consumer decision-making process when choosing a restaurant have likely changed since pre-COVID, said Bender, who is leading the yearlong project along with fellow researchers Ran Tao, assistant professor with the USF School of Geosciences and Kelli Burns, associate professor with the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications.

Since the start of the pandemic, consumers have spent more time foraging for food at home and online.

“Thus, they may be more likely to see social media posts by restaurants that they follow,” Bender said. “So, restaurants that do a better job of reminding consumers that they exist and that their food beats cooking at home may be able to generate more business.”

The restaurant research is one of 14 projects awarded seed funding from USF to address medical, technological and societal issues of COVID-19. Since April, USF researchers have embarked on 42 separate COVID-19 projects supported through the university’s Rapid Response Research Grant Program.

Bender and his research colleagues aim to evaluate the resiliency of local eateries during the pandemic, using restaurants in the Tampa Bay area as case studies. As the pandemic spread early this summer, the service industry had to utilize and adopt digital communication and ordering channels to remain in contact with and continue to serve consumers.

At the same time, consumers changed their behavior by spending more time and money online. The researchers hope to identify geographic and restaurant-specific factors that may help restaurants survive the ongoing pandemic.

"So far, the researchers have collected data on about 200 Tampa Bay area restaurants for the project, Bender said. “That number may grow and the researchers may expand the geographical area."

“Some data is easy to collect, as it requires us to send zip code and/or address through a software system and the requested information is returned automatically,” Bender said. “Other data is going to require that we go through each restaurant's social media profile and capture that restaurant's posting history.”

Once the data is compiled, researchers will explore whether the location of the restaurant played a part in its revenue and whether its digital communication strategy resulted in helping them survive, or even thrive, since the beginning of the pandemic.

Over the past month or so, restaurants have slowly opened up, with some requirements like masks for all employees and an imposition of social distancing among patrons. Still, customers are tending to stay away, ordering delivery of take out. That habit may take a while to change.

“It is likely consumer preferences have changed to the point that segments of consumers desire to spend less time dining out at restaurants, even in the absence of any regulations,” Bender said. “Certain restaurant categories – or restaurants in specific locations – may be affected more.

“We do want to provide some actionable recommendations by learning more about specific digital strategies that have helped some restaurants survive and thrive through the pandemic and then sharing these digital success factors with other restaurants,” he said.

The project is in its preliminary stages, he said, but the data, so far, has provided some insights.

"I immediately expected to see restaurants with larger social media followings fare better with regards to foot traffic immediately after the safer at home orders went into effect in March," he said. “But it looked as if these restaurants may actually have seen a bigger decline in traffic.

“There may also be the case that, at least in early April, coronavirus was the great equalizer that brought all restaurants down to some equal playing field,” he said. “Those with larger social media presences seemed to do better in early March pre-COVID. However, even those with a larger social media presence may have had trouble generating traffic immediately after the ‘safer-at-home’ orders took place.

“As we continue to look into late April, June and July, we do still expect to see these restaurants rebound more quickly,” Bender said. “And then we can look at how they were utilizing social media and how patrons engaged with them via social media.”

Researchers are collecting and examining mobile device and social media data through Facebook and Instagram.

“At some point we would like to survey managers at restaurants to determine their perceived best practices,” Bender said. “We also hope to survey consumers to better learn how they look to interact with restaurants in the era of COVID.”

The grant funding the research lasts a year, but due to the timeliness of the research, some findings will be released periodically as they are formulated.