The restaurant industry has been struggling since the start of the pandemic. More than 110,000 American eateries closed in 2020 alone. Lockdowns and restrictions made it harder for restaurants to operate, but as things get back to normal, a new restaurant customer satisfaction survey found that restaurants aren't out of the woods yet.

The latest Restaurant Industry Guest Satisfaction & Opinions Report shows that food establishments face another challenge: declining guest satisfaction.

Declining Guest Sentiment in 2021

Despite loosened restrictions and a slowdown in COVID-19 cases, guests weren't too happy with their dining experiences overall in 2021. The report from Merchant Centric found that consumer sentiment has been on the decline.

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An influx of foot traffic is just one of the many factors driving the decline in customer satisfaction. The report also showed:

  • Drops in staff demeanor and timeliness, which led to more negative customer reviews
  • A steep decline in star ratings for fast-casual restaurants

Among all the cuisine types, sushi and seafood performed the best last year. Conversely, pizza and sandwich establishments saw the biggest declines in guest satisfaction.

Emerging brands also performed better than established brands.

2022 Restaurant Trends to Improve Guest Sentiment

While the report's findings are concerning for restaurants, it also provides an opportunity for brands to focus on and improve the customer experience. Getting ahead of the problem can help prevent your restaurant from becoming a victim of declining guest sentiment.

Let's take a look at some restaurant industry trends that are driving guest satisfaction in 2022.

#1 in Consumer Restaurant Trends - Convenience

The pandemic has been brutal on restaurants, but for customers, it made it easier than ever to enjoy the food they love in a way that's most convenient for them.

Customers, especially millennials, are looking for self-serve options. They want:

  • Hassle-free, convenient ordering
  • Easy pick-up or curbside options

Implementing self-ordering kiosks or online ordering options is a great start. Take it a step further by allowing customers to pay for orders through a mobile app or your website.

There are many advantages of implementing self-serve kiosks and online ordering:

  • Orders are faster and with fewer errors
  • Costs are lower
  • Efficiency is improved

Of course, customers have more flexibility when ordering and can really consider their options carefully. In many cases, guests wind up placing bigger orders because they aren't in a rush.

Panera Bread has successfully implemented self-serve into their dining experience. Guests can easily place orders through their app or self-serve kiosks in the store. In addition, curbside and rapid pick-up mean that time-constrained guests can get in and out quickly. Now, more than 10% of the chain's sales come from rapid pickup through their app and in-store kiosks.

If you want to implement self-serve options, it's important to create a seamless customer experience. Whether they're ordering at a kiosk or the mobile app, the experience should be the same.

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#2 in Restaurant Consumer Trends - Happy Employees

Happy, engaged employees improve the customer experience. More restaurants are prioritizing employee satisfaction and fostering environments that encourage learning, sharing, and growth.

Restaurants face an ongoing battle with employee turnover. Improving employee satisfaction helps address this issue and ensure that guests always have a positive experience.

How can you make employees happier and more engaged in their roles?

  • Gather employee feedback through surveys

Use this valuable feedback to empower your employees to improve the customer experience. For example, you may give employees the power to resolve customer issues without the worry of being reprimanded by management. This allows employees to delight customers right then and there - rather than making customers jump through hoops to get help.

Valuing your employees goes a long way in keeping them satisfied and engaged in their positions. Make it a priority to treat your staff as you want your customers to be treated.

#3 in Customer Trends in the Restaurant Industry - Taking a Customer-Centric Approach

If you want to provide the best possible customer experience, you must take a customer-centric approach to your service. This also means tracking the guest journey from start to finish so that you can track guests' steps along all touchpoints to understand their habits and preferences.

Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Create touchpoints and gather data along the way. These touchpoints can include your POS, online menu, landing pages, website, payment gateway, app, social media accounts, chats, and more.
  • Gather customer feedback (survey responses, in-store experiences, social media info, etc.) to label experiences as delightful or a pain point.
  • Send guests timely and personalized offers to get them through the door.
  • Work quickly to resolve issues and delight customers before they leave the door and have a chance to leave a negative review.
  • Look for more opportunities to engage and interact with customers in ways that surprise and delight.
  • Offer multiple payment options.

By taking a customer-centric approach to your service, you ensure that guests receive the personalized experience they expect.

#4 in Restaurant Customer Trends - Respond to Negative Feedback

No matter how hard you try, there will always be at least one customer who isn't happy with their experience. As a restaurant owner, it can be difficult to deal with negative feedback without getting emotional or defensive. However, it's important to learn how to deal with complaints and criticism. It's part of the job.

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Rather than reacting in a combative way, take the time to dissect the negative feedback. Can you make changes to ensure the issue never happens again? Negative feedback can be a valuable opportunity to make positive changes to your service or menu.

If the customer is still at your restaurant, listen to what they have to say. Offer to compensate the customer or make it right in some other way. Be apologetic and make the customer feel heard.

Final Thoughts

These are the most current trends in the restaurant industry relating to the customer experience. The restaurant continues to evolve in the post-pandemic world, and guests expect a certain kind of experience when stepping into a food establishment. Convenience and a personalized experience are just two of the biggest customer expectations that restaurants need to address.