The mood of the public in regard to 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is affecting the food service business greatly, according to food research giant Datassential, which has just taken the dining customer’s temperature through a new poll.
Asking consumers which dining venues they believed would increase their chances to contract coronavirus revealed that many onsite operations are caught squarely in the crosshairs of this fast-moving pandemic.
Colleges and universities in particular are at a “structural disadvantage” when it comes to consumers’ perceptions about types of venues (crowded, self-serve), says Mark Brandau, group manager for Datassential.
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According to the poll, those surveyed believed that visiting arenas/stadiums, cafeterias, food courts, food halls and c-stores would all increase their likelihood of contracting coronavirus.
The No. 1 dining venue believed to increase that likelihood, according to the poll, is cruise ships, with 71% of those surveyed citing the vessels as a no-go. Next, at 59%, is arenas/stadiums, followed by movie theaters at 50% of respondents saying a visit here would be tempting fate and would increase their likelihood of contracting coronavirus.
Buffet restaurants (49%), cafeterias (46%), food courts/food halls (45%), c-stores (32%), grocery stores (29%), casual dining (21%), grocery deli/bakery (21%) and fine dining (21%) also showed up as places of diminished confidence, to say the least.
For onsite foodservice operations, the picture is complex, but not pretty by any means.
“Concerns over coronavirus are nuanced when it comes to the college and university foodservice segment,” Brandau says. “Consumers overall perceive a higher risk of contracting coronavirus in venues that are crowded and have a lot of self-service stations, like cafeterias and food courts, so that’s a structural disadvantage for C&U at the moment.”
One upside for the college dining segment, Brandau says, is that “consumers 18 to 24 years old seem more resilient in the face of this panic of coronavirus. Slightly more than half of that demographic responded that coronavirus makes them nervous but won’t prevent them from dining out. They were significantly more likely than all other age groups to feel that way.”
Still, “the damage may already be done for C&U, like a lot of other onsite segments,” Brandau says. “Dozens of schools across the country are shutting down campuses and going to tele-learning, if not suspending the school year altogether. Higher education may have an easier time bouncing back next school year if the virus has been contained and the panic has subsided, because students look like they’re more poised to move on. But operators can’t get those canceled school days back, just like arenas can’t make up those days of lost revenue from suspended NBA games or shows.” In addition to the suspended NBA, it was announced on Thursday that the both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments would be cancelled.
When schools close during a pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows them to provide food to students, and school districts’ foodservice teams are scrambling to make plans as USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced this week the requirement to serve meals in group settings is being waived for schools providing meals to students affected by school closures due to coronavirus concerns.
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