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Updated: May 15, 2020

Getting Mainers back to restaurants may take a while, survey shows

When Maine restaurants reopen their doors to the dining public, it may take a while for customers to return, a new study shows.

More than 1,600 regular restaurant diners surveyed by Eat Drink Lucky newsletter and the organizers of Maine Restaurant Week responded to the survey, which offered interesting food for thought about what the industry can expect when eateries are ready to welcome diners. 

More than half of those surveyed (55.3%) said they are more likely to cook at home and less likely to eat out when restrictions are lifted, compared to 44.9% who said they wouldn't.

The study comes as restaurants across the state decide on their reopening plans and time lines, in line with the state's guidance and COVID-19 prevention checklist.

Restaurants in all but Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Penobscot counties are allowed to reopen on May 18, according to the rural reopening plan announced by Gov. Janet Mills on May 8. Eateries in the four remaining counties can reopen on June 1.

In the survey, all but 7.3% of respondents said they have ordered curbside or or carryout service during the pandemic, with 37.7% doing so six or more times, 32.9% doing so three to six times and 22.1% one to three times.

The overwhelming majority of respondents, 86.8%, said that supporting local business matters to them, and close to three out of four said they ordered restaurant gift cards during the pandemic.

Going back to eating out

In terms of going back to dining in restaurants when restrictions are lifted, 23.2% said they would do so immediately, while 17% said they would wait two months or longer.

Eat Drink Lucky publisher Gillian Britt told Mainebiz that she was surprised by those findings, saying: "Considering how frightening COVID-19 is, we expected that number to be higher. We were encouraged to see that 23% said they would return immediately, and another 42% said they'll be back within a month."

Britt added that if the reopening plan for Maine unfolds as stated so far, restaurants will welcome customers at lower than average capacity due to distancing, which means a lower cash flow for owners.

"We think restaurants will need to continue to change their model by adding or enhancing carryout/curbside pickup," she added. "The truth is, carryout, meal kits and frozen foods from our favorite restaurants may become a permanent part of the restaurant experience."

Page from study that asks, How soon will you return to dine-in service after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted?
Courtesy / Eat Drink Lucky and Maine Restaurant Week
Here's how survey respondents feel about dining out again.

The survey also revealed what customers care about most when returning to dining out.

Before deciding on a venue, respondents said they would want to know its physical distancing plan (81%), disinfecting procedures (71%), customer capacity plans (70%), food safety measures (54%) and advance payment plan (20%).

1,500-plus suggestions

Those surveyed also shared more than 1,500 ideas for restaurants.

The list of suggestions included having breweries pairing up with restaurants for lunch deals and brunch combinations with farm, loosening restrictions on public drinking so that people can take beverages outside the establishment, and selling recipes and meal boxes with locally grown ingredients.

A second customer survey is planned with more questions about future dining habits and demographic insights.

"It is up to us, the fans of Maine restaurants who love living in this food-centric city and state, to support the restaurants' recovery," Britt said.

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