Last updated: Restaurant CX: How brands are locking in loyalty during COVID-19

Restaurant CX: How brands are locking in loyalty during COVID-19


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No matter where in the world, people were seemingly lost without their favorite restaurant chain or go-to-treats during times of national despair amid the lockdowns. With most food brands having been forced to close for an extended time, (and in some cases delivery wasn’t even an option) you might wonder how they’d ever recover, let alone worry about the restaurant customer experience during COVID.

And it turns out the food industry missed their customers, too – so much so that they began sharing their “secret recipes” to the world for free.

While some might think it would be a bad idea to give your trade secrets to the world, in the end, it likely steeled the loyalty – and longing – that customers have for their favorite food brands.

Restaurant customer experience amid COVID: Brands sharing guarded recipes to stay connected with customers

During normal times, and depending on your age and location, up to half of all meals were eaten outside of the home. Driven by necessity, home chefs are now attempting to create nutritious and nourishing meals from whatever ingredients are available or on hand. More than half of Americans, 54 percent, are saying they’re cooking more, and 46 percent are saying they’ve baked more now than prior to the pandemic, according to a survey from Hunter, a food and beverage communications firm.

Restaurants are rising to the challenge. While restaurant dining rooms, tourist attractions, and hotels are largely closed to the public, some of those brands are happily sharing their secret recipes. Among those:

The British Asian-fusion restaurant chain Wagamama went one step further, creating waves on social media by not just posting the recipe for its “Katsu Curry” but also an eight-minute and 51-second video showing home chefs how to make the high-demand dish at home, using the cute hashtag wokfromhome.  Their executive chef, Steve Mangleshot, who filmed all the episodes in his own kitchen explained “we have all been forced to prepare more food at home than we normally do and I want this regular online show to teach you how you can be a decent chef in no time. I also want to create a sense of community through our food, just like we do in all our restaurants.”

McDonalds also went one step further in sharing print at home templates for Happy Meal boxes so that parents could recreate the experience of a happy meal for their children for whom the box and the toy were just as important as the food inside.

Unfortunately for many, KFC did not share their sought after secret chicken recipe with 11 herbs and spices, but that didn’t stop people trying to recreate it at home. It looks like he was pretty close to getting it right, because Twitter has removed his tweet due to “copyright” reasons:

In these strange and uncertain times, we’ve seen that people are longing for comfort and a sense of what was normal to them.

Whether that’s a McDonald’s cheeseburger or their favorite mac ‘n’ cheese, these comfort foods can provide that. “We know this is an anxious time for everyone,” DoubleTree by Hilton senior vice president Shawn McAteer said in a statement accompanying its cookie recipe. “A warm chocolate chip cookie can’t solve everything, but it can bring a moment of comfort and happiness.”

The secret ingredient is the CX: Customers will return despite recreating their favorite meals at home

Now that we have learnt the recipes and we’ve unlocked the mystery ingredients, why would we return when we can create the meals and treats at home – and for a far lower cost?

With bars and restaurants closed, entertaining not allowed in the home, and no sports arenas or theaters open, we’ve all relied on a takeout every now and again to treat ourselves throughout the crisis. Even as the economy re-opens, it’s likely that people will be wary of venturing out.

However, the brands that have gambled by giving away their recipes have continued to build a connection with us. Every time we make a Disney Dole Whip at home, we’re creating a fond association of memories or making plans to visit Disney, when it reopens. We’re remembering how these foods tasted and made us feel, and the experience of recreating them makes us miss the real thing even more.

And restaurants and theme parks know this. They know the experience is more than just a sum of the parts – it’s more than just the food. It’s the greeting you get when you arrive, the comfortable seat where you can watch the world go by as you wait for your food to arrive, the delicious smell, and the chatter.

It’s also where many of us will have celebrated birthdays and special occasions with our closest family and friends. After-all, the best chef in us might duplicate the taste and smell of their branded cuisine, but it’s far more difficult to recreate the atmosphere and experience. Somehow enjoying a Mickey Mouse beignet from your own kitchen in lieu of  New Orleans Square and Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter isn’t anywhere near the same.

Last week while walking my dog in the park, I noticed that many people carrying take-out coffee cups. They’ve been flooding back to the few cafes that have reopened to serve take out.  People don’t need that coffee – most likely have an expensive machine at home and a cup to carry it in – but they’re craving the experience of going to their favorite coffee place, exchanging pleasantries with the barista, and enjoying the normality, even if it’s all at an acceptable distance.

I applaud the restaurants, hotels, and attractions that took the initiative and shared some of their secrets to help us through lockdown. We’ve learned that simply making them at home isn’t what we crave, and that the restaurant customer experience during COVID is all about…the actual experience.

The human connection – the feeling we get as we walk through the doors – being greeted with a personal touch – these are things we miss the most, and that will make us return when the doors open up (safely) again.

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