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Online daters reject romantic restaurant dinners

Operators may have to rethink their approach to attract Tinder and OkCupid users, especially on Valentine’s Day.

Online shopping has clearly disrupted traffic at brick-and-mortar retail stores. Could online dating do the same to the dinner-date business at full-service restaurants?

An early indication could come on Feb. 14. 

Although brunch-focused Mother’s Day ranks as the busiest day of the year for sit-down restaurants, Valentine’s Day is the busiest night, even beating out New Year’s. 

To handle the crush, operators schedule extra staff, shorten menus to a handful of prix-fixe choices and reconfigure seating to accommodate additional two-tops. Then it’s all about turning the tables as efficiently as possible.

That’s if there are tables that need to be turned. This might be the year we see dating apps begin to have a negative impact on Valentine’s Day demand.

Those who swipe right on Tinder to find a quick date, or who rely on the OkCupid algorithm to discover Mr. or Ms. Right, want to build relationships in a hurry. This mostly Millennial-aged group views the get-to-know-you dinner date as a time-consuming intermediate step in the relationship-building process. App users skip the old school preliminaries and hope to find love, sex or some combination of the two via online means. 

Dinner at a romantic restaurant, even on Valentine’s Day? That’s something their parents might do.

Consider this article from Cosmopolitan, “Why First-Date Dinners Suck.”

“It’s outdated,” the magazine says. “If one or both of you doesn't feel chemistry, you're super-awkwardly stuck there for an entire meal.”

Wall Street Journal-affiliated website Marketwatch.com foresees the death of the dinner date. 

“As online dating surges in popularity, few Millennials have the time, money, or desire to sit with a stranger over a long meal,” the website notes. 

The online dating surge is real. As The Atlantic reports, “Just two years ago, American adults ages 18 to 24 used online-dating sites and apps at an average rate for all American adults—about 10 percent. Since then, that rate has almost tripled. College-aged and post-college-aged Americans are now the most likely demographic to turn to the technology.” 

Consider these statistics about Tinder, which has an estimated 50 million users worldwide, 10 million of whom are active:

  • Percentage of Tinder users that are Millennials: 70 percent
  • Average time spent per day: 35 minutes
  • Number of matches made daily: 26 million
  • Number of daily swipes: 1.4 billion

Market watchers at NPD Crest suggest that restaurant operators can lure swipe-happy Millennials like these back into their restaurants. But business-as-usual won’t get the job done.

“The importance of Millennials and Gen Zs will accelerate the foodservice industry’s need to be more innovative, as these cohorts are always looking for that ‘experience,’ something new and different,” NPD says. “Without innovation, operators will fall out of the consideration set and risk being overlooked by a large portion of the U.S. population.” 

Some operators are already on board with being more innovative on Valentine’s Day. They cater to singles and groups, not just couples.

"Contrary to popular belief and defying misconceptions about their Valentine's Day habits, singles are getting comfortable with dining out on Valentine's Day regardless of relationship status," says Caroline Potter, chief dining officer at OpenTable.

The company’s Valentine’s Day survey, conducted in early 2016, found 42 percent of singles “looking forward” to dining out on Valentine’s Day last year. Of those, nearly 46 percent said they planned to share their dining experience on social media, with one in five (21 percent) eager to post photos of their meal online. One in three (35 percent) intended to dine with “multiple platonic friends or family members.”

What kind of events are single diners looking for on Valentine’s Day? Something similar to one of the 11 options detailed on Open Table’s “No Date, No Problem” list could work. 

If your restaurant wants to cover all the bases on this busy night, putting a contemporary spin on your traditional Valentine’s Day offerings might be worth a shot.

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