Restaurant Trends in 2021

It's no secret that 2020 was a rough year for the restaurant industry. The spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdowns and restrictions forced restaurateurs to adapt and innovate or close their doors. Though many jobs were lost and numerous restaurants were permanently closed, a bright and hopeful future lies ahead for the restaurant business. The industry will not only recover but be rebuilt stronger and more equitable with these restaurant trends for 2021. 

Online Ordering, Takeout, and Delivery

The first and likely most obvious trend is that restaurants will continue utilizing online ordering systems more and more. Having an online ordering option helps restaurants reach a wider customer base while delivering a convenient user experience to those customers. Restaurants will also continue to lean on takeout, curbside pickup, and delivery orders to increase their bottom line well beyond the pandemic. 

Delivery services like GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates, and Uber Eats enable restaurants to offer a delivery option, something that was previously out of reach for many. For some small restaurants, however, the third-party commissions could start to eat into their profits. Plenty of restaurateurs have built their own online ordering platforms on their restaurant's website to save on commission fees while still utilizing third-party delivery drivers. This model has seen a lot of success but requires some level of tech expertise. 

Online ordering software makes it easy for restaurant owners to streamline operations by connecting their online ordering platforms to their POS systems and inventory management. This way, all of your mobile orders and credit card payments can be managed in the same place, 86'd items can be updated across platforms, and orders get sent to the POS in real-time. Integrating systems allows restaurants to boost productivity, increasing the volume and accuracy of online orders. With scalable, affordable options, restaurants can easily subscribe to these services for a flat monthly fee. 

Lasting COVID-Era Innovations

Online ordering and food delivery certainly aren't the only COVID-19 adaptations that'll stick around. Throughout this pandemic, we've seen incredible innovations and out-of-the-box thinking that will forever change 

the restaurant industry. These changes came from a place of necessity but ultimately improved the entire restaurant model by providing more revenue streams and opportunities.

Throughout 2020, many cities across the US amended liquor laws to allow restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages for pickup and delivery. This was a huge break for restaurant owners, as alcohol sales make up a decent portion of overall sales. While these temporary measures do come with certain challenges, it's proven to be popular with both customers and restaurateurs, with many pushing for permanent alcohol delivery.  

Other innovations like prepared meal kits and virtual cooking classes are sure to stay as well. As restaurants shift their services and operations, we'll see their physical setup evolve, with smaller dining rooms and more space for takeout and curbside pickup. The in-person ordering process will likely change for most casual eateries as well. Customers will be able to checkout and pick up their order using kiosks or their smartphone, freeing up employees to perform other tasks like increased sanitation — which is also here to stay. 

Ghost Kitchens and Pop-Ups

With the rise of online ordering, ghost kitchens, or virtual kitchens, are also becoming increasingly popular. This online ordering business concept utilizes an existing restaurant's kitchen to prepare their virtual menu, eliminating huge barriers, costs, and risks. Without an actual restaurant to dine in, customers order delivery through the ghost kitchen's own website, mobile app, or third-party delivery platforms like Uber Eats. Pop-ups can be used to boost virtual business or as standalone endeavors with similar benefits. 

Virtual kitchens present a great opportunity for those with existing public recognition, as recently demonstrated by popular YouTuber Jimmy Donaldson — better known to his 50 million followers as Mr. Beast. Along with a one-day pop-up event, Donaldson opened 300 MrBeast Burger locations seemingly overnight by teaming up with Virtual Dining Concepts. This unique brand of influencer novelty in virtual restaurants and pop-ups is wildly successful, and we'll likely see much more of it going forward. 

Social Media and Personalized Marketing Campaigns

The importance of social media in just about any industry can't be understated, but especially in the restaurant business. It's been long known that online reviews and interactions are paramount to a restaurant's reputation, but owners can also gain valuable insights from analyzing customer data. These insights can be used to improve customer service, curate new menu items, and reach potential customers. 

Advanced analytics can take customer data from transactional records and social media interactions to accurately predict trends in consumer behaviors, such as eating habits. This can help restaurateurs shape their menu to meet specific demands, like adding more plant-based menu items. Restaurants can also use customer data to provide personalized email marketing with targeted offers, discounts, and coupons. They can tailor loyalty programs with perfectly timed promotions and suggest new orders based on previous purchases. 

Having a strong social media presence can also offer additional customer support while attracting new customers. Some social media profiles can even be utilized for online ordering. Facebook ordering has recently taken off, boosting online sales by allowing customers to order food directly from a restaurant's Facebook page.

A New American Restaurant Model

For many small restaurant owners, the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the service several issues that have plagued the industry for years. Opening a restaurant is a notoriously risky investment because margins are so razor-thin. This proved absolutely devastating when restaurants were forced to close by government-mandated shutdowns. Most independently owned restaurants can't survive being shut down for one week, let alone months. 

This glaring problem, along with structural inequalities like pay disparity between the front and back of the house and sustainability issues like excessive food waste, can no longer be ignored. During this moment of transformation, independent restaurant coalitions have formed to create positive change in the industry. Throughout all of the uncertainty, restaurant owners and chefs have found ways to give back to their communities and uplift other small businesses. 

With so many determined to embrace this tumultuous time to design a more equitable and sustainable restaurant model, it's clear that we've only begun to see the real revolution. We don't really know exactly what the restaurant industry will look like in years to come, but it's sure to be a lot different after 2020. Speaking about these great unknowns, former pastry chef Lena Sareini says, “This’ll give the industry an edge—like the phoenix that bursts into flames and comes back stronger.”

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