Restaurant Experts’ 2021 Outlook, Part One

Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine asked restaurant industry experts for their opinions on what we can expect in 2021. Here are their responses. To read part two, click here


Chris Adams, VP of Strategy, Oracle Food & Beverage

  • Predictive analytics, AI and ML streamline and expand the omnichannel dining experience – Restaurants have pivoted their businesses this year to greatly expand the digital dining experience, to a point where customers can interact however they want, whenever they want. As the food and beverage industry continues its digital transformation, restaurateurs need to prepare to take advantage of a tidal wave of data these interactions create. For example, to level-up the fan experience you can combine first-party transaction data with player stats, weather conditions, and inventory to better predict game-day sales. In the case of leisure travel, we will begin to see a combination of passenger data, flight status, and restaurant capacity and availability, driving personalized offers and promotions to weary traveling families looking for a safe place to fuel up and relax.  

As the food and beverage industry continues its digital transformation, restaurateurs need to prepare to take advantage of a tidal wave of data these interactions create.

  • A new era of restaurateur – Though many restaurants did not survive the harsh restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the infrastructure remains. We’ll quickly see the emergence of Restaurants 2.0 – a new generation of restaurateurs who snatch up available real estate for ghost kitchens, virtual brands or new dine-in experiences that have a heavy reliance on digital interactions and business models that enjoy lower overhead.
  • The battle for talent – Forced closures, layoffs and furloughs have driven a lot of workers out of the food and beverage industry. With so much changeover in the workforce, restaurants will face the challenge of rapidly onboarding new employees with new tools and processes needed for the Restaurant 2.0 generation. Restaurant owners will lean heavily on technology that is intuitive, can be easily integrated with existing systems. These systems will also have performance measures that will ensure compliance with brand experience, service benchmarks and business goals. We’re also likely to see a spike in the demand for data analysts in the back office, those who can help make sense of all the new data coming in from various digital channels.  
  • Renewed commitment to the environment – As the demand for takeout has boomed, so has the use of plastics and Styrofoam containers. Operators will need to be creative in finding ways to counter the increased restaurant costs and the waste being produced. Restaurants may move to the use of bio-degradable and reusable packaging, while customers could be provided the option to opt-out of the inclusion of plastic cutlery with their meals. Regardless of the decisions made, there will inevitably be a big market for new and interesting packaging. 
  • Technology moves from a tool of convenience, to a safety requirement in stadiums and arenas – In the past, technologies that analyzed and reported the length of lines at restrooms and concessions stands were a convenience – a nice perk to keep fans from missing too much of the event. In the future, these technologies will become key to pinpointing areas where crowds may form, enabling the venue to proactively reduce crowded spaces, keep people safer at stadium and arena events, and still provide an enjoyable experience.

Jerry Abiog, Co-Founder/CMO Standard Insights

Innovate. This one word can signify the success or failure of a restaurant as everyone around the globe continues to deal with fallout from COVID-19.

We have seen many a restaurant shuts it doors while others have thrived. Those that are continuing to prosper had their technological house in order prior to the pandemic.  Some of these innovations include digital menus, contactless payments, marketing solutions, and cloud-based POS. 

As restaurants begin to gather more data, we will see the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) implementation to drive safety and growth.

In 2021, the digitization of the restaurant industry will increase exponentially.  As restaurants begin to gather more data, we will see the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) implementation to drive safety and growth.  AI can now supercharge once static digital menus by offering personalized recommendations, data driven marketing outreach, and predictive and prescriptive analytics.  Even if the pandemic were to end today, these technologies will be the key drivers in helping the restaurant of the future succeed.

Jack Baum, Chairman and CEO, Ziosk

As we look ahead to 2021, vaccine progress brings optimism that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the restaurant industry.  

As restaurants do everything they can to survive these winter months, we continue to see shifts in how consumers are using restaurants. While off-premise remains the focus for QSRs, at casual dine restaurants we are seeing technology play a significant role in how they are serving their guests – from QR-code enabled menu browsing, ordering and payment to meaningful growth in pay at the table transactions on our tablets – both of which allow for contactless payment options.

What was once considered a convenience is now viewed as a necessity.

What was once considered a convenience is now viewed as a necessity, and we believe this adoption will become the norm in a post-COVID world.

Dennis Becker, CEO, Mobivity 

I think it’s clear that off-premise dining is here to stay. While most consumers will eventually shift some of their dining back to on-premise, most consumers will still often opt for the convenience of drive-thru, pick-up and delivery. 

Before the pandemic, these were avenues that not everyone even used and those that did, only used them on occasion. Being forced to use them taught consumers that there are some advantages in the convenience of off-premise dining, and as a result, restaurants will continue to maintain at least some portion of their dining off-premise.

Which means restaurants without drive-thru or pick-up windows, it will be a challenge to find ways to add them or at least substitute with curbside pick-up options. Additionally, restaurants will need to invest in technology to make these experiences more seamless and with less friction  ̶  such as using mobile messaging to keep customers informed while their food is being prepared and provide a mechanism for informing restaurants when they have arrived to pick up their order.

Brands are now realizing they can no longer rely on paid media and traditional methods of communicating with customers. Every restaurant brand is going to be compelled to invest in building more first-party data and media channels they own and control. Online brands like Amazon long ago discovered the tremendous value of owning first-party data and being able to communicate easily and personalize messages and offers to customers. Restaurants will make a major shift in this direction as a result of lessons learned during the pandemic.

Operators are going to have to get creative in how they continue to foster those customer relationships.

Building strong customer and brand relationships will get harder when customers are no longer coming into their restaurants or are coming in less frequently. And while they have little choice but to embrace third-party delivery services, doing so puts another brand in control of their customer and risks eroding customer loyalty.

Operators are going to have to get creative in how they continue to foster those customer relationships.  Building out owned media channels, such as messaging and apps, and amassing an army of opted-in consumers will be critical. Smart brands are having to be even more creative, such as leveraging the ‘to go bag’ as a communications channel that can be used to communicate brand messages, promote new menu offerings and provide bounce back offers that favor preferred channels such as pick up.

Berekk Blackwell, President of Daily Jam

Apart from off-premise, I do believe that sometime next year we will be in some kind of “end zone” for the pandemic and people will actually be back to dining in quite often, possibly even more than pre-pandemic levels given the pent-up demand. Apart from that, obsessive cleanliness should be at the top of every restaurant’s list of things to tackle. Customers will be more mindful of things they previously may have missed. 

I think we will see a real surge in sales partly because of pent up demand from the pandemic, but also because many restaurants have closed leaving a shortage if we do have a rush of people looking to come back to the dining room.

Greg Bolton, Owner, Bob & Edith’s Diner

The trends for next year are going to be touchless and contactless ordering. You can already see it happening in the industry, and we are no exception. We already use digital menus the customers use in person and have created an app for easy online ordering. Our outlook for 2021 is optimistic. We are continuing to expand and believe that customers have confidence in us to provide them with a safe environment and delicious food.

Jockey Hollow Bar + Kitchen's Chris Cannon

If we get the vaccine distributed and if we reopen in April 2021, it'll be like the end of WWII; there will be rejoicing in the streets. For now, it's just a matter of figuring out how we're going to survive.

Rick Camac, Dean, Restaurant & Hospitality Management at ICE (Institute of Culinary Education)

  • I see flat-fee QSR, hybrid or fast casual restaurants with fixed-price approachable menus of typically unattainable offerings, such as Burger Lobster (lobster) and Sugarfish (sushi, omakase) becoming more popular. 
  •  Vegan and Veggie forward will continue to grow.

Vegan and Veggie forward will continue to grow.

  • Ghost kitchens or ghost food halls run from commissaries, offering multiple brands, selling their own products (and some new) all under one check; so you could order pizza, while your partner orders a burger and you both get ice cream, from three different places, on the same tab, delivered together, using your own delivery mechanism / logistics.
  • Using tech to better get your product to market (and seamlessly).  Touchless pickup and payment.

Sallie Clark, Chief of Sales, EZ-Chow 

Flexibility and convenience are the trends most requested by concepts. For example, ordering online while the customer is “in-house.” Who would have thought this would be needed? With this in-house request comes the need for Open Tabs, QR codes to scan for menu access and delivery options, for say a hotel or resort.

Meeting the customers expectation means finding a digital partner who can accommodate your specific needs. Our hope and prayer is that 2021 will bring a sense of calm and stability to the restaurant industry and our country as a whole. We believe that digital ordering will continue to be a mainstay for restaurants’ longevity, as consumers have adjusted to this new normal and will continue to seek their restaurant options online.

FOODWORKS President John Coker 

People helping people: More than 110,000 restaurants have closed across the country as a result of the pandemic. This means there are fewer restaurants for consumers to choose from and more local business owners and employees out of work. In 2021, we will see the industry continue to come together in support of one another with creative partnerships, chef collaborations, ghost kitchens, and more.

In action: Supporting local restaurants is at the core of FOODWORKS business model. Latest to the scene, the brand launched Market Cafe this fall in New York City and Chicago, with new locations opening in 2021 starting with Houston. The unique Market Cafe model gives local restaurants, many of whom have been impacted by a downturn in business due to COVID-19, the resources and support they need to expand their audience. Rotating restaurant partners offer guests the benefit of having an array of delicious local food and beverage options available at a prime location, all under one roof.

In 2021, we will see more restaurants using Apps to offer contactless dining experiences and create a smooth flow for diners, from menu perusal through taking that first bite. 

Contact-less options: With a global pandemic ongoing, consumers will look for ways to limit in-person interactions, especially with strangers. In 2021, we will see more restaurants using Apps to offer contactless dining experiences and create a smooth flow for diners, from menu perusal through taking that first bite. 

In action: A completely contact-free and cost-effective dining experience, guests of FOODWORKS' Market Café in Chicago can order through a single mobile app, whether they want to enjoy made-to-order meals or select from a variety of grab-and-go menu options. The app also allows guests to scan, pay and leave, without ever interacting with a cashier. In addition, it provides the option to order and pick-up items from a designated shelf to easily maintain necessary social distancing. Beyond the contact-free environment, the new technology helps manage the café’s capacity to make social distancing easy for everyone who arrives.

Food safety and transparency: Health is top of mind. In 2021, safety and quality standards will give customers peace of mind.

In action: FOODWORKS' consumers can take confidence knowing that each restaurant partner must adhere to stringent safety practices and quality standards. Prior to serving guests in all FOODWORKS locations, chefs and staff of each featured restaurant must participate in food safety, sanitation and hospitality training programs designed in consultation with some of the nation’s leading health and safety experts. 

Diversity in dining: More important than ever, there is a real need to support minority businesses due to the effects of the pandemic. 

In action: FOODWORKS partners are neighborhood restaurants and women- and minority-owned businesses that share the same commitment to quality, sustainability and community involvement. Over 95 percent of partnerships are local, with an estimated one-third minority owned and one-fourth woman owned.

Scott Davis, president, CoreLife Eatery

Concepts are refocusing on menus through the eyes of online ordering feeds. The search for the next “unicorn” continues to be on brands’ bucket lists. (For example, the next hot chicken sandwich.) More mash ups and unpredictable menu items from established brands.  

Usage occasion envy – Finding new ways for your customers to use your brand.  If your business has been a single- or two-day part business, or all in-store dining, you are being challenged to expand how your customers use you. Delivery/ mobile pickup/ new product categories/ family meals etc. all present new usage occasions which will be as valuable as any new product in the near future.  

Resizing – If brands weren’t thinking small before, they are now. Fifteen-square-foot spaces is the new.  I would bet on more food halls and less chain start-ups in the near future given the risk associated with commercial real estate at the moment. On the other side of that there will be opportunities to “backfill” some good sites now empty with emerging brands. Expect the private equity folks to be exploring the possibilities. 

Bill Dorrler, Executive Chef, Altamarea Group (Osteria Morini + Nicoletta Pizzeria in Washington, DC, Long Island, New Jersey, New York City and coming next, Miami)

Delivery + pick-up – prepared family-style meals- outdoor dining are taking hold. There's only one choice: be positive! We don’t have a crystal ball, we don’t know what's ahead, but if we give in, we lose.

Georgios Drosos, Founder & CEO, GFG Café Cuisine 

The most important trend is the move of the industry to smaller footprint operations that can offer takeout, delivery and drive thru. Having said that, we can clearly see a trend towards offering the customer convenience, safety, and access to their favorite products.  

The most important trend is the move of the industry to smaller footprint operations that can offer takeout, delivery and drive thru.

2021 will be a year that everyone will be cautious since the pandemic is not behind us yet. At the same time, it will be a time of opportunity and change as the industry is trying to do what we do best – serve our customers.  

Matt Eisenacher, VP of Brand Strategy and Innovation, First Watch

In 2021, restaurants brands must continue to evolve their approach to business in order to maintain relevance as we continue to navigate through this pandemic. At First Watch, we will continue to lean into our off-premise offerings and differentiate our native channels through incentives such as reserving our popular and rotating seasonal items for guests who order directly. From a brick-and-mortar standpoint, we’re developing our next generation restaurant prototype to reflect that increase in the off-premise sector of our business and the overall changes in how people choose to dine.  

We also expect to see an increased emphasis on craft cocktails and carefully curated, chef-driven menus. We recently launched a line of signature brunch cocktails as the brunch segment has grown immensely this year and will continue to do so in 2021.

Ross Franklin, CEO and Founder of Pure Green Franchise

In terms of food and beverage trends, one that has been gaining massive traction over the past few years is celery juice, driven by celebrity fans as well as influencers like @medicalmedium, who has 2.7m followers. With this in mind, Pure Green will soon be releasing a 100 percent organic cold-pressed celery juice and will be sold in-store and online. 

Also, with COVID-19 and most of the population working from home, people are seeking new ways to boost energy, productivity and focus. With this in mind, Pure Green will soon be releasing the Lil’ Joe Shot – a 2oz. shot that stacks the double benefits of caffeine from cold-brew coffee with polyphenols of cacao juice. Cacao is the raw form of chocolate and has a host of medicinal benefits. 

Angela Hart, Solutions Director North America, Fourth

With leaner teams in place this year, restaurants have taken to automation and supplementary technology in all areas from FOH to BOH and everywhere in between. Technologies that positively support a team member’s job and create a simplified experience for operational optimization will continue throughout 2021.

Technologies that positively support a team member’s job and create a simplified experience for operational optimization will continue throughout 2021.

In terms of menu trends, we expect an increased emphasis on healthy options with chickpea alternatives such as chickpea ice cream and pasta on the rise, as well as CBD infused items becoming more mainstream for vital stress relief. Now more than ever, people are taking careful consideration in what they are putting into their bodies and plant-based options will continue to be a focus for a variety of restaurants. We also expect that more operators will sourced locally and sustainably with sustainability extending to packaging, straws and printed menus. 

GJ Hart, CEO of Torchy’s Tacos

Now, more than ever, innovation will be key for restaurant operators to succeed. We are focused on rethinking the guest experience in a post-COVID world and are finalizing key operational upgrades to our business that were already in the works to continue differentiating ourselves. This includes reevaluating our restaurant footprint and design – such as looking at locations with smaller indoor footprints and more patio seating, as well as drive-thrus, permanently designated spots for curbside pickup, and contactless takeout. We are also focused on increasing our speed of service and making technology enhancements to help our guests get their Torchy’s fix how and where they want, with the best experience possible.

Next year, we will continue to differentiate our craft casual brand through our food quality, creativity, and menu innovation, such as with our popular and unique Taco of the Month program that our guests enjoy, as well as other quality cues like squeezing fresh limes for our margaritas and making tortillas fresh inside the restaurants. Our goal is to emerge from this stronger than ever, and we are on track to do that.

Mark Hoefer, General Manager, Le Bilboquet Atlanta

Al Fresco dining is here to stay and everywhere, including spaces that seem non-traditional. The overwhelmingly positive response of guests to dining outdoors during this year, through heat, cold, and other imperfect conditions seems to be a trend that Europe understood long before we did. It makes the diner feel connected to their community/neighborhood in a way that sitting in a dining room doesn’t.

Al Fresco dining is here to stay and everywhere, including spaces that seem non-traditional.

I also think that the style of cuisine that people choose to spend their money on is evolving. As people were forced to cook for themselves they have chosen more adventurous food to order when dining out or ordering in. They know how to cook a steak, they want to spend that extra hard-earned cash on something they aren’t comfortable preparing themselves.  

Jeremy Hood, Owner,

As far as outlook goes, we are preparing for a bumpy ride. Taking the wins as they come but preparing for the worst.

Steve Jackson, CEO of Hungry Howie’s Pizza

2020 had the world adjust business operations to navigate through the unexpected coronavirus, especially the restaurant industry. The industry as a whole had to pivot and adapt to a new era of technology, innovation and consumer expectations. 

  • Contactless Revolution – Today, it’s a standard operation for restaurants to offer contactless delivery and curbside pickup to help protect their customers and employees but COVID-19 is leading the contactless revolution. Contactless technology will only grow to play a bigger role and more features will become a standard operation in restaurants such as self-serve kiosks, at-table ordering, one-click order buttons, and pick-up lockers/locations. Contactless technology is only the beginning as we focus on limiting human interaction, touch and communication. Eventually, AI technology will be implemented in restaurants to lead contactless dining from robot staff (chefs, cashier, and servers), voice-activated ordering, app-enabled machines, and walk-out technology.
  • Restaurant and Kitchen Technology – The COVID-19 pandemic left many restaurants short-staffed for various reasons, and it’s apparent to operators on how pivotal it is to have some agility in the kitchen. Businesses are looking for solutions to maximize efficiency in order to reduce labor costs and keep profits high. One solution is employing kitchen technology to improve speed of service along with food quality and consistency. For operations focused on maintaining a dine-in presence, solutions include contactless dining such as implementing QR codes, self-serve kiosks, and Tap-and-Pay system. Strategies will vary based on the consumer’s demands and needs but integrating technology solutions will be key as the pandemic progresses.

The pandemic has franchise brands considering their next business move, and how to be successful in the future.  

  • Reimagining the Drive-Thru Experience – Pizza brands have long offered delivery and carryout, but the impact of COVID-19 has the fast casual chains rethinking their to-go operations, especially the drive-thru. With delivery demands high, major operators are looking to focus on express and drive-thru store models in order to keep up with order demand. This is due to the consumer’s rapidly changing needs and behavior in response to dining room closures and municipal social distancing mandates. For Hungry Howie’s, we’re working with a company to develop a modular unit that can be dropped on a piece of property and offer Hungry Howie’s pizza via drive thru. 
  • Franchising Growth: 2020 created high unemployment rates, low rent and cheap financing which could make 2021 a big year for franchise sales. In particular, the restaurant industry was hit pretty hard, closing many locations resulting in millions of Americans unemployed, including experienced prospects. This gives unemployed workers the time to consider their next career to “become their own boss” and frequently they take a stab at buying their own restaurant or becoming a franchisee. That said, there’s still research to be done on both the franchisor and potential franchisee – and the recession opens a whole new set of questions for both parties. Prospective franchisees will want to look for brands that offer longevity and provide them professional freedom whereas franchisors are focused on growth and finding prospects that that can help generate customer awareness. Every company is different with their own unique criteria on who they do business with. This also speaks to future business plans. The pandemic has franchise brands considering their next business move, and how to be successful in the future.  Many are exploring merger and acquisitions with others to enter new markets, promote growth, and bolster their portfolio. With so many opportunities, 2021 is ripe for franchise and restaurant growth.

Robert Kapfhammer, President of AdCucina, a full-service restaurant and foodservice marketing firm whose clients include KFC and LongHorn Steakhouse

People’s desire for socialization and a fun “experience” will be in conflict with residual fears about catching the virus, even after the quarantine is lifted. Recent surveys show that consumers expect to significantly decrease attending public events, and we expect the same concern to impact the “eatertainment” category. 

In much of the country, patio season is over and winter is coming. Restaurants are getting creative with outdoor dining spaces including heated tents, clear plastic bubbles and greenhouse structures.

First-party delivery and third-party delivery partnerships will continue to be very important for restaurants, as consumers plan to keep their delivery habits in the future

People’s desire for socialization and a fun “experience” will be in conflict with residual fears about catching the virus, even after the quarantine is lifted.

Combine consumer behavior and advertising trends to unlock opportunities. Savvy restaurants will adjust media spending to align with consumer COVID media consumption habits. According to emarketer from 2019 to 2020, digital media is up by 45 minutes per day (driven by mobile) and TV watching has also grown, while radio and print are down slightly from 2019 averages. In 2021 we expect to see significant growth in connected TV ads.

Erosion of loyalists provides an opportunity for restaurants to gain share. During the recession in 2007/2008, only 4 out of 10 brands held onto their most loyal customers and we expect a similar trend in 2021. There are huge opportunities for restaurants to use advertising, direct mail and promotional offers to initiate trials and hook/recruit new customers.

Alex Karavias, owner of Meraki Greek Bistro and Meraki Coconut Grove

I think that we’ll see a more “equally divided” base of our clientele. Just as many guests will want to enjoy dining at home using take-out and delivery service as much as dining in the restaurant.  No longer can we ignore one for the other and we must focus on how to treat both areas of service equally – not over the top, but equally. I believe our guests are going to look for value, so the food and ingredients should be able to translate into that value and quality – and then keeping that consistency is key. I believe that 2021 will show a rebounding shift – we are going to slowly increase in sales, but we shouldn’t anticipate those “busy months” where some restaurants would depend on making the majority of their annual sales/profit.  2021 will be a focus of returning to normalcy while maintaining safety, and we along with the public cannot let our guard down with any positive news that will start coming out soon about the pandemic (such as vaccines, treatments, etc), because that will still take months to trickle down to our society and daily life.