Restaurant Experts’ 2021 Outlook, Part Two

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 one, click here

Nick Kenner, Founder & CEO, Just Salad

Delivery and take-out will continue to be the most popular way consumers will get their restaurant meals in a COVID and post-COVID world. We also see great opportunity for meal kits. Consumers still demand convenience when it comes to their meals, but they also want variety. Meal kits can offer both all while saving a trip to the grocery store.

We also think there will be a greater focus on sustainability efforts throughout the industry.

We also think there will be a greater focus on sustainability efforts throughout the industry. Just Salad was the first national restaurant chain to label its entire menu with carbon emissions similar to how brands like Allbirds had done in the retail sector. Following our announcement that we carbon labeled our menu, Panera and Chipotle followed with something similar shortly after. We celebrate this as it benefits us all when brands focus on sustainability. We also see this gaining traction with consumers similar to how calorie labeling became a major source of information for our personal health. Carbon emissions labeling helps inform our impact on planetary health.

Lavu CEO Saleem S. Khatri

One, the new normal will become the old normal, and a takeout- and delivery-first model will become the standard in the restaurant industry.

Two, there will continue to be pushback on high commission fees from third-party delivery services, and more and more restaurants will find that, given the commission-free alternatives, they simply don’t need them.

And three, above all, we see the need for digital marketing automation continuing and growing into 2021 and beyond. Restaurant owners are as busy as they’ve ever been, so they will look for marketing platforms that allow them to efficiently and effectively set their marketing campaigns, to drive traffic and growth without added effort. 

Scott Lawton, CEO and cofounder at bartaco

Technology is becoming a big part of how we run our business. Contactless ordering at the table, virtual host stands, and online staff wellness checks have all become standard operating procedures for us now. Like many others during this time, we have upgraded how we do takeout and expanded our offerings. Off premise has become a sizable segment of our business, and I don't see it ever going back to pre-COVID numbers. I think that guests will be choosy with where they go out in the future, and concepts that provide an authentic and safe experience will definitely have the edge.

Steve Martorano, owner of Cafe Martorano in Fort Lauderdale 

The younger generations don’t just want great food, they expect memorable experiences. They're going out to eat more often than the older generations, especially right now, and they expect more across the board. Restaurants need to focus on creating personal experiences that create lasting impressions.

Innovative and inviting outdoor seating is going to be crucial in order for restaurants to survive. 

At Martorano’s we’ve always offered that with our weekly DJs and the music and movies we play, along with the food people have come to love over the past 30 years, but I think creating the right ambiance will continue to become more important. People have so many options when it comes to dining out so we need to go above and beyond. Also, innovative and inviting outdoor seating is going to be crucial in order for restaurants to survive. This year businesses had to scramble to throw together outdoor dining spaces in order to stay open and attract customers, however moving forward I believe people will need to focus on creating the ambiance that works to attract new and existing customers back into their restaurant. 

Barry McGowan, CEO Fogo de Chão     

We are confident the consumer’s desire to dine in will continue to get stronger in 2021 along with the joy of gathering with loved ones and excitement around culinary discovery. Fogo has been innovating for 40 years to enhance the guest experience and to give our guests the opportunity to try a little bit of everything when they dine with us. When others have pulled back, we kept innovating by adding new menu items (a new Porterhouse steak, Wagyu New York Strip), half priced bottles of South American wine, To-Go experience packages and more. At many restaurants, you place your order, you take that first bite and that’s it – there’s nothing left to experience after that. At Fogo, there’s always a sense of discovery. We believe guests will want and value this type of unique experience even more next year. 

Britt Mills, Senior Director of Customer Experience at Mobiquity

In 2021, we will see a dip in customer satisfaction. Companies rushed to market with new digital solutions out of necessity and customers were satisfied with the initial products. However, as customers continue to use these tools, are store associates prepared to sustain the positive experience?

To avoid a dip in customer satisfaction, brands must continue to enhance their initial contactless experiences to accommodate customers’ increasing preference for digital shopping.

Mobile experiences will become tailored to a wider audience through increased adoption.

Mobile experiences will become tailored to a wider audience through increased adoption. One size doesn’t fit all. The Baby Boomer and the Gen Z user have significantly different usage patterns in a mobile app and UX and UI teams will need to take this into account as digital solutions become commonplace in the shopping experience. Making apps as intuitive as possible will satisfy a wider audience and increase satisfaction across generational groups. 

Change management needs to be a top priority. A lot of retailers rushed to market in response to COVID-19 to provide mobile experiences that prioritized safety and contactless interactions. Now brands are trying to balance speed to market and operational readiness. Many brands went full speed ahead without taking operations and associate investments into consideration. Through better employee training in 2021, brands can make sure their five-star app isn’t ruined by a disjointed in-person experience.

John Moezzi, National Account Manager, Sharp NEC Display Solutions

Omni-channel approaches to serving customers will be of utmost importance. QSR leaders, like McDonald’s, that were already beginning to embrace this approach are doubling down. The use of digital signage and contactless options will be increasingly important. Chipotle recently announced its first digital-only restaurant called the Chipotle Digital Kitchen. There is no dining room or front service line in this concept. Customers will order in advance via the company’s website, the Chipotle app or third-party delivery partners, and orders will be available for third-party delivery or lobby pickup with all the smells and kitchen views of a traditional Chipotle, but no seating. We’ll see more of these digital experiments abound as consumers increasingly embrace convenience and frictionless transactions. With fewer front-line staff available for customer interactions we’re bound to see digital signage utilized to communicate instructions and order status as well.

Jonathan Morse CEO & Co-founder of Tripleseat

  • Safety is paramount: Gone are the days of buffet style displays and bulk serving. Making guests feel that their food is being prepared and served in a safe way will be integral. That also applies to the event space itself. People will not want to be elbow-to-elbow at events like they used to, meaning they will either need to opt for a larger event space or a smaller number of guests. For restaurants with a limited amount of space, buy-outs of entire restaurants will rise in popularity. This extends into every facet of event planning and preparation. 
  • Rental fees are making a comeback: The hospitality industry was hit hard this year and industry players will be looking for ways to recuperate lost revenue in 2021. In 2021 rental fees for spaces will make a comeback as a way to generate revenue straight to the bottom line. Pre-COVID, most venues charged customers a minimum F&B in lieu of rental, however this is likely to change. Event planners should expect to pay for the rental fees and adjust accordingly.

In 2021 rental fees for spaces will make a comeback as a way to generate revenue straight to the bottom line.

  • Demand is on the rise: There will be a huge demand for events and event space as people who cancelled events in 2020 will rebook in 2021. Starting in April, our data shows that venues will be booked 7 days a week. 
  • Pre-planning may be a thing of the past: Planning ahead has been very difficult this past year, and this will trickle into the event industry in 2021. Typically, people book a month out for an event, however we will start to see a lot of bookings be made in the same month that they are occurring.
  • Fees, fees, fees: As noted, rental fees are something you will see coming back in 2021 but expect to see other types of fees emerging. With safety being top of mind, venues will start offering optional safety packages at an additional fee – think PPE, deep cleaning and sanitizing stations. The average cost of an event pre-COVID was $3,5000, an increase of 40 percent over 2019, post-COVID the average event cost will stay the same, but consumers should be aware that additional costs may emerge for added services. 

Colin Palfrey, CMO of Majesty Coffee

It's hard to say what will happen in 2021, but the pandemic will change the restaurant industry permanently. Restaurateurs will want to diversify their offerings to protect themselves against future catastrophes. Consumers will be used to takeout, outdoor dining, and other creative solutions by the time the pandemic is over.

Chris Prociv, VP Marketing & Innovation at La Brea Bakery

I am really excited and hopeful for the new year. While 2020 was challenging, it has made all of us in the restaurant industry stronger and nimbler, and applying these lessons learned to our businesses in 2021 will give us a major advantage. 

As far as trends that will likely persist into the coming year, COVID is still going to be an ongoing concern for all of us and I expect dine-in options will remain limited and consumers will focus on convenient take-home options that are easy to store.

Not only will it be a slow transition back to dine-in, but people will be more aware of all of the food they’re purchasing and want to be educated consumers. They’re going to be looking for more visibility into the production of their foods and look for continued ingredient transparency from brands.

In addition, immune health is top of mind for so many right now and that absolutely transcends into the food world as well. Ingredients that support our immune systems are going to be a top priority for consumers. Much of our immunity is rooted in gut health, and foods like sourdough that have been proven to have direct benefits to digestive health are going to shine. 

Shyam Rao, CEO and Cofounder, Punchh

The industry will continue to see a heavy shift towards digital as QR, mobile ordering, and contactless pickup/delivery become a safe, convenient staple for workers and consumers alike. With technology at the forefront of restaurant operations, we think there will be an increase in branded mobile apps along with a rise in loyalty programs. We’ve already seen a surge in loyalty programs over the years, and now, with mobile accelerating as fast as it is, there’s great opportunity for brands to follow suit and introduce their own digital offers and rewards platforms.

The industry will continue to see a heavy shift towards digital as QR, mobile ordering, and contactless pickup/delivery become a safe, convenient staple for workers and consumers alike.

At Punchh, our restaurant customers have seen redemption rates of up to 65 percent and an increase in customer loyalty sales of up to 45 percent, leaving no doubt that customers have a desire to stay engaged with their favorite brands. Moving forward, we foresee brands taking advantage of this rapid digital revolution within the industry through loyalty programs, strengthening and optimizing their customer relationships by using personalized, online offers and rewards that capture critical customer data in both online and offline channels.

Bruce Reinstein, Partner, Kinetic12

Restaurant brand will be simplifying their menus, reducing SKUS and providing as much flexibility as possible to the operations of their restaurants. Staff will need to be multitasker instead of specialists as productivity and efficiencies become critical to success. Off premise is here to stay and this will affect future footprints of existing and future restaurants. All concepts will become more of a hybrid as they will add elements of each segment that will make their brand operate better. Technology will continue to evolve and putting ordering and payment in the hands of the customer will continue to be part of the new normal.

Andy Rosenbloom, VP, Marketing, Buyers Edge Platform

While everyone is talking about ghost kitchens, I believe Ecommerce is going to be a driving trend in 2021. Operators and manufacturers are going to begin to shift to an ecommerce model for foodservice procurement. This means, sites like and Amazon are going to win an increasing market share of restaurant purchases and redistributors such as dotfoods will play a larger role in foodservice supply chain. This shift will offer restaurants more purchasing options, more transparency into pricing and availability of products and an on-demand system for procuring food disposables, smallwares and other items they use every day. 

Raquel Rosenthal, CEO, Digilant

I predict we'll see foot-traffic studies rise in importance as a method to measure advertising success for QSR brands. While it's important to measure shifts in consumer behavior, it's also important to recognize that not all markets and consumer segments may continue to be as impacted by the surge of digital ordering. Foot-traffic studies can help QSR marketers capture consumers whose customer journey includes exposure to digital ads but ends with an in-store purchase.

Tasso Roumeliotis, CEO and Founder of Numa

1. Curbside and takeout is here to stay. We don’t even need statistics to prove that curbside and takeout has exploded, but will it last? Most definitely. According to research from Technomic, 40 percent of Americans took advantage of takeout and curbside delivery (at both fast casual and dine-in) during the pandemic. About two-thirds of those stated they would continue using these services even if restrictions are lifted.

With more people ordering food online and opting for takeout and curbside, ratings and reviews will become more important than ever.

2. With Gen Z hitting the job market, restaurants will increasingly communicate with employees and customers via messaging versus calling. When it comes to staff, part-time employment is a large part of the business model, so connecting with people on their availability for shifts or overtime via messaging will expedite the response time. Text messaging is not only a more efficient way to communicate with this generation, but also improve customer service. Take Lex Gopnik-Lewinski of Augie’s Montreal Deli in Berkeley, Calif., for example. By implementing a technology that converted his landline into a textable number, he was able to keep his doors “open” and his customer calls and requests answered—even when his authentic Montreal-style Jewish delicatessen was closed. He’s now using text messaging to successfully communicate with customers from his restaurant, which had to quickly transition from indoor dining to outside pickup when stay-at-home mandates were issued.

3. With more people ordering food online and opting for takeout and curbside, ratings and reviews will become more important than ever. According to BrightLocal, 82 percent of consumers read reviews for local businesses and 48 percent of consumers only pay attention to reviews written within the past two weeks. A positive reputation online helps customers trust restaurants, converts searchers into orders, and boosts local search rankings. With the proliferation of social media, it is understandable. 

Dan Rowe, Founder & CEO, Fransmart

I believe that off-premise dining will continue to increase as a strategy for sales growth and increased revenue, along with safe dining and technological advancements to help customers feel comfortable when going out to eat and keep both customers and staff safe.

TJ Schier, President and Founder of Incentivize Solutions and S.M.A.R.T. Restaurant Group

I certainly hope we can get back to the social aspect of dining out. People really miss being able to gather, interact and enjoy great food and drink together. Everyone says dining rooms are going away, but many people still want to ‘go out to eat’ and there will still be a need to have seating capacity inside. It will be interesting to see how much third-party delivery and ‘off-premises’ sales decline once dining rooms safely reopen. How much will the changed consumer habits revert back to dine-in? We shall wait and see. Finally, who figures out how to do self-delivery will be able to more profitably return to ‘normalcy’, while continuing to meet the need of their guests.

Karen Schloss of New Jersey-based dsc/ diaz • schloss communications

 As far as trends, all that started in the pandemic will continue into 2021 and beyond — curbside pickup, QR codes for menus, family meals to go. Also, many will continue to sell produce, dairy and other products they can source from purveyors and run mini-markets — selling their breads, sauces, donut kits, etc. 

Bart Shuldman, Chairman and CEO, TransAct Technologies

Next year, we will see even greater adoption of technologies that lend to operational efficiencies – in both the back- and front-of-house. Understandably, restaurant team members have even more responsibilities to juggle given the additional health and safety protocol required amid the pandemic. Restaurant operators can best support their staff and streamlined workflow through the use of automated technologies.

Next year, we will see even greater adoption of technologies that lend to operational efficiencies – in both the back- and front-of-house.

For example, BOHA! makes sure every task – say something like sanitizing counters every half hour – is assigned and completed, and every team member is 100 percent accountable with clear directions and automated friendly reminders.  At Corporate, Operations staff can track performance via a central dashboard to identify their best performers and those that need additional training & support.

Jennifer Schuler, CEO of Wetzel’s Pretzels

As things start to sort themselves out, I’m optimistic about 2021. Consumers are doubling down on comfort foods during the pandemic. This year has been tough for everyone and there’s a level of comfort in still being able to grab your favorite pretzel and lemonade at Wetzel’s. Grab and go concepts are resilient and can weather different environments. 

Overall, there are still plenty of opportunities out there, and people with access to capital will be able to find good deals. We will continue to flex our format and business model to be a profitable investment for anyone ready to bake dough and make dough!

Mandy Slater, Co-owner, 9 Mile Station

My outlook for 2021 is good. I feel like there is going to be a demand in areas that we couldn’t service this year such as milestone social events and gatherings. People are eager to get back to being social. We are social creatures that don’t like to live in isolation and as soon as possible, I believe people will be back to their social lives. It may not happen until the middle of next year but I’m confident that it will be back. I do hope that some of the lessons learned will stick because some of them have resulted in us running a much more efficient business. 

Atul Sood, Chief Business Officer, Kitchen United

Due to the pandemic, much has changed in a relatively short period and we believe that in 2021 we will continue to see growth in our sector as restaurants capitalize on kitchen centers as a cost-effective format. Given the demand for off-premise and current trends, we expect operators will update menus with more travel friendly items to ensure the best experience at home, while also building in more family friendly options. That said, we are optimistic for the restaurant industry overall and thoroughly believe that dining in restaurants will re-emerge as consumers crave eating out with friends and family for everything from a coffee catch up to celebratory meals. 

Lexi Sydow, Senior Insights Manager, App Annie 

Consumers will continue to rely on food delivery apps like DoorDash and Uber Eats to bridge the gap between restaurants and staying home. With tourism and hospitality hit hard by shelter-in-place policies, we anticipate food delivery apps will be a cornerstone of restaurant strategies. 

Even in the QSR industry that has traditionally relied on foot traffic, McDonald's, Starbucks and Chick-fil-A were the most downloaded fast-food apps in the US in Q3 (with two out of three offering delivery).

Taka Tanaka, CEO of AUTEC Sushi Robots

First-party delivery and third-party delivery partnerships will continue to be essential for restaurants, as on-going dining restrictions will sway consumers to keep their delivery habits. Strictly virtual operations will take over brick and mortar operations as delivery demands surge. 

Automation will become the new norm as the pandemic ensues.

Automation will become the new norm as the pandemic ensues. We will need to learn how to operate hygienically and safely through technological advancements. In 2021, I believe we will experience a bit more stability in the restaurant industry as businesses learn how to navigate this crisis, and consumers acclimate to the modified dining experience.

Mark Toth, Founder, Urban Wok

Investment in more current technology along with the need to keep up with technology is critical. Urban Wok believes that more efficient and effective operations will continue to evolve. Smaller kitchens, smaller dining rooms.  Virtual Restaurants within your brand for incremental sales. The quality of takeout / To-Go is being taken to a higher level. 

I believe 2021 will still be challenging because until vaccines are available to all for COVID the restaurant industry cannot return to “normal” and “normal’ has changed. Customer Service no longer means personal interaction – convenience, speed, flexibility, etc. 

Sara Tucy, Director, Restaurant Client Strategy, Valassis

We see a continued one-to-one relationship, as more consumers desire to order how they want, eat where and when they want and receive messaging tailored to them as individuals. 

We’ve also seen management-level conversations shift toward shrinking ad budgets and lower funnel tactics surrounding loyalty, personalization, growing app usage and connecting consumers with the right offers, at the right time through their preferred media channels. Restaurants are trying to do more with less and becoming very precise in their advertising approach.

Shifts in consumer ordering, buying and consumption patterns are here to stay.

Shifts in consumer ordering, buying and consumption patterns are here to stay. In fact, according to a survey by Prosper Insights & Analytics, one-third of consumers are saving more of what they earn, spending less dining out and expect this to continue over the next five years. Brands that offer a regular cadence of value and savings to stay top of mind will be better positioned to win in 2021 and beyond.

Carl Van Ostrand, VP of Consumer Insights, DISQO

Pandemic aside, both attitudinal and behavioral data predict that customers won't stop using digital meal delivery services, so every brand needs a plan for fostering takeout and delivery in 2021. Restaurants should do their research to determine which digital solution will best serve their customers, while maximizing margins and operational efficiencies. They should also consider surveying clients and staff to understand their needs and preferences.

Even after we have developed a vaccine and life returns to normal, people will continue to use these convenient and user-friendly services. By building out these capabilities now, restaurants will be well-suited to weather the repercussions of COVID-19, to earn customer trust and to stand out in what is sure to be a digital-first future. 

Farrellynn Wolf, CEO of Goodcents 

Convenience is a trend that obviously will continue into 2021 and beyond, and so going forward we will be executing curbside pickup and recommending drive-thrus where possible at our new locations.

Another huge trend will be helping our guests feel safe. To that end, by late January we will launch the Goodcents Certified Clean Program, with every Goodcents restaurant equipped with an electrostatic sprayer and Shield Disinfectant Sanitizer™ products, which are approved by the USDA, EPA and FDA and food safe. Every restaurant also will have a ThermoVu™ noncontact temperature check device at the door available for guests and required to be used by all crew members.

We are extremely optimistic about what 2021 holds. We are confident in our product offerings, in our safety protocols and in our business. We believe that because so many people are looking for new careers in which they can control their own destiny, there will be even more interest in franchising opportunities like ours.

Justin Worster, Performance Strategy Manager,

One trend that may amplify in 2021 is the focus on loyalty programs and branded apps. In addition to introducing first-time customers to their brands, restaurants have also sought out loyalists to increase frequency among these diners. Loyalty rewards programs and apps, which are always present on a diner’s phone, are a sure bet to keep brands top of mind when decisions around meals are being made. Smaller physical footprints are also a consideration for 2021. New restaurant locations are likely to be smaller, recognizing a larger focus on off-premises demand. 2020 has shown the success of ghost kitchens, takeout-only locations, and third-party delivery partners. With these features, restaurants are less in need of physical space than ever before.

We have continued to see large restaurant brands step away from traditional, linear TV to seek out alternative options to reach households.

We have continued to see large restaurant brands step away from traditional, linear TV to seek out alternative options to reach households. Connected TV (CTV) reaches more than 70 million homes and perfectly complements the reminder ads on mobile and desktop. While 2020 saw a decrease in advertising budgets for most casual dining restaurants and a competitive surge in spending for top-performing QSRs competing for market share, I believe more advertisers will be spending in the first half of 2021. The renewed spending will likely be placed behind loyalty programs and new menu messaging to drive awareness and maintain market share in a takeout/delivery-centric industry. CTV’s record of driving brand awareness is key in cementing market share against competitors and will likely be a key piece in marketing mixes in 2021.

Le Zhang, CEO and founder, Squadle

Health and safety remain the primary focus of restaurants as we turn the calendar to 2021. Looking ahead here are some of the top food safety trends for the year to come. 

Consistency of brand experience — For brands with multiple locations and franchisees, it’s important to maintain a consistent customer experience across all locations. This includes signage, sanitation and shift management. In the year to come, more brands will move from paper logs to digital checklists in order to ensure a consistent experience across all locations. As promotions like limited time offers become more popular in the COVID era, digital checklists can ensure consistency across a brand’s promotional campaigns — from limited time offers (LTOs) to buy-one get-one-free (BOGOs) — by standardizing each step of the promotion, from rollout to redemption.

AI and Automation — Digitized food safety checklists provide up-to-the-minute completion rates, personalized dashboards with text and email alerts to provide a real-time pulse on the activity and compliance in each store. Automated tools and processes like these allow employees to complete tasks while decreasing the need to come into close contact with individual items within the store and other workers. To better battle the pandemic, brands will install remote temperature monitoring to help make temperature logging processes touchless. And integrated video surveillance tools will help management stay up to the minute on both staff and guest cleanliness and store performance without needing to be there in person.

Health and safety remain the primary focus of restaurants as we turn the calendar to 2021.

Updated Formats — As COVID continues to be a threat, restaurants will rethink their formats to optimize staff and guest safety with built-in social distancing parameters. With more takeout and less eating in, dining rooms will be smaller with fewer seats; takeout infrastructure will expand to accommodate more staff at the front desk and even more designated parking spaces for curbside pickup. Both restaurant staff and guests will continue to embrace self-ordering technology, which eliminates the need to deal face-to-face with an employee. As brands everywhere expand their use of delivery, pick-up and mobile apps, they’ll also adopt:

  • New material with food packaging to ensure safe delivery (i.e. inspection stickers or stickers to show seal is not broken)
  • Mobile apps will facilitate greater flexibility as operators and employees comply with fast-changing regulation changes on things like indoor dining closing/opening, change in social distancing guidelines, occupancy guidelines, etc.
  • All brands will rely more on social media and social media advertising to attract and retain guests

Staff Safety — As essential workers who engage with customers in our current pandemic environment, employees are key to any brand’s success. Brands need to double down on employee engagement and use completion rates and task accuracy to recognize employees who are high-performing. The addition of thermal temperature scanners and daily employee check-ins help ensure that employees are physically healthy before they report for work.