The restaurant industry is continuously evolving. There are several trends and changes that contribute to this continuous evolution. Trends in the restaurant industry appear as fast as they disappear. Changes stick around and become embedded in the industry.
For instance, rainbow bagels, extreme milkshakes, and rolled ice-creams were trends.
They helped us gain some extra weight for a while and soon were forgotten and replaced by the kale and quinoa to help us lose those extra pounds. Payment by credit card and online reservations are changes that are still around years after they were first implemented.
2020 has been an unpredictable year and will continue to be uncertain. Even with the many unknowns, some predictions will shape the restaurant industry this year. In this article, we will walk you through these predictions curated by the top masterminds of the restaurant industry, along with examples and ideas to inspire you.
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Table of Contents
Drive-Throughs and Deliveries
Drive-throughs and deliveries are not new concepts. The idea is simple: you order items through the drive-through, over the phone, or through an app on your smartphone and then receive your meal (or dessert in my case) packaged to go. Both delivery and drive-thrus were historically in many ways limited to fast-food chains (quick-service restaurants) and moderately priced full-service restaurants. This historical approach is now changing.
Many restaurants, including the fine-dining ones that are chef and experience-driven, are now adopting the delivery concept. They aren’t stopping there and are also being creative with it. With more and more restaurants pursuing this with full rigor, the landscape will change in terms of both scale and concept. The demand for services of companies like Grubhub, DoorDash, and Uber eats is already up by more than 150% since the outbreak of the virus.
Restaurants are getting innovative to stand out in the crowd (now every restaurant type and concept is listed side by side in an ordering app) and bring excitement to the delivery game. Here are some examples and ideas adopted by both restaurants (of all sizes) and food-trucks.
- Changing delivery menu every week, and select items on the weekends (think your daily specials now listed in the app!)
- Cheese, wine and condiments platters on demand
- Tasting menus to-go
- Sunday family meals home-delivered
- Instagrammable food bowls now come in packaged boxed with instructions (like an art and craft food-kit)
Even bars and cocktail lounges are joining this game. Cork-bottled wine or boxed wine were the norms. Canned wine and cocktails curated by the bars are the new players in the game. They are also highly welcomed as they are not only convenient but recyclable and cheaper than a whole bottle or a cocktail at the bar.
Some cocktail bars are also experimenting with pre-packaged cocktail kits. It is a fun space to enter as you can do a lot to ride the new trends like low-alcohol, low, and natural sugar, customizable drinks. Kits give a high range of flexibility to both the bars (to experiment and comply with changing preferences) and customers (to get simple and customized drinks sitting at home).
Restaurants Become Mini-Grocers
When the restaurants shut down due to the COVID-19 virus, many chose to avoid risk entirely and did not offer takeout. The complete shutdown meant excess inventory loaded at these restaurants, which surprisingly was not a problem.
The residents were more than happy to buy exquisite and imported ingredients, semi-prepared foods, fresh herbs, bottled fresh sauces, and jams. It was almost like a modern farmer’s market when the restaurants opened their inventory for sale. What started as a measure to get any revenue inflow they can and save food wastage, soon became a full-time hustle.
Restaurants got reviews like “This is so much better than the supermarket wine” or “I would pay for that bottled fresh hollandaise,” which meant there was potential in putting their inventory up for sale long term. Restaurants, even when they open, are expecting anywhere between 30-60% occupancy in the coming months. This occupancy for most restaurants is not enough to even break-even, let alone make a profit.
What does this mean?
Additional sources of revenue can move the needle towards profitability and the owner’s compensation. Selling grocery, whether fresh (truffles, herbs, flour) or prepared (bread, jam, sauces) is a good use of the empty space, keeps the inventory flowing which means the supplier relations are intact, can be managed with less or no staff and gives an alternate source of revenue.
This approach is not just limited to fine-dining establishments with fancy ingredients and larger than life brands (our food channel friends). Fast-food restaurants are also active in this game. Fast-foods have developed their ingredients over the years; for instance, Dominoes took all of 18 months to come up with their pizza base and sauce when they changed their product in 2008. This timeline means it is not easy to replicate them, and the store-bought is not the same. Fast-food chains are filling up this gap by now selling meal kits.
Shake Shack restaurants are selling kits containing ingredients for customers to create burgers at home that are at par with what they can get at the chain. The kit comprises ready-made burger patties, buns, cheese slices, and their signature sauces. Each of these four ingredients is made in-house, loved by people, and almost ready to be enjoyed. Even when the chains open up, demand might not be the same as before the virus for these chains. The kits are an excellent pivot to keep giving your customers what they want, even if it means via another channel.
Another example is Chipotle. The chain launched an e-commerce platform for its farm partners. Now, along with the Chipotle menu items, you can also get meat, dairy, and other farm items from their store.
When you look at companies like Goldbelly (they send you meals from your favorite spots around the country), you will realize that this concept is not new. Many players, including Russ & Daughters of New York or Pat King of Steaks in Philadelphia, already have been doing this for years. This historic trend means even the smaller chains or restaurants (that do not have big teams to help with designing food packaging, kit development, setting distribution channels) can take advantage of the existing science and ecosystem and join the trend on time.
Gourmet Street Food
Street food has seen a lot of evolution in recent years. It is also a gray area that you consider “street food.” Several years ago, pizza was a thing for the rich, and now it is food for everyone. Regular people did not even know how it tasted. Then it became a popular item in many regular restaurants and is part of everyone’s lifestyle. You can find it at your local bar and the most expensive Italian restaurant in your neighborhood and likely everywhere in between. It is both street food and a Michelin star item at fine-dining establishments.
The same trend existed for Sushi. It was initially an item for the elite, available at only the top establishments. No one back then could have imagined that you would be able to eat Sushi every Wednesday from the food-truck next to your office. The street food world regularly sees new food come and go. One thing remains constant in the world of street food – the love for it.
With hygiene and sanitization at the top of everyone’s mind, street food vendors are having a tough time gaining the confidence of their regular customers. However, restaurants are filling this gap by jazzing up street food to give customers what they want, while maintaining the brand and image of their restaurant (and the relevant cleanliness standards).
Another factor contributing to this trend is the change in lifestyle. Metro dwellers historically love the comfort and price of street food. For their busy lifestyle, the speed and cost of street food are unmatchable.
Now that everyone is home, they are more open to healthier or different options with a similar flare they used to love. Modifying standardized street food with new flavors, presentations, and ingredient tweaks is a trend that will pick up in the coming months.
Private Catering Experiences
Private catering experiences are a thing reserved for extraordinary occasions and a minimal group of people, given how expensive it is. However, that is changing. It will become more common, cheaper, and the industry itself will also be innovative.
During all the summer barbecue evenings, once in a while, having a chef grill barbecue with gourmet meats, sides, and homemade sauces wouldn’t be the worst thing (I mean it’s what I dream of, how about you?).
For the family, Sunday brunches, having a specialist prepare the whole brunch spread so you can wake up late, is even better than breakfast in bed. For your birthday party, a restaurant catering to healthy finger foods and the perfect birthday cake without emptying your wallet will be the best birthday gift you will get. These scenarios will become familiar with the rise in private catering at more affordable prices.
Restaurants after lockdown will keep their operations and staff as lean as possible. This change means there will be many professionals from the industry who will want to find alternative opportunities to use their skills and make money.
Some restaurants are going ahead and also renting out part of their dining space for private events. You can host parties or conferences with a private chef and no hassle of cleaning up after. For restaurants, this means an added source of revenue without significant changes. It is a win-win for both parties.
Downsizing menus is a new trend that is picking up steam. Besides the apparent benefit of streamlined operations and cost-effective kitchen, there is much more to it. When you reduce the menu, you will keep the best-sellers, items that resonate with your restaurant brand the most.
This reduction helps bring more clarity to your restaurant concept. For instance, if you are a burger joint, you can stick to burgers, fries, and shakes. No longer do you need the soups and the salads.
Now you can offer more customization, as you have limited items to focus energy on. This tactic also gives you more ideas on customer preferences and ideas for product and menu development for the future. Additionally, now that your chef is not spread too thin, he can focus all his skills on leveling up the burger and making the patty juicier and the shakes thicker (or healthier – whatever the customers want as you can now customize).
Even from the customer standpoint, the ordering process looks easier. Decision making is less overwhelming with limited choice and also quicker for both sides. Lastly, you can also mitigate food wastage. With limited items, you are already ordering fewer ingredients, and it is easier to track and optimize inventory management.
This smaller menu approach is a trend suitable for both fast-food joints and regular restaurants. We already know that chains like Chick-fil-A have limited menu items to streamline operations and rely on higher volumes.
Since their prices are low, they rely on the volume game and reduced costs to produce substantial profits. For other restaurants, you can give a more boutique and specialized feel with your reduced menu and perhaps charge higher for the improved items.
This trend appears year after year without fail sometimes every season. For 2020, we have again a list of items that will take over all menus in some form or the other.
Seaweed is an underrated player finally getting the attention it deserves. A good source of vitamins and antioxidants, it has been a dietary staple limited to some parts of Asia and the Mediterranean. Now, it is getting more and more popular, even in the Americas.
You will not only eat seaweed more in your food now, but seaweed based snacks like chips are also the next big thing. What is the best part about seaweed? It is grown sustainably without many resources. It is good for you and good for the planet and lets you ride the Instagram wave. Seaweed will have an exciting year.
If you can go beyond the smell, you will be amazed at the nutritional qualities a jackfruit can provide. And the best of it all? It is a low-calorie, low-carbs, AND high-protein food. It is almost like everyone’s wish suddenly came true in 2020.
There are many ways to eat Jackfruit. You can eat it raw, dehydrated, jammed, fried, or cooked – so everyone will like at least some form of it. The whole switch to plant-based protein is also helping Jackfruit become the star of menus around the world.
The generation wants a change every few years, even when it comes to our most staple items like wheat grain. Enter into the picture, barley, buckwheat, Kamut. Even with the ordinary white flour, germs or bran are added to bring in change.
Baking recipes now read more of spelt flour, and quinoa flour, “just-flour,” a.k.a white flour won’t cut it anymore. Seed flours are also gaining momentum, and cookies with banana flour do not sound strange anymore.
This trend has already gained traction in recent years but will get even more significant now in the coming months and years. Brands like Beyond Meat have been around for a decade, but they have finally reached a stage where they can offer an advanced product, reduced prices, and global distribution. The cost and nutrition are on par with meat products, they are more sustainable, and it is also acceptable to say “less-risky” (referring to the new viruses and outbreaks coming out of meat factories).
New and exciting brands are emerging, for instance, even Trader Joes rolled out its copycat version of Beyond Meat. While Beyond Meat and Trader Joes are trying to replicate the actual meat, there are also other alternatives gaining popularity. Soy-based products, bean-patties, tofu, lentil-based products are all demanded more now as an alternative to meat.
All About Gut Food Feeling
Fermented foods are the new health trend that is gaining a lot of attention. Fermenting is a natural process and fits perfectly in the whole consumer need of “non-processed” foods. To add to this, it is highly beneficial for gut health, which is also becoming a priority for many groups as they are becoming more passionate about full-body health.
Fermented foods have a new and unusual taste to it, which adds to the ease of their adoption. Kimchi, Kefir, Sourdough, Kombucha, Miso – these are just some of the uber-popular fermented foods. Joining this group soon are Sauerkraut, Miso, Garri, Poi, and many more (region dependent).
Restaurants are trying to be innovative and even fermenting foods that have never been fermented before. Food trucks and street vendors are joining this trend by adding small portions of fermented ingredients like kimchi or pickled cucumbers. Bars now have kombucha on taps – this gives an even better picture of the popularity of fermented foods and drinks.
More Local Sourcing
2020 will be a year when farm to table will become more normalized, rather than the cool factor it has been historically. Not just restaurants, but several companies are working on making local farming and a self-sufficient food ecosystem more common. For instance, Steward is a crowdfunding platform for people to invest in sustainable farms and reap the benefits.
Restaurants are striving to offer locally sourced and organic menu items. So much so that “farm-to-cocktail” has also become a common jargon. With the rise in demand for hyper-local, all things natural, environmental/sustainable goods – locally sourced ingredients are getting a push. Due to the higher consumer interest, restaurants can absorb the cost of local food by passing it on to customers and saving on suppliers’ fees.
However, it is not all easy as it sounds. Cooking with new ingredients is always about discovering new items and flavors (even the same ingredient has different taste and texture when sourced from different production locations). The kitchen needs to plan these changes, and farmers must have enough produce to support a continuous flow of demand. As a result, it started small, but 2020 can see it growing and advancing.
Restaurants directly at the farm (think on the lines of vineyards but for food) are also emerging. Even restaurant chains that rely on volume games for sourcing their supplies and obtaining discounts are changing their model to accommodate this trend—for instance, Sweetgreen.
Cocktail Kits Delivered and Available To-Go
The article briefly mentioned canned wines and cocktails, but this genre is picking up a whole lot more than just as a delivery item. Bars and restaurants are getting customers who, when order something off their menu, always want a drink to go with it. On-premise, it is no problem. Off-premise needs some additional innovation.
Restaurants, as per their concept and image, are trying out different ways to serve their customers drinks off-premise. Some current popular formats include:
- Cocktail pouches – these are essentially a ready-to-drink cocktail in a pouch. These are 60 ounces drinks (size of a standard cocktail on-premise) and have a nozzle fitted so that the drinkers can press and dispense an already mixed drink.
- Some bars are even offering tasting experiences, where they offer a subscription box that includes two full-size cocktails every week or other week based on the customer’s preference on the selected delivery day. The bars also provide “premium” options and fit in relevant snacks and cheese with the drinks.
- Bars are providing larger format cocktails that serve around 10-12 portions (think family size!)
There are many bars and cocktail lounges that are even coming up with new delivery menus, including drinks more suitable for a take-home or are adapting their existing menu to make it delivery suitable.
Further, they are experimenting with seasonal and holiday-themed flavors to spice up regular drinks and make it more ideal for celebrations at home. These tweaks are usually provided by more high-end bars that offer a lot of customization on-premise and want to replicate this experience at home by pre-mixing different flavors to traditional drinks.
One common issue with this trend is regulation. Different states have different laws around the delivery of alcohol, so one must be careful about compliance. If allowed, this trend can be a high-margin product for cocktail lounges and bars.
Ghost and Cloud Kitchens
Simply put, cloud kitchens are food production facilities solely for delivery. They do not have dine-in space or a pick-up location. This deliver-only business model, in many ways, is a genius move. Restaurants have high fixed costs, and rental space and staff make a bulk of this cost. With cloud kitchens, the prices are reduced significantly due to the absence of the two (think no front of the house staff).
Further, there are many delivery players in the food ecosystem. Partnering with them is again way cheaper than having an army of delivery staff. Also, the partnership fees are mostly variable, further reducing the stress of high fixed costs.
The pandemic has helped realize the genius of this even more. The occupancy is not expected to be on par with the pre-COVID period anytime soon. With people at home, restaurants are pivoting to home delivery more and more to get consistent revenue. With the cloud kitchen concept, they can do that without the hassle of a whole physical space eating up revenue with rents, utilities, etc.
Further, there are many new players in this space that are facilitating the growth of cloud kitchens. For instance, experienced players are opening up cloud kitchens and providing shared spaces for kitchens to start their service. Delivery service Door Dash opened its very own cloud kitchen. Big brands, including Chick-Fil-A, use the DoorDash space. DoorDash provides partnerships for their delivery service, marketing via their already established channels, and even connections and networks for getting supplies and vendors.
Restaurants, fast-food joints, bakeries – all formats are joining the trend.
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Transparent and Interactive Kitchens
We repeatedly learned that the restaurants would be expecting less occupancy than before. This reduction means extra space and a chance to provide more to the customers (also a way to charge more). Some restaurants are introducing more than just culinary experience for their guests.
Live chefs at a table were usually limited to individual dishes or high-end restaurants, but this is getting more and more popular now. The same goes for personal cocktail mixers for the guests. It is fun to watch your food or drink prepared right in front of you while you wait for it. Maybe this year, we will see many new “salt baes” on our Instagram feed.
Another approach to providing a wholesome experience to the guests is by giving fanfare. Initially, we only saw some themed restaurants doing this. For instance, the famous Magic Castle in Los Angeles is an invite-only restaurant, and when you do walk-in, it won’t be just their steak and potato menu mesmerizing you. They have a whole range of actual magicians and talking owls to keep you entertained. Another restaurant in Santa Monica, Dialogue, charges as high as $700 for a 21-item tasting menu. The chef himself serves the cuisine while telling you stories of what inspired each item on the menu.
Restaurants are getting creative and giving you reasons to leave your house and join them at their dine-in establishments (of course, while keeping up the safety measures).
For the restaurants that are banking on dine-in, safety measures are top on their priority list. Restaurants are also getting innovative about sanitizing to enhance and not harm the experience of the guests.
There are apparent measures in place, such as sanitizing the table, heated plates to kill the germs, paper, and plastic condiments to avoid sharing and many more approaches. For buffet restaurants, there are also protocols such as guests wearing gloves while serving themselves.
Restaurants are, however, also trying to bring in a bit of fun to these measures. Some innovative ideas implemented around the world:
- Large images of famous paintings including Monet to separate the tables
- Cardboard cutout and mannequins of diners at alternate tables
- Domes around each table (suitable for outdoor/patio restaurants)
- Miniature greenhouses for guests to sit-in (think like mini-glass cubicles with proper ventilation)
- Social-distancing props (headgears, noodle hats)
- Stuffed pandas on the table to ensure a safe distance between everyone
These creative measures not only gain guests’ confidence but also help the restaurants stand out from the others.
There is a lot of untapped potential in virtual experiences – the pandemic highlighted this gap, and the industry took immediate steps. Some of the examples of virtual experiences include:
Dining Experience Over Screens
People are missing the experience of coming together for a meal. To replicate this, but in the COVID-era style, The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro organized a digital dinner party. Guests can choose their platform (Zoom/Skype/Facetime) and send out an invite to the restaurant and the guests.
The restaurant will send the order through delivery platforms to all the guests at the same time, and you can enjoy some burgers and beers with your friends. Chain Red Lobster did something similar for creating date nights. They recreated date experiences by adding Spotify playlists and Zoom backgrounds to their offerings.
Taste Like A Pro (a sampling experience) hosted by a famous Chef, Gavin Kaysen (back in 2018). The attendees were provided iPads to get a 360-degree view of the kitchen, and as part of the sampling experience, people were shown behind-the-scene of the kitchen.
They could look at how the famous recipes were created.
Even before the pandemic, top chefs realized the importance of cooking demonstrations (both in-kitchen and virtually). For instance, Chef Frank Bonanno (owner of 9 restaurants in Denver) has been organizing cooking classes for years as a way to connect with other chefs and guests. This approach also gives him a chance to show his signature dishes and gather interest in new and improved recipes.
While these classes are more relevant for connecting with local guests, several restaurants in significant cities heavily rely on the tourist population as well. Virtual experiences open opportunities to connect with an audience beyond the borders, too, and form a loyal gathering outside of your neighborhood.
Benefits of cooking classes include people trying to replicate your signature recipes and sharing it with their network (word-of-mouth publicity), a chance to get first-hand feedback or preference understanding, build relationships and loyalty.
Plating, Food Decor, and Restaurant Themes
Instagram, Pinterest, and other platforms are great platforms for restaurants to exhibit their concept and branding. When guests cannot visit dine-ins and experience those beautiful plating or perfectly decorated desserts, restaurants can bring them to the guests virtually.
These virtual experiences help the restaurants stay connected with their guests and also expand their offering and establish additional sources of revenue.
Heavy Reliance on Technology
For an industry that is still quite traditional, technological advancement isn’t always easy or cheap. Nevertheless, restaurants of sizes jumped in quickly and introduced technology to keep up with the changing protocols.
Some necessary improvements included digital contactless payments, app-based ordering, digital screens on the table to answer any queries. Many conventional restaurant processes like pre-shift meetings, flow planning, duty appointments went digital. When it comes to interacting with guests and serving them, restaurants tried different methods. Some popular ones are:
- A chute or rope pulley system to exchange goods and money in cafes to avoid human interaction
- Robots to take the temperature of guests and serve food
- Conveyor belt robot to serve dishes around the restaurant (guests can pick-up like a buffet concept)
While this can be expensive for restaurants to implement, especially when the orders and revenue levels aren’t what they are supposed to be. However, without these advancements, restaurants cannot survive either, and this could be a good investment for a profitable future.
Trends That Will Stay Longer
2020 trends will most likely last longer than previous trends. It will be interesting to watch these changes and new trends take root in the restaurant industry. The hospitality industry still has a lot of potentials, but needs are shifting.
While people are dining-out less, they are ordering more and drinking more. They are looking for experiences to break cabin fever and monotony. They are becoming more aware and supportive and also more willing to shell out more when they see genuine efforts towards sustainability or supporting the locals. Restaurants need to identify these shifts and adapt to become a part of the change.
The trends listed here give you a good insight into some of the steps you can work on today. We will update and write about new developments in the industry regularly, until then – working on this list item should keep you occupied.
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