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10 restaurant trends to watch in 2021

We needn’t point out that how people eat and drink was dramatically changed in 2020. We don’t have a crystal ball, but based on what epidemiologists are predicting, the first quarter of 2021 will probably feel a lot like it has for most of 2020. It’s unlikely that sit-down dining service will come roaring back in the coming months, so expect take-out and delivery to continue to rule the day.

Many restaurants that offer online ordering have been able to thrive despite the pandemic. Savvy restaurateurs will continue to make adjustments to their offering in order to keep their customers coming back next year. 

Here are the trends every restaurateur should be aware of in order to stay ahead of the game in 2021:

1. Take-out and delivery will still be a must

At this point, even older-generation consumers are used to ordering delivery using mobile apps. Partnering with a delivery platform such as Uber Eats, or offering take-out and delivery with your own ordering app will be key moving forward. According to a Morgan Stanley study, “Delivery penetration was already gaining momentum before the pandemic. Now, a transformation that was projected to take years is happening in months.”

2. Contactless curbside pickup

While the vaccine against Covid-19 will roll out quickly in 2021, that doesn’t mean consumers won’t have to be careful about entering public spaces (even for picking up food). Contactless curbside pickup allows customers to remain in the safety of their car while food is delivered to their open trunk.

3. Ghost kitchens will keep popping up

This year proved that you don’t need a lot of overhead to sell food. Ghost restaurants, also known as virtual kitchens, operate without dining rooms, and wait staff. Instead, they make use of existing restaurant kitchens to sell food for delivery or take-out exclusively. In fact, numerous restaurant businesses can work from the same physical kitchen—all they need is the kitchen, a brand, a menu, a small staff, and a point of sale that integrates with a delivery platform such as Uber Eats.

Ghost kitchens will continue to prevail in 2021 due to their massively stripped-down business model, and consumer preferences for online ordering.

4. Restaurants partnering with grocery stores 

Many of us find ourselves dining out just to eat that salad dressing, taste that salsa, or slurp down some noodles in that sauce. Restaurants with these popular, signature items (often condiments or sauces) will continue to partner with grocery stores as an additional sales channel.

5. More innovative to-go packaging

As delivery and take-out service continues to expand, the need for greener packaging will be a priority. To cut down on waste, restaurants will have to find ways to minimize the use of plastics, use recyclable or recycled material, and focus on lightweight packaging. Many companies will find ways of reducing the use of plastic, particularly for bottles. For example, while it’s hard to imagine a bottle made out of anything but plastic or glass, some companies are now developing paper bottles.

6. Immunity-boosting ingredients

The Covid-19 pandemic has (hopefully) helped many consumers become more aware of their current health status. With so much more information about nutrition available to us compared to decades past, it’s easier to make healthier food choices.

Restaurants will capitalize on our nutrition knowledge and urgency to boost our immune systems with innovative wellness trends such as foods infused with CBDs, and incorporating food with probiotics such as sauerkraut and kombucha, and, increasingly, vegan options.

7. Restaurants will reevaluate the way they used to work

With no exact Covid-19 expiry date, restaurants in 2021 will have to be ready to switch from dining service to take-out service at any moment, and will thus reevaluate their staffing needs and even their menus. Mastering dishes that travel well, and keeping ingredient ordering and staffing levels streamlined will be critical for staying afloat.

8. Meal kits will continue to be a thing

The pandemic brought out the inner Wolfgang Puck in many people, and Instagram was alive with Michelin-star home-cooked meals. Some consumers, however, were less creative or less experienced in the kitchen, but still wanted to prepare home-cooked meals. Enter meal kits. Meal kits are a great solution for those who crave freshness but lack some culinary experience. In the U.S, the meal kit business has been estimated to be worth $5 billion, and will certainly continue to grow in 2021.

9. Contactless payments 

Even as populations gain Covid-19 immunity through vaccinations, there will continue to be safety protocols in 2021. Contactless payments will still be critical in reducing the need for consumers or restaurant employees to touch shared surfaces or closely interact. Ordering and paying in restaurants will be done with minimal contact using order-ahead technology and payment processing that allows tap-to-pay. 

10. Environmentally conscious cuisine

Thanks to Netflix documentaries and a deluge of reports, consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of their eating habits. One Innova Market Insights report revealed that 60% of global consumers wanted to know where their food came from. As food production is a significant contributor to climate change, restaurants that share the carbon history of their menu items will connect with conscious consumers.

Many fast-casual chains such as Chipotle and Panera bread are already offering items with a “lower carbon footprint” such as meals with chicken instead of beef. While the pandemic might come to an end in 2021, climate change won’t—restaurants would be wise to keep this in mind.

The pandemic will continue to have an impact on our eating and drinking habits for the foreseeable future, and restaurateurs will have to remain flexible in order to cater to new consumer demands. Creating menus with sustainable and healthy ingredients, using eco-friendly packaging, and investing in the right tech tools that support online ordering will be of paramount importance.

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