The report explores crucial areas in which the pandemic forced restaurateurs to adapt quickly, adopting contactless technology, shifting most service to off-premises and outdoor dining, and adjusting labor levels and menus.

The National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry report addresses the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry, documents the altered operational landscape, and captures consumer sentiment, influences and intentions for the coming months.

It also explores several crucial areas in which the pandemic forced restaurateurs to pivot and adapt, quickly adopting contactless technology, shifting most service to off-premises and outdoor dining, and adjusting labor levels and menus.

Based on data from responses to the Association’s survey of 6,000 restaurant operators across all industry segments, and a survey of 1,000 adult consumers, the report delivers impact data on sales and traffic, operational trends, food and menu trends, and workforce trends along with consumer purchase preferences and intentions.

The report offers a comprehensive and sobering look at the damage the pandemic caused the industry and millions of its employees nationwide. Several key findings:

  • The restaurant industry ended 2020 with total sales that were $240 billion below the Association’s pre-pandemic forecast for the year
     
  • As of Dec. 1, 2020, more than 110,000 eating and drinking places were closed for business temporarily, or for good
     
  • The eating and drinking place sector finished 2020 nearly 2.5 million jobs below its pre-coronavirus level. At the peak of initial closures, the Association estimates up to 8 million employees were laid off or furloughed

The report offers extensive analysis on trends in several areas:

  • Operations. Restaurants looked at a number of different ways to retain traffic and generate revenues. Operators focused on building off-premises business, especially in the fullservice segment, with roughly half of restaurateurs devoting more resources to expanding that side of their business since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in March.

    Adding curbside pick-up, inhouse and 3rd party delivery and if possible, drive-thru capacity, and upgrading takeout and delivery packaging were just a few of means they used to sustain business. Service styles also changed. In addition to the off-premises focus, a big portion of on-premises dining moved outdoors for as long as the weather permitted. Tech adoption accelerated. Contactless and mobile payment options became crucial. Across all 6 segments—quickservice, fast casual, casual, family, fine dining, and coffee and snack—some 40% of operators said they added tech solutions to their businesses.
  • Food & Menu. With a slowdown in business, and on-premises dining restrictions, many operators reduced inventories, streamlining menus and developing menu items they could make well with smaller crews. Operators also began selling meal kits, bundled meals and even groceries—whatever customers needed and were willing to buy. Customers sought out comfort foods, including burgers, pizza, pasta and Mexican specialties. The report lists best-selling items by fullservice and limited service venues.
  • Workforce. Before the pandemic, the restaurant and foodservice industry projected it would provide 15.6 million jobs in 2020, or 10% of all payroll jobs in the economy. But the impact of the coronavirus caused staffing levels to fall across all restaurant and foodservice segments, with restaurant employment below pre-pandemic levels in 47 states and D.C. The report emphasizes these three key findings:
  1. 62% of fine dining operators and 54% of both family dining and casual dining operators say staffing levels are more than 20% below normal.
     
  2. There are nearly 2 million fewer 16-to-34-year-olds in the labor force, the most prominent age group employed in the restaurant industry workforce.
     
  3. Restaurants got hit harder than any other industry during the pandemic, and still have the longest climb back to pre-coronavirus employment levels.
  • Consumer sentiment and intentions. Despite the pandemic, pent-up demand for restaurants remains strong. Customers have become used to ordering takeout, but indicate they really crave in-restaurant dining experiences. Nearly 8 in 10 adult consumers said their favorite restaurant foods delivered flavor and taste sensations that couldn’t be duplicated at home, and 6 in 10 said restaurants are an essential part of their lifestyles.

“Our research shows a clear desire among consumers to enjoy more on-premises dining at restaurants than they have been able to get during the pandemic,” says Hudson Riehle, the Association’s senior vice president of Research. “We’ve also found that even as the vaccine becomes more available and more customers can return to restaurants, they’ll continue to want the expanded off-premises options going forward. Both will continue to be key for industry growth.”

The report is free to Association members and nonmember restaurant operators; nonmembers may purchase it for $149. Click here to access the report.