January 11, 2021

Looking back to move forward: Association shares top 10 trends for 2021

For so many, 2020 was a year of fear and uncertainty as the coronavirus ravaged the country and put the restaurant industry through its worst year in history. The economy came to a halt as millions of Americans sheltered in place, and businesses were forced to close indoor spaces.

About 110,000 restaurants across the nation fell victim to dining restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, closing either temporarily or for good.

According to Association research, the industry lost some $240 billion in sales and is still 2.5 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels.

Nevertheless, restaurateurs persevere. By quickly switching to all off-premises service, innovating operations, and adapting contactless technology, they continue to show resiliency, doing everything they can to keep their businesses open and employees on the payroll.

Some restaurants converted closed dining rooms into grocery store staging areas so that customers could pick up supermarket staples and hard-to-get supplies along with their restaurant orders. Working through a different supply chain, operators often had access to supplies grocery stores couldn’t keep in stock.

Technology that might have been “nice to have” before the pandemic suddenly became “need to have” to enable touchless transactions.

Read more on economic, operational, food and menu and workforce trends in the new 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Report available January 26.

Alcohol-to-go service became a best-selling option for many struggling restaurants as many state and local jurisdictions temporarily stayed regulations that prohibited the sale.

Many of the innovations deployed not only helped keep restaurants afloat in 2020, they also signal the trends shaping 2021.

We now know that three things are certain: the pandemic tested the limits of operator creativity and knowhow, accelerated tech adoption and emerging trends, and confirmed that customers sorely miss their restaurant experiences.

As the Association prepares to release its new State of the Restaurant Industry report, based on survey results from 6,000 operators (and featuring customer preferences from a survey of 1,000 adult consumers), we’re sharing the top 10 restaurant trends that helped restaurants survive and serve as a sign of things to come.

Menu trends

  1. Streamlined menus

    Fullservice operators got lean fast, reducing inventories and developing items they could make well with less staff. Selections also had to travel well and satisfy customers’ cravings.  
  2. Off-premises foodservice takes precedence

    Before the pandemic, 80% of fullservice restaurant traffic was on-premises, but everything changed in March 2020, when restaurants were forced to shut down and quickly shift to takeout and delivery only. (Photo courtesy of Taco Bell)  
  3. Blended meals, a team effort

    Restaurants helped homebound customers add variety to meals cooked at home. Diners could order appetizers, sides or desserts and serve them with their home-cooked entrees, for example.  
  4. Bundled meals are considered deals

    Restaurants began selling meals consisting of an appetizer and/or side, entrĂ©e, and dessert, available in either family packs or individual meals.  
  5. Meal kits make cooking fun

    Half of adults surveyed said they’d likely purchase a meal kit (featuring pre-measured ingredients and cooking instructions) offered by one of their favorite restaurants. The number jumped to 75% among millennials and Gen Zs. (Photo courtesy of Cooper's Hawk)  
  6. Meal subscriptions

    Customers sign up to get a set number of meals during the month—either delivered or prepared for pickup—for a discounted price. More than half of adults surveyed for this year’s report said they’d sign up if their favorite restaurants offered them.  
  7. Selling groceries

    More than half of consumers surveyed would buy groceries (fresh, uncooked food items such as meat, produce, dairy, bread or pasta) if restaurants offered them. (Photo courtesy of Founding Farmers)  
  8. Alcohol-to-go

    A third of off-premises customers over the age of 21 said they’d order an adult beverage to go with their takeout meals and plan on continuing the practice going forward.  
  9. Comfort foods

    Consumers said menus offering a good selection of comfort foods (think burgers and pizza) influenced their restaurant choices. (Photo courtesy of Aussie Grill)  
  10. Healthy and diet-specific food

    The availability of healthful foods also influenced consumers’ choice of restaurants. But special diet menu offerings, such as gluten-free or vegan, were less of an influence on restaurant choice.

If you’re wondering about what foods customers craved most, we ask operators to name their No. 1 selling item right now and 6,000 of them told us. Here are the top sellers from fullservice and limited service restaurants.

Fullservice (fine dining, family and casual dining)

  1. Burgers
  2. Seafood
  3. Pizza
  4. Steak
  5. Chicken (excl. wings)
  6. Breakfast items
  7. Pasta
  8. Mexican food
  9. Sandwiches/subs/wraps
  10. Chicken wings

Limited Service (Quickservice, fast casual, coffee & snack)

  1. Sandwiches/subs/wraps
  2. Pizza
  3. Burgers
  4. Chicken (excl. wings)
  5. Ice cream/cookies/cake
  6. Baked goods
  7. Breakfast items
  8. Mexican food
  9. Barbecue
  10. Seafood